Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reality Check by Peter Abrahams

Things are going pretty well for Cody: he has a great relationship with his girlfriend, he's the QB on the football team, he's sliding by in school. Then, one by one, everything starts to fall apart. Clea, his girlfriend, is sent to a private boarding school across the country. He injures his knee in a game and is forced to give up on the idea of high school football. School loses its meaning and he eventually decides to sort of drop out. His new life consists of his job and the gym until one day he hears the news: Clea has gone missing. Cody immediately picks up and heads off to Vermont to find her. But before he can do that, he has to figure out what was going on in her life that he knew nothing about.

I tend to think of mystery/thrillers as either balls of yarn or puzzles - you either unwind everything to reach the end, or things just click into place. This was a puzzle book. Even after I finished the book, I was still realizing how so many of the details just locked into place. Those details are the book's strength; Clea and Cody never really became full characters to me, although they definitely held my interest. It's a plot-driven book, but a plot-driven book that works. The cover art made me think that it would be a violent thriller in the vein of the Hunger Games books, but it's not; it has more in common with action mysteries. This was my first Peter Abrahams book; I'd be curious to see how this stands up next to his other books.

Reality Check is nominated for a 2010 Edgar award.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Gentlemen by Michael Northrop
If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Dodger and Me by Jordan Sonnenblick

Willie Ryan needs some help. His best friend moved away, he's being tortured by Lizzie (a British girl in his class who just won't leave him alone), and he always strikes out when he's up to bat. But once he meets Dodger, an imaginary, giant, blue, eye-patch wearing, magical, invisible chimp, nothing will ever be the same again. Could it be that just what Willie needed?

I liked a lot of the characters in this book - especially Willie, Dodger, Lizzie, and Willie's sister Amy (particularly the brother-sister dynamic). It's a familiar storyline ('be careful what you wish for...'), but Jordan Sonnenblick puts a nice spin on it, mixing humour with very serious situations. It's a buddy story, a sports story, a brother-sister story, a family drama story - a story that could appeal to many different kids, particularly reluctant readers.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
Skinneybones by Barbara Park
The Snagglegrollop by Daniel Postgate
Baseball Crazy edited by Nancy E. Mercado

Friday, January 29, 2010

Paulina P. (for Petersen) by Lisa Cinar

Paulina P. (for Petersen) loves the letter P - it's her favourite letter in the whole alphabet! There are so many wonderful things that begin with the letter p: pandas, polyester pantyhose, even her best friend, Penny Lee. The letter P is so great that Paulina wishes everyone loves is as much as she does. That would be positively perfect!

The greatest compliment I can give this book is that as soon as I saw it in our workroom, I had to read to it everyone working there. And after I had read a few pages, I stopped, and they begged me to keep going. It's a lovely little story that has fun, engaging illustrations (my favourite was of Paulina pretending to be a panda). I'm not sure how it would work in a storytime, but I'd like to try it out; regardless, it's a great book for parents and children to pour over together, tooking at all the pictures and thinking of other p words.

Find it on Amazon.

Read it with:

But, Excuse Me, That is My Book by Lauren Child
Alphabetter by Dan Bar-el
The Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra
Alphabeasts by Wallace Edwards
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Karma Club by Jessica Brody

Madison (Maddy) Kasparkova and her two best friends have each been hurt: by their boyfriends, the cruel actions of fellow high schoolers, by life. After realizing that the three of them have suffered but that nothing bad came to the 'bad guys,' she becomes outraged. Maddy wishes there was a way that the others would get what’s coming to them – so the three friends form The Karma Club... and start making sure that the others suffer like they have.

I really, really wanted to like this book.

I think I just had a big problem with the central idea; it’s not karma if you’re just out doing bad things to people. The book either had to be really, really dark and twisted or have a super original voice to pull this off. I couldn't believe that a teen girl wouldn't know about karma and understand how it works. At many parts when she was supposed to be in control, Maddy just came off as clueless.

Having said that, I think the book gains strength as it goes and that the strongest part of the book is the ending (or the denouement, I guess, everything past the climax). This part was well crafted and came together nicely. Finally, Maddy was capturing my attention, and I'm glad that I stuck with the book. I haven't read anything else by Jessica Brody (this is her debut YA novel), but I would like to in the future.

Find it on Amazon (available for pre-order, will be released April 2010).

Read it with:
Something, Maybe by Elizabeth Scott
Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan
Hamlet by John Marsden

I got this book: as an advance reader's copy from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

Cameron's been experiencing some weird stuff lately - visions, hallucinations, pain in his body. His doctors eventually find the reason for all of this strange stuff: he has BSE, a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, better known as Mad Cow. His time is running out, but there might be a chance to save his life - at least, that's what the punkish angel tells him - that is, as long as he can track down a time travelling evil genius rogue doctor, whereabouts unknown. To aid him in this trip, he brings along a fellow high school student, Gonzo, a little person whose mother has made overcautious and a bit of a hypocondriac.

I fully admit that I didn't pick this book up until after it had won the Printz, because I'm a bit of a bandwagon jumper. I found the title a bit offputting for reasons I don't think I can fully articulate, and that's what kept me from picking it up. Once I did convince myself to give it a try, the first thing I noticed was that the book is long. It's a hefty book, and Libba Bray packs a lot into it. When reading it, I got the feeling that she knew exactly what she was doing when she wrote it; every word has been carefully chosen, every detail is there for a reason. It's a very well-crafted book, and it knows it, and it doesn't let you forget it. It took me awhile to get used to all of the...I don't know if 'quirkiness' is the right word, so I'll call it 'strangeness,' because this isn't the type of book that I usually read, and there is a lot of strangeness. I think my favourite part of the book was the beginning part, before Cameron is really sick, before all the strangeness, and Bray is setting up the family dynamic.

Here's a video with Libba Bray talking about Going Bovine:

Find it on Amazon.

Read it with:
Before I Die by Jenny Downham
Paper Towns by John Green
Mare's War by Tanita S. Davis
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Wide Awake by David Levithan
Q & A by Vikas Swarup

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I Can't Keep My Own Secrets edited by Smith Magazine

My six-word review:
Teenagers' lives: funny, sad, hopeful, heartbreaking.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
PostSecret by Frank Warren
Tell the World: Teen Poems from WritersCorps
Not Quite What I Was Planning, edited by Smith Magazine
I Lick My Cheese by Oonagh O'Hagan

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford

Beatrice is the new girl in a school where most people have known each other since kindergarten; Jonah is the loner who goes by the name of Ghost Boy. While Bea is initially befriended by a popular clique of girls (and attracts the attention of the school's playboy guy), she decides instead to get to know Jonah. They bond over their love of late-night talk radio call-in shows and shared family dysfunction. As the months pass, their friendship deepens into a true relationship that is threatened by family truths that they are both forced to deal with.

I absolutely loved this book. I started it off a bit slowly, not sure of how I'd respond to Bea's character, but it wasn't long before I was hooked. I loved the relationship between Ghost Boy and Robot Girl, and I'm so grateful for a book that treats friendship like a real relationship. I liked the window into the late-night call-in show that they both listen to - there are a lot of lonely people out there, lonely in different ways. This book made me smile and it made me sob, and I couldn't put it down. This book is nominated for a Cybil, which is how I found it, and I'm so glad I did. My final review: read it, read it, read it. I wish it had been around for me to read years earlier.

Find it on Amazon.

Read it with:
The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson
The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga
The Everafter by Amy Huntley
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jane in Bloom by Deborah Lytton

Jane's always lived in the shadow of her older sister, Lizzie. Lizzie is smarter than she is, more interesting that she is, and prettier than she is. On Jane's 12th birthday, though, everything starts to change. After a fight with their parents over the food she's not eating, Lizzie falls unconscious and is hospitalized. She returns home, but not for long - she soon dies from an overdose of laxatives and diuretics. After her death, the family finds separate ways to cope: her dad by throwing himself into his work, her mom by leaving town, and Jane by looking at the world through the lens of her new digital camera. Jane finds some new friends that help her make sense of everything that has happened.

I haven't read many books like this that are aimed at a middle grade audience, and focus on the sibling left behind. Jane's struggle is evident right from the beginning of the book: she loves her sister but resents being compared to her, she wants Lizzie to be okay but would really just rather get her ears pierced. I liked Jane's growing friendships with people who have also survived loss, and the idea that her art (photography) could be one of the things that helped her to cope. The ending was a little too quick and a little too neat, but I'm glad it ended on the note it did.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Even if it Kills Me by Dorothy Joan Harris
Slob by Ellen Potter
Love, Aubrey by Suzanne M. LaFleur

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Blame by Michelle Huneven

Patsy MacLemoore is a high functioning alcoholic. She's a college professor with a handsome boyfriend and a promising future. Then, one day, she wakes up in jail. Realizing she was drinking and blacked out, she asks why she's there. She jokes, "Did I kill someone?"

Yes, they say. She did.

Patsy then faces a much different future: prison, shame, guilt. She has to figure out how to survive in this world - and she has to figure out how to process knowing she committed this crime without actually remembering it. Then, after adjusting to prison, she has to figure out how to fit back into the 'real world.'

Marketed as an adult book, I think it would be interesting to see a teen reaction to this book. So many people (including, but not limited to, teens) think that they are untouchable, that actions don't have consequences or that their actions won't need consequences. The book doesn't read like a scare tactic or even necessarily a cautionary tale; it just tells a very straightforward story of a person who's life veered wildly off the track she had thought she was on.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
Love You, Hate You, Miss You by Elizabeth Scott
Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers
Willow by Julia Hoban

Friday, January 22, 2010

Moonshot: : The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca

The history, science, and spectacle of the Apollo 11 moon mission is given beautiful tribute in this non-fiction picture book by Brian Floca. I call it a picture book, because the illustrations are what people are primarily talking about. The text fits the pictures in terms of highlighting the grandeur of the missions. It seems like it would be a perfect fit in many Independence Day book displays as well as in many elementary school classrooms.

My favourite picture spread in this book is when the astronauts are preparing for lift-off. After they have been strapped in, Michael Collins is shown giving the audience a look out of the corner of the eye. This small detail delighted me; it looks like he's saying "[Oh], yeah," (insert your favourite word there - I have a hard time picturing astronauts using strong language, even though I'm sure they would have). "You ain't seen nothing yet."

Find this book at Amazon.

Read it with:
Redwoods by Jason Chin
The Day-Glo Brothers by Chris Barton
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone

I got this book from: my library.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle by Nan Marino

In the summer of 1969, Tamara Simpson is having a hard time dealing with life. Her best friend has just moved away. Her mother embarrasses her in front of the whole neighbourhood. And worst of all, no one else seems to see how much of a liar Muscle Man McGinty is. Tamara can't stand him and she can't understand why everyone else likes him so much; he's always making up outrageous stories, like he's in training for the Olympics, he can beat the whole neighbourhood in kickball, or that astronaut Neil Armstrong is his uncle.

This does not feel like a debut novel, which it is for author Nan Marino. Tamara is a girl full of anger and confusion but she never alienated me as a reader; even when I didn't like what she was doing, I empathized with her. Marino also captured the perfect pitch of neighbourhood politics (I would be interested to know if she ever participated in something like a 'gripe circle') and the mixture of adult and child thoughts that kids at this age have (war and class issues are mixed with ice cream and kickball).

This is one of those books that I would love to discuss with kids to see what they thought of it. I am eagerly looking forward to reading more by Nan Marino.

Find this book at Amazon.

Read it with:
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Moonshot by Brian Floca
The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bettina Valentino and the Picasso Club by Niki Daly

Bettina Valentino doesn't just love art, her life is art. She sports a Flock of Seagulls haircut, loves the colours white and black, a father who says everything as if he's singing the chorus of "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover," and counts Picasso as an inspiration. That's why she's so unhappy with the current (uninspiring) state of the art classes at Bayside Prep. Then, as if by magic, in comes Mr. Popart, the colour-mixing, no-shoes-wearing, Dada-loving, student-inspiring new art teacher. Bettina loves him, as does the rest of the class - everyone except Maxine, that is, who takes exception to Mr. Popart's freewheeling ways and book of Matisse nudes. Faster than you can say "Oh Captain, my Captain," Mr. Popart finds his job in jeopardy, and Bettina must figure out a way to stand up for her favourite teacher.

The book offers a spunky, artistic heroine; positive messages about being yourself and standing up to the crowd; and a lot of factual information about art. While I grew tired of Bettina's attitude toward and unflattering descriptions of her friend Carmen-Daisy, I ultimately really enjoyed the book. At just over a hundred pages it was a fairly quick read, and while there's no shortage of spunky, individualistic female characters in middle grade books, they're still fun to read about.

Find this book on Amazon.

Read it with:
The Manny Files by Christian Burch
The Rule of Three by Megan McDonald
Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett
Seen Art? by Jon Scieszka

I got this book: from my library.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Something, Maybe by Elizabeth Scott

Hannah James just wants to blend in. While other people in her high school are looking to make themselves stand out, Hannah wants everyone to stop looking at her. They look at her because she's the daughter of Jackson James, the 72-year-old man who founded an empire based on showing off scantily-women, and Candy Madison, one of Jackson's former 'special girls.' When she's not dodging the stares of her classmates and neighbours, she works in a call centre for BurgerTown, taking drive-thru orders over the phone. The only good part about her life? She gets to work with Josh, a fellow high school student who impresses Hannah with his coffee drinking, big book reading ways. If only she didn't also have to work with Finn...

(below this: warning, more potential spoilers than usual)

This book made be feel a bit old. Was it my age (and experience?) that made me feel from page one that Finn was clearly the better choice for Hannah, and in general? Or was that Scott's intention? I don't know; I can only read it the way I did. But I found Finn to be a fascinating character who was given depth and complexity despite Hannah's best efforts to reduce him to a high school stereotype.

The premise was fresh (and certainly a new spin on 'my parents are so embarrasing!' - Candy leads underwear cyberchats from their house, and Jackson lives in a castle with a number of 'special girls' that are barely older than Hannah), and Scott was able to create in Hannah a character who is right about so many things and wrong about so many more. The ending felt a bit rushed in its pacing (and Candy suffered from some whiplash characterization changes), but the combination of family drama, boyfriend drama, and self-knowledge drama kept things moving nicely. I'd previously read Scott's Love You, Hate You, Miss You, and I'm curious to read more of her stuff.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream by Steven Watts
My Life Starring Mum by Chloe Rayburn
The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson
Swim the Fly by Don Calame

I got this book: from my library.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown

Imagine a city without gardens, trees, flowers, or any greenery of any kind. That’s the world that Liam lives in, and it’s a dirty, gray world with lots of factories and trucks giving off large belches of pollution. Then one day, Liam sees “a lonely patch of color.” It’s not much: a few wildflowers, a patch of grass, and a dying little tree. But that’s all it takes to spark Liam’s determination, and before long he has transformed this lonely patch into a thriving rooftop garden. The garden, invigorated by this care and attention, starts to spread throughout the city. Winter falls, but the next spring the Liam brings the garden back – and before long he has a number of helpers, fellow lovers of gardens and nature. The story is slight, but the illustrations are what really make this book. The shades of greens, yellows and reds transform the dingy gray city into a living, breathing world and you can slowly see the passage of time (in one scene, Liam is sitting in the garden on a blanket, talking with a girl, and I thought, "She's way too old for him!" But then I looked closer, and Liam had grown older without me even noticing it.). It’s a book that I think will go over especially well right now, about nature and local action, but it’s more than just that – it’s also a beautifully illustrated book.

Find it on Amazon.

Read it with:
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart
Redwoods by Jason Chin
Night Cars by Teddy Jam
Up, Down, and Around by Katherine Ayres

I got this book from: my library.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Overqualified by Joey Comeau

Dear Reader,
I am thrilled to have the opportunity to tell you about this book.
Okay, I can't really keep that up for an entire post.

Joey is looking for a job. He has lots of ideas of things that he'd be good at, so he writes to the company, telling them exactly why they should hire him. As he writes, he ends up sharing much more than his life than just his qualifications. He talks about his brother, his girlfriend, his relationship with his parents and grandparents, his self-identity, and his Metis status, among many other things.

The other day I had two separate conversations with people at work: one was about people who are so stressed or unable to process their life that they unload on (virtual) strangers, and one about how well you get to know the people you work with, just by anecdotal stories. This book takes those two conversations and plays with them. I knew more about Joey ("Joey?" I don't know how autobiographical this work is, or if it's a writer named Joey Comeau writing about a character named Joey) after eighty-some pages than a character in a book three times the size.

I started this book by being amused by it. There was something funny about the ballsy-ness of this guy, writing companies up, putting it all out there. Then, suddenly, it wasn't funny anymore. It was sad, desperate, a cry for something: attention? help? understanding? a future? All of those things? I wanted to reach out to Joey, at the same time very aware that he's a person that I might just be walking by every day.

This is an 'adult' book, but I think it might be accessible for teens looking for something a little offbeat, something a little different, or something under a hundred pages long.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille
The Emily Valentine Poems by Zoe Whittall
PostSecret by Frank Warren

I got this book: from my library.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Here Comes the Big, Mean Dust Bunny! by Jan Thomas

I’m a big fan of Jan Thomas, so I was very happy to get my hands on this book. Returning for another story are the Dust Bunnies - but this time it looks like they might be in for a bit of danger! There's a big, mean dust bunny just waiting to be won over. In general, I really love kids' books that are big and bright, and this is a great one for reading with young kids. It’s got lots of great rhymes, humour, and a surprise appearance by another one of Thomas’ other characters (great intertextuality!). As soon as I was finished, I turned it over and started reading it again.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
What Will Fat Cat Sit On? by Jan Thomas
Higher, Higher by Leslie Patricelli
Birds by Kevin Henkes
In a People House by Dr. Seuss

I got this book: from my library.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs by Jack Gantos

I first heard about this book when I read about it on Reading Rants, which called it one of the most under-appreciated books of the 2000s. Most of the comments on that page were along the lines of "that book was so weird!" so how could I not follow up on it? This book is really hard to talk about without spoiling it (partly because at 185 pages, it's not a long book), so I'll put in a spoiler warning just in case.

It's a hot Easter Sunday, and Ivy is about to make a discovery that will change the very course of her life. She's been used to hanging out at the pharmacy with Adolph and Abner Rumbaugh, the elderly twin pharmacists who keep an eye on her while her mother is at work. Her mother used to work for them years ago, so this arrangement makes sense, even if it is a little odd. But that one Sunday, Ivy stumbles upon something that the twins have kept hidden - an old family secret that they hide from the rest of the world. It's not until nearly a decade later on Ivy's 16th birthday that her mom reveals Ivy's true connection to the Rumbaugh family and the titular love curse, but by that time so many things have been set in motion that Ivy wonders just how much of her life has been genetically determined and how much she has free will over.

The book veers into horror without being scary; it's dark and twisted but in a way that kept me turning pages rather than putting the book down. I don't know of the book's appeal for young adults; it reminded me much more of the out-and-out adult books that I've read, but one of the things that I love about YA literature is how blurry the boundaries are.

Find it on Amazon.

Read it with:
The Girls - Lori Lansens
The Hotel New Hampshire or The World According to Garp by John Irving
Dawn by Kevin Brooks
Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales edited by Deborah Noyes

I got this book: from my library.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers

Parker Fadley was, in a word, perfect. Head cheerleader, straight As, a basketball playing boyfriend, popular friends, a bright future: it seemed like she had it all. But that was the old Parker. The new Parker drinks at school, never does her homework, has broken up with her boyfriend, alienated all her friends, and is in danger of failing. There's also that rumour that she once tried to commit suicide. What no one understands is...why? What happened to change Parker so drastically?

The truth comes out slowly, both for the readers and for the characters in the novel. When the book opens, Parker is under the careful supervision of teachers and parents: she has a curfew, she sees the school guidance councellor once a week, and she's one slip-up away from not graduating. She's actively pushing everyone away: a former frenemy who now has Parker's old cheerleading captainship as well as her old boyfriend, the old boyfriend who is still in love with her, well-meaning but clueless parents, a new guy in town who wants to get to know her.

My favourite part of the book was how Courtney Summers depicted the relationship between Parker and her ex-boyfriend, Chris. It's strained, it's awkward, it's familiar. They're just transitioning from that weird period where you know all of these details about another person, you've been so close with another person, and then suddenly you're not close to them and there's a wall there...but you still know all that stuff. Combine that with the claustrophobia and hormones of high school, and it's a hard, strange situation. The rest of the characters were quite strong as well - original characters, not cliches. I was never really clear on why the new guy in town, Jake, is so insistent on getting to know Parker when she's nothing but terrible to him, but even so it's still believable within the story. Parker is her own mystery: what happened to this girl? What's her deal? I became intrigued by Parker and her story, so I guess it makes sense that Jake does, too.

By the time the end of the book rolled around, I was kind of relieved, simply because I wanted Parker to achieve some kind of peace and closure. At the same time, though, I was sad to let the book go. I'm really excited to read more by Courtney Summers. This book came to my attention because it's a finalist for the Cybils.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
Crash Into Me by Albert Borris
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Love You, Hate You, Miss You by Elizabeth Scott

I got this book: at my library.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Redwoods by Jason Chin

Redwoods is a non-fiction picture book that follows a young boy as he reads a book about redwood trees. Well, that’s what the pictures do – the text is entirely about redwoods, their history and their scientific nature. As the boy gets deeper into the book, his world starts to transform into the one that he’s reading about. There’s a lot to look at in the pictures, which are colourful and detailed and really worth pouring over. It makes a great jumping-off place for the meta-ness of reading a book about a boy reading a book (that same book? It looks like he is on the cover of the book in the book, just like the…book). I'm always sort of sad that a book like this isn't shelved with other great picture books, and I hope that people discover it in the non-fiction section.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor

It took me awhile to warm up to this book. I'd seen it a lot around the blogosphere, and people seemed to be really enthusiastic about it. At first, though, I thought it was part of a series. No, really - I thought maybe it had gone Lips Touch, Lips Touch: Twice, and now Lips Touch: Three Times. I was relieved to find out that that was not, in fact, the case, and I was free to pick it up.

I'm not a huge fantasy/supernatural reader, so reading this sort of took me outside my comfort zone. Having said that, the stories were so strongly written that they held my interest, and I was drawn in to the stories and characters.

Lips Touch: Three Times is a collection of three stories, each centering around a kiss. In the first story, a high school outcast is attracted to a new, dangerous boy in school, a boy who seems to be attracted to her as well. The second one features a terrible curse placed on a little girl that says she will have the most beautiful voice in the world, but that anyone who hears her voice will die. The third involves the story of a queen who keeps human children as pets, and a young teenage girl just discovering information about her mother's fast - and her own future.

The stories get progressively longer, which is good, because it gave me a chance to ease into the book. All of them deal with supernatural elements: goblins, lost souls, curses demons, shapeshifting, magical powers. It was a lot easier to understand than I thought it would be. I think my favourite story is the middle one, the one about the curse. The stories focus around a kiss, but there's so many more elements to think about: the thin line between life and death, forces of good and evil, the relationship between humans and animals, the influence that relatives and ancestors have on later generations, what it means to have the power of speech.

Once I got into the book, I also really appreciated Jim Di Bartolo's illustrations. Several show up at the beginning of a story, hinting of elements to come; another follows the conclusion of a story, neatly bookending it with beautiful pictures. I think this is a very strong book that works both for fans of supernatural stories as well as people like me who might be more reluctant to pick up a book with goblins and demons.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
How They Met And Other Stories by David Levithan
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

I got this book: from the library.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Before I Die by Jenny Downham

On my trip back home after New Year’s, I spent a lot of time looking around the various airport bookshops, hoping to find something that would keep my mind engaged while my plane’s delay grew longer and longer (I had a book in my carry-on, of course, but I was restless for something new, and this was more exciting). This was one of the few YA novels that wasn’t about vampires or the supernatural, so I picked it up, knowing nothing about the title.

Tessa is a girl living in England in her mid-to-late teens (she’s around 16, I think). She’s been battling leukemia for years, but when the story opens, the doctors have done everything they can do. Realizing that she is going to die, she decides to fulfill her list of things that she wants to do while she’s alive – starting with losing her virginity. With the (sometime) help of her best friend, she tries to check off as much as she can – including breaking the law, trying drugs, learning to drive, and falling in love. Her next-door-neighbour-slash-crush is one of those boys that seemingly only exist in novels, and he has his own issues to deal with as his relationship with Tessa develops at the same time as her health deteriorates.

This is a hard book to read, both because of the subject matter and because the style follows Tessa’s insistence at pushing people away one minute and bringing them close the next, but I thought that the book’s real strengths were in Tessa’s relationships with people, particularly her brother, her parents, and the boy next door. Each relationship has its own tone and momentum, and Tessa's approach as deals with each person is specific to the person, adding to the book's realism. Tessa's best friend, Zoey, at times felt like she'd wandered in from being the heroine of her own YA novel (although I suppose that's also kind of like real life, where one person's own drama doesn't stop just because a friend is sick), and I didn't particularly like that character. The others felt slightly like less of a cliche (except for Adam, the neighbour, but at least I found him an enjoyable cliche), but it wasn't really the characters that were strong - it was the way they interacted with Tessa. A very, very hard book to read, but in the end I thought it was worth picking up in an airport bookstore.

Find it at Amazon.

Read it with:
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
10 Things to Do Before I Die by Daniel Ehrenhaft

I got this book: from my own collection.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Have I Got a Book for You! by Melanie Watt

Hey, you! Yes, you! Are you looking for a book? Something to read to pass the time, maybe? Something to entice, excite, and invigorate your life? Has Mr. Al Foxword got a book for you!

Watt’s latest books features much the same tone as her earlier books Scaredy Squirrel and Chester, but this time she turns her attention to book sellers. Well, not book selling in particular, but the same hyper, frantic, informercial-style method of hawking that makes me kind of want a Snuggie despite all the ridiculousness. The book is amusing but not in the same engaging way as Chester or Scaredy Squirrel; it’s a one-joke book, but that joke lasts just about the length of a picture book. The end gag did make me smile, but I’m not rushing to read it again, although I continue to be interested in what Watt will come out with next. I would pair this book as an adult read-alike for But Wait, There’s More!, a non-fiction book about the TV infomercial world.

Find it at Amazon.

Read with:
But Wait, There's More! by Remy Stern
Chester by Melanie Watt
Wolves by Emily Gravett

I got this book: from the library.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

This book, in a single word, is unsettling. I found it to be very unsettling. I just finished it and came right here to write about it (well, I cooked a frozen pizza first, because I was hungry, but I was thinking about it the whole time), and that doesn't happen very often.

Frankie Landau-Banks is a high school sophomore who has recently undergone a growth spurt in all the right places, resulting in a new figure that she's not sure exactly how to deal with. She attends a (fictional) boarding school that's right up there with Exeter and Andover in terms of being the home for future Old Boys. Frankie's dad is an Old Boy, and she's grown up listening to his stories and his connections. Frankie, in listening to these stories, has been struggling to reconcile this world with her Jewishness, her femaleness, and her up-until-now annonymousness. This school year, though, is starting to look different. Matthew Livingston, a smart, hot, connected senior, is interested in her, she's getting to know the most popular kids of the school, and she's feeling like she's coming into her own a little bit.

Frankie, though, never loses sight as how the others see her - a girl, Mathew's girlfriend, expendable. She's troubled by this, and desperately wants to be part of a world that has been closed off to her.

Then, finally, she sees her chance, not just to bring herself into the world of the future Old Boys, but to also shake up the very system that surrounds Alabaster, and all other prep schools. But what will she have to do to make it happen? How will the fallout change Frankie, Matthew, their relationship, and the school? Can Frankie become a future Old Boy while still being herself? How much of herself is predetermined by her sex, gender, religion, and society? What does it mean to be a woman with power - and how is a woman with power viewed differently than a man with power?

The book, I think, has been set up (by publishers/marketers?) as looking like a thriller; the envelope-heavy first cover brings mystery and maybe a bit of menace to the reader (and I love the hardcover picture so much more than the softcover picture). The title and the first chapter hint at something maybe sexual, but that's a bit of a red herring, too. There are many forms of feminism present in this book: Frankie, competing in a man's world; her older sister Zada, who 'threw away' the Alabaster life to attend Berkeley; Frankie's roommate Trisha, who has strong ideas about her own abilities and critically thinks about society, and prefers to bake crumbles (peach, rhubarb) while the men get drunk and bond at late-night parties. I liked that, largely, there were no teachers present in this book; there was no feminist model for Frankie to either emulate or disappoint, and so she had to rely on herself to figure things out. I liked the action, the pacing, and the language of the books.

I think this would make an excellent movie, but I'm not sure how they'd market it and I don't know who would see it - which is one of the very issues that the book presents, indirectly.

I've always loved the idea of boarding school; I wanted to attend one when I was in high school. When I was in my early tween and teens, I attended a second-language summer school held at a boarding school, and lived and studied there on the campus; years later, I attended an old university with lots of history and lots of traditions and institutions like the ones featured here. But in both instances, I was the wrong age - too young or too old - and there's something perfect about people coming of age in a boarding school. As Frankie at one point explains, everything is accelerated when there are no parents and no places to go.

I really, really enjoyed this book and wish I had read it sooner. It's one of those books I'm going to be thinking about and talking about for a long time to come.

Find the book at Amazon.

Read it with:
Looking for Alaska by John Green
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
Click: Young Women on the Moment They Knew They Were Feminists, edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan (out May 2010)

I got this book: from the library.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson

From Amazon: A gay Lutheran teen, Charles James Stewart II (aka Smart-ass) chronicles a very memorable senior year at South High in Crystal Lake, Ill. Named after his aspiring state's attorney dad (whom he calls First), Charlie uses journal entries to chart his feelings with typical teen angst: griping about his parents, describing his unrequited passion for straight friend Bink Binkmeyer and skewering school. His less private tirades soon land him in trouble with Mrs. Bailey, a New Agey English teacher, and with icky fellow student Kyle Weir, a homophobic anti-Semite. The most hilariously heated entries depict falling in love for the first time with Rob Hunt (whose mother, Kathy, is in quite serious condition with ALS). Throughout the diary, Charlie keeps revising his college application essay, and it's not easy for him to watch his parents' marital troubles during First's campaign—or just to be a gay 17. Ferguson's exuberant portrait successfully re-creates coming-of-age's dizzy heat.

Let me start by saying there is a lot of sex in this book. A lot of sex. Gay, straight, alone – explicitly detailed sex. With that out of the way, Charlie the Second (the son of Charles the First, a state’s attorney) is skinny, has big ears, and is not one of the cool kids. He’s a little in lust with his best friend Bink (not to mention Bink’s older brother), who has started ditching Charlie for his new girlfriend. At the beginning of the school year, Charlie meets Rob, a new kid at school, and they start to hit it off. Their friendship quickly turns into a relationship, but issues with both sets of parents, homophobia, and Rob’s sexual experience combined with Charlie’s inexperience might be more than they can handle. This is definitely not a book for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted things to work out for a fictional couple as much as I wanted things to work out for Charlie and Rob. One of my most favourite books of 2009, I can't wait to read more by Drew Ferguson.

I found out about this book through a review at Bookshelves of Doom.
Find out more about the book and the author at Drew Ferguson's website.

Read it with:
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - David Levithan and Rachel Cohn
Band Fags! - Frank Anthony Polito
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - Sherman Alexie
Swim the Fly - Don Calame
Carter Finally Gets It - Brent Crawford

I got this book: from the library