Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review: Jumping Off Swings by Jo Knowles

Found via: A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

When I was growing up we had a great swing set in my backyard. I absolutely loved going out there when my parents weren't home so I could swing as high as I could before jumping off (I think I would sometimes jump off from lower altitudes when they were around, but that wasn't nearly as exciting). So just from the title of the book I had a very real physical memory to draw upon: the thrill of pushing yourself higher and higher, the decision to leap, the terror of flying through the air before the hard jolt of your landing. Jumping Off Swings may be one of the most perfect non-literal book titles ever.

Jumping Off Swings follows four high school juniors: Ellie, Corinne, Caleb and Josh. Ellie has developed a bit of a "reputation" around school and hooks up with Josh at a party in the back of a car, on top of a blanket covered in dog hair. Corinne, Ellie's best friend, sees Ellie later that night, alone and throwing up in the bushes. Caleb, one of Josh's best friends who has a long-standing crush on Ellie, overhears Josh and some other guys boasting in the locker room on Monday about hooking up with Ellie.

Three months later, Ellie figures out she's pregnant and deduces Josh must be the father. The chapters alternate between the four characters' points of view throughout Ellie's pregnancy, following how her decision to go through with the pregnancy affects all of them.

First of all, I laud the book for having some serious discussions of abortion in this story. Not that I recall the word "abortion" ever being used - I think it was already referred to as "taking care of" the pregnancy. Better than the phrase "shma-shmorshon" used in Knocked Up, but it still felt like a little bit of a cop out. Still, I'm glad that no one just automatically assumed Ellie was going to go through with the pregnancy (and I don't think I'm spoiling anything by confirming that: no one seems to think there's a story in getting an abortion).

This book offers a relatively spare look into how Ellie's choices affect Corinne, Caleb and Josh - I say spare because few other plot elements come up outside of the pregnancy. We see some of Josh's less-than-stellar home-life, and brief glimpses into Ellie's as well, but otherwise everything comes back to the pregnancy. It's a narrow focus, but it's done well, with excellently realized characters that make this book a hard one to put down.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Review: Michelle Obama: an American Story by David Colbert

Since this past weekend featured the US playing host to the G-20 summit, which included Michelle Obama hosting the spouses of the G-20 leaders, it seems like as fitting time as any to read a biography of our newest first lady.

First thing I noticed about this book: I love the cover. I usually don't pay much attention to a cover, unless it's utterly fabulous or utterly terrible (or has some irritating detail, like the 'shopped eyebrow ring on Going Too Far). At some point I checked this book out on Amazon and was completely bored by some of the other Michelle Obama biography covers: Michelle: A Biography features the most standard, boring portrait of Obama ever. Colbert's book however has a great dynamic close up of Obama. She looks so friendly and warm and inviting, who wouldn't want to pick up this biography?!

This is an easy, accessible biography, that I found notable because it doesn't shy away from the less-than-pleasant parts of Obama's history like you might expect a biography for younger readers would. Colbert traces Obama's roots back to the rice plantations of South Carolina, and mentions that, on her mother's side at least, there's a belief that she has at least one slave holder as an ancestor. Colbert's biography brings up the difficult question: "Would the slave have chosen this relationship? Was the slave too frightened to refuse?" Considering that to this day some people try to characterize Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as having a true love affair, it's pretty bold to imply in a children's biography that slaves and their masters probably didn't have consensual relationships. So good job, Colbert!

Later on in the book, Colbert also touches on some of the problems the Obamas had in their marriage as Barack sought various public offices - Michelle didn't like always being the parent at home while her husband first worked 3 hours from Chicago, and then all the way in Washington D.C. Colbert also mentions the many things Michelle considered before she agreed that Barack should run for president, and among them was the fact that because of his race Barack was going to face more threats than the average presidential candidate. So there's some serious stuff in here that is presented plainly, but is never dwelt upon to an unnecessary extent.

I'm super excited to recommend this biography to anyone looking to learn more about Michelle Obama - or even Barack Obama, as naturally he features prominently in the latter part of the book!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Review: The Beekeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King

Found via: Popular Paperbacks Twists on the Tale nominees

I love this 'Twists on the Tale' category they've got going on for Popular Paperbacks. It makes me very happy for some reason.

This particular books twists the tale of Sherlock Holmes, set long after the good detective has retired from Baker Street and now concerns himself mostly with science experiments and keeping bees.

I, admittedly, only know Sherlock Holmes through Star Trek. But I still needed to pick up a book that paired Holmes with a spunky young American girl sidekick.

I imagine this story would be greatly rewarding to true Holmes fans, just to give a glimpse of what Holmes would be like in later years. As King states in an interview at the end of my copy of the book, she did not "try to write Holmes stories, but put Holmes in the role of supporting actor." Mary Russell is the star here, starting out as a wayward 15 year old orphan with a keen intellect and curiosity, and growing into a young woman mature enough to hold her own alongside the aging detective as they try to think quicker than an adversary who seems intent to kill them both. As Mary grows up, so does Holmes, both in his opinion of Mary as a student/apprentice/associate and in his physical age, as Mary begins to note that Holmes isn't as young as he used to be and begins to display and uncharacteristic amount of caution in his movements.

I loved watching Mary grow up. She's a very independent young woman, living with a dreadful aunt, and spends most of her time studying: first with Holmes, and then at Oxford. I loved the few scenes she had where she stepped out of her dour student role and went off to be girly, getting dressed up and going shopping and all of that. It was a brief diversion from some of the weighty drama, and really helped shape Mary as a character. She wasn't acting girly out of some deep need to assert her femininity in the oppressively male world of crime solving; she just wanted to try something different for a short while. It's rare to see a character who can both enjoy the trappings of femininity and also recognize that the long skirts and tight shoes aren't necessarily practical.

I've never been a big mystery fan either (have nothing against them, but unlike my mom I don't search them out as a genre), but the mysteries here (for there are several!) are all interesting and compelling. They aren't the type that necessarily leave clues for the reader to figure out before Holmes and Mary, but it's fun to follow along and see what sort of trouble they're going to get themselves into next!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman

Found via: Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults Twists on the Tale nominees

I've never been able to get into reading comics, but I have to admit I have a weakness for superhero movies. I've also never managed to read another Gaiman work (I'm sorry, I tried to read The Graveyard Book after it won the Newbery, I really did, and I just couldn't manage it. I feel like a book nerd failure).

But this particular Gaiman/comic book seemed like something I could get into. For one thing, it wasn't just a single comic - this is the 8 comic series bound into a full graphic novel (I am sure part of my comic resistance is the serial nature of the story - I hardly even watch TV shows now as they come on the air, I just wait for the DVD release, or at least until a bunch of the season is up online). I could also get it from the library, which I can't with regular comic books. Plus it just sounded kind of interesting - Renaissance era super heroes? Sure, why not?!

I enjoyed reading this - though I have to admit I'd be hard pressed to describe parts of the plot to you. I also had a hard time identifying who a lot of the characters were; sure Peter Parquagh, the kid who is always stumbling across potentially lethal spiders is Peter Parker, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but I couldn't figure out for the life of me who the Natasha character was until I read the Marvel 1602 characters Wikipedia page (there really is a Wikipedia page for everything). So there are definitely parts that will be much more rewarding for a true Marvel fan, but not so many that a non-fan can't enjoy the book. Non-fans just really need to accept that they won't be able to find the corresponding modern Marvel character and continue on with the story.

So yes, I got lost several times. And this hasn't made me a convert to the wonders of graphic novels/comic books. And I didn't know who on earth half of the characters were supposed to be. But for the characters that I did know, watching them in the context of 1602 was fun. What more can you ask from a comic book?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Double Review: "Gone" and "Hunger" by Michael Grant

Michael Grant and I go way back. Well, not personally, but my first intense fandom was Animorphs which Grant co-wrote with his wife, K.A. Applegate (at least according to Grant's twitter page).

So knowing the author was one reason I picked up the series, but I also love reading the "adults disappear" genre - how many books have sprung from the premise that all of the adults mysteriously disappear? And added in to this one is the kids developing super powers. This has gotta be fun, right?

Set in a bit of California colloquially known as Fallout Alley, officially Perdido Beach, after an accident at the nuclear power plant 15 years before (a meteorite hit the plant and kept right on going, burying itself deep underground), on one normal fall day in the middle of school and everything, all of the adults and teenagers over 15 disappear. Poof. One minute they're there, the next they aren't.

It's a terrifying time - the first couple of days are spent getting their bearings. Finding someone to take care of the infants in day care, keeping curious 5 year olds from setting fire to their houses, and discovering that some of the kids aren't just normal kids anymore: they've started to develop super powers.

Not to mention that there's also some sort of barrier around the whole town, meaning that the kids of Perdido Beach only have a bit of land with a ten mile radius to live in. There's no way of knowing what's outside of the barrier; perhaps that's where their parents are and are trying to get back in to Perdido Beach. Or perhaps Fallout Alley is all that's left of humanity?

There's another group of kids in Fallout Alley as well, Coates Academy, a private boarding school for kids with "problems." While the Perdido Beach kids are nominally led by Sam, a local hero for his quick thinking when his bus driver had a heart attack, the Coates Academy kids are led by the charismatic - and at least slightly dangerous - Caine. It turns out Caine has developed super powers as well - he has telekinesis - and has a raging case of megalomania with a burning need to be in charge and to be the most powerful of anyone in Fallout Alley. Gone follows Sam's struggles to establish some order in the town and protect the kids from Caine, while Hunger focuses on the next logical step: when you have a finite amount of space and over 300 kids to feed, food starts running out fast. Caine is still trying to wrest control of Fallout Alley from Sam, but has to deal with the crippling effects of hunger on himself and his Coates Academy minions, plus the ever present pull of the mysterious "Darkness," an entity that lives below the ground in Perdido Beach and seems intent on killing all of the humans.

These are big, action packed books, with some really great characters. Grant has absolutely nailed some of these characters; Astrid, Sam's girlfriend, has a little brother named Pete who is autistic. I absolutely love how Grant portrays Astrid's conflicting feelings about her brother: she absolutely loves him and wants to protect him, but his lack of communication and stubbornness drive her up a wall sometimes. I have a younger autistic brother myself, and that is exactly how I feel about him sometimes. However, I'm also worried that Grant is going to drift into the autistic savant trope with Little Pete - Pete is extremely un-communicative, yet he may have the most powerful superpower in all of Fallout Alley.

Also in the first book I was getting extremely frustrated by how roles in the town were being apparently divided by gender: all of the girls were extremely nurturing and caring while the boys were off having the adventures (Astrid was sometimes along for the adventure, but she was there more for her brain than taking part in anything exciting). The second book introduced a little more variety in the girls - there's even an African American lesbian with superpowers - but more could be done.

While I definitely enjoyed the first two books, I really wonder how the drama and tension is going to last for six books. Right now it feels more like this should have been a trilogy - after all, at the end of Hunger they do figure out some things to do about the food situation, but a ten mile radius, some of which is desert or rocks or ocean, doesn't provide a lot of space for growing food for 300+ people. But I'm anxiously waiting for the next book, which comes out in May 2010.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: Equal: Women Reshape American Law by Fred Strebeigh

Found via: Amerlia Bloomer Project

Oh (wo)man, I wish I'd had this book during those middle school classes on the Supreme Court!

Strebeigh's book takes an exhaustive look at, as the title says, how women have changed American law, as plaintiffs, lawyers and judges. There are five sections in the book, each examining a different aspect of laws that women have helped shape or reshape, and the years in which most of the major progress was made: scrutiny (how closely does the supreme court need to look at sex discrimination cases?), pregnancy (do employers discriminate against pregnant women?), lawyering (the problems women lawyers faced between 1968 and 1984), harassment (defining sexual harassment), and violence (domestic violence cases). Important cases are discussed in detail, and Strebeigh plays it all very fairly: when discussing the allegations in a case, he always uses appropriately neutral language, making it clear that the plaintiff was alleging that the defendant had violated a law, and it was up to the justices to make a final decision of guilt.

There are extensive examinations of the careers of the first two women appointed to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (perhaps someday we'll get a revised edition that includes our newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor). It's all extremely fascinating - and sometimes extremely disturbing, some of the arguments that had been made regarding discrimination. For example, General Electric once argued that, in the wake of the Roe v Wade decision, pregnancy was now a purely elective state and a woman who wished to retain her job merely get a "lunch-time abortion procedure." Since abortion was available on demand, the company wasn't obligated to pay out temporary disability benefits to pregnant employees.

Also of interest to anyone who followed Justice Sotomayor's road to the Supreme Court, is that Justice Sotomayor was not the first federal judge to be accused of bias because of her race and gender. Constance Baker Motley, an African-American woman, served as the district court judge in the case of Diane Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell, a case where female law students claimed that a prestigious law firm had discriminatory hiring practices against women. The lawyer for Sullivan & Cromwell tried to get Justice Motley to remove herself from the case, alleging that due to her race and sex she was biased in cases of alleged workplace discrimination. As we saw this past summer, history can repeat itself.

This is a big, impressive book, with lots of gritty law details that it doesn't always take the time to explain (for example, I still have no idea why it's a big deal to work on your law school's law review. I'm not even sure what exactly a law review is). But like I said at the top, I wish I'd had this when I was studying the Supreme Court in 8th grade - it would have brought a whole new lens to a lot of the cases we studied that year. It also starkly shows just how terrifying the world was not too long ago. I have never had to face sex-segregated 'help wanted' ads; I have always known my bosses and teachers have no right to touch me; rape has always been a crime, as has child and domestic abuse. Some of these things seem like such basic, common sense things, that it's terrifying to think that women like my mom didn't have these rights. Equal is an absolutely essential read, for almost everyone, but especially anyone with an interest in the law or women's history in the US.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review: Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

This is a slim little book that has one relentless focus: follow three girls over the course of one school day after one girl inadvertently insults another. Leticia overhears Dominique threaten to beat up Trina after school, after Trina accidentally bumps her in the hallway before school. That's the entire set up, and what follows in an increasingly tense school day, as Dominique obsesses over a long list of slights that have led her to the point where beating up another girl seems like a reasonable response, Trina is oblivious and goes through the day as her (almost annoyingly) bubbly self, and Leticia wavers endlessly over whether she should warn Trina or just mind her own business.

All three girls are written realistically with distinct voices - the chapters alternate between their first person accounts and I never had a moment where I needed to flip to the beginning of the chapter to figure out who was narrating now. The review from Booklist on Amazon accuses Trina of being simplified with her "relentless snobbery," but I had a totally different read on her: yes, she's a bit stuck up and full of herself, but how often do we get to read about a young woman who has complete confidence in herself? Trina never wonders if people are judging her for her weight, her skin, her hair - she knows she's fabulous and thinks everyone else agrees with her assessment! We know Dominique clearly disagrees, and it's pretty clear Leticia thinks she's stuck up as well and doesn't think anyone else likes her, either, but since we have three first person narrators it's impossible to get an objective stance on where Trina really stands in the eyes of the student body. I thought it was a great addition to her character.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Flygirl by Sherri L Smith

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

I absolutely love books that take one subject and explore it through multiple lenses. Flygirl isn't my first exposure to the Women Airforce Service Pilots program, and it's certainly not the first book to look at a woman trying to make it in a "man's world," especially during World War II. Flygirl gains its complexity through its protagonist, Ida Mae Jones, who is not only a young woman eager to serve her country in its time of need, but is an African-American woman in the precarious position of "passing" in rural Texas.

Smith does an excellent job conveying the multiple hardships Ida must endure, from flight instructors that don't believe women have any place in airplanes ("the kitchen's much safer" one repeatedly reminds the pilots) to dangerous airplanes, to having to treat her dark-skinned mother like the family help when she comes to visit Ida at Christmas. Ida knows she's constantly in danger - either from poor equipment or having her race discovered - yet she keeps pushing through in an inspiring adventure that teaches on multiple levels.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: Turning Japanese by Cathy Yardley

Found via: Galley Cat

Here's one of those rare moments where I step outside of my comfort zone and read something "age appropriate" - a book for grown ups!

But don't get too excited - I bet this would have a lot of appeal for older high school students as well, especially those who love manga and Japanese culture.

Lisa wins the chance of a life time after entering a manga contest at San Francisco's Comic Convention (does anyone actually call it that? I'm pretty sure it's just Comic Con these days): she's going to be an intern for a year in Tokyo with a manga publisher. At first Lisa is hesitant - she hates to travel and has a comfortable life in upstate New York with an overachieving boyfriend and the friends she's had since high school. But they all gang up on her (in a mostly loving way) and convince her to make the journey to Japan.

Lisa is half-Japanese, but has rarely ventured outside of her small town in New York, and finds herself more than a bit lost in Japan's culture. Intellectually she knows it's a very polite culture where individualism is discouraged in some ways, but it's a whole different ball game actually living there! She has to deal with a crazy host family, a demanding boss, and an internship that is nothing like what she thought it was going to be.

Sometimes Lisa's lack of a backbone and the other characters' contributions to this got on my nerves - I really wanted to yell at her sometimes that she wasn't being the jerk, her boyfriend was (oh man I couldn't stand that guy). But her time in Japan made for some fascinating reading - I bet teen readers would love Lisa's host family, which consists of two overburdened parents, a twenty-something woman who parties all night and sleeps all day, and a 12 year old boy who has everyone else so under his thumb that he does nothing but play video games. Literally - he doesn't even go to school just because he doesn't want to!

I also really enjoyed that, unlike a lot of other "chick lit" that I've read, finding "the one" wasn't the point of the book. Yes there is the aforementioned jerk boyfriend, but since he's literally on the other side of the world Lisa finds lots of other things to occupy her time. It ends up being a great story about a young woman taking risks and finding out who she is and what makes her happiest.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Review: Cleavage, Breakaway Fiction for Real Girls ed. by Deb Loughead & Jocelyn Shipley

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project

I think this basic collection of stories comes out almost every year. A collection of short stories about girl power, building self esteem and positive body image in young women. While I'm certainly for all of those things, some times the short story collections start to feel a little redundant.

This collection is populated with innocuous enough stories, all sending various positive messages, and mostly seem to be written by first time authors, which may explain why some of these felt flat and cliche.

Reading all of the stories in one go, a lot of them ended up bleeding together: everyone had a terrible mom and no one liked her boobs seemed to be the overarching themes. Was I really that strange of a teenager to have had a good relationship with my mom and not to have angsted endlessly about my bra size? A little more variety in teenage girl problems would have gone a long way to set this particular collection apart from a crowded field of short story anthologies.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: The Girl Who Threw Butterflies by Mick Cochrane

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project and Bookends

(My husband and I with our peanuts and Cracker Jacks at the Mets vs. Marlins game on 9/9/09. Marlins won, 6-3, much to my husband's chagrin!)

For several summers during elementary and middle school, my nightly ritual involved playing catch with my dad in our front yard at dusk. Dad taught me everything I know about baseball, and our nightly games of catch were about the only time we could be together and not end up in some sort of fight. Eventually simple games of catch became learning how to pitch for real, and I developed a pretty good fastball - I was even planning on being the first woman to pitch in the major leagues some day - until Dad informed me that gender discrimination laws don't extend to professional sports.

(Never would have needed this sign if I were at bat - while I could pitch I was a terrible batter, at least when we played softball in gym class)

Luckily for Molly in The Girl Who Threw Butterflies, her dad wasn't the downer that mine was. When Molly asks if a girl could ever play baseball, he initially says no, then backs up and says she could probably be a pitcher. And proceeds to teach her how to throw a beautiful knuckleball (personal note: my dad would never teach me the knuckleball. Said it would hurt my arm. I have no idea if this is true - it never comes up for Molly. No, I'm not still bitter ;-)

Molly and her mother are now grieving the loss of Molly's father in a car accident. The next spring, as sports season approaches, Molly decides it's time to stop playing softball, and use the baseball knowledge her dad taught her to play ball with the boys.

Cochrane has crafted a very nuanced book, that perfectly balances the sadness of a girl missing her dad with the exhilaration of playing a sport well and defying the odds. Molly meets some resistance from some of her teammates, but it never overpowers the rest of the story - it's there to add some drama, but never distracts from the main drama of Molly's coming of age and playing the game. Also done excellently was Molly's best friend Celia, middle school feminist and one of Molly's two biggest supporters in her baseball quest. A must read for baseball fans!

(Can't post the picture here, since I'm not willing to actually pay for this, but one last baseball photo: me, my husband, and my parents at the Mets/Marlins game, posing with the foul ball my dad caught!)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Review: Secret Subway by Martin W. Sandler

(Photo by me - New York loves its subway so much, it gets its name in lights in Times Square!)

Hope everyone had a good Labor Day last week - I hadn't intended to, but I ended up taking the week off from blogging (obviously) since my parents came into town to visit. So I spent most of last week being a tourist with them - it was the only way I could justify taking the above photo, since usually I'm trying my hardest to blend in with the natives and whipping out your camera to take a picture in Times Square isn't Native New York behavior.

But, as I did with Wondrous Strange, I wanted to make this a bit of an illustrated post since today's book, Secret Subway, is all about the first subway built in New York City, well before the system that I ride every day was even imagined.

Sandler has researched all sorts of aspects of life in New York in the mid-to-late 1800s to give an in depth look at what life in the city that never sleeps was like, from crowded/dangerous/dirty streets to the corrupt politicians that had their fingers in all parts of city life. This gives us a great view of the environment Alfred Beach was working in to create his original idea for the subway, a luxurious ride underneath the hubbub of the surface streets.

If only that dream had continued to today!

(From Flickr user andy in nyc - the dingy and usually crowded station at Union Square, where I go to buy veggies at the Greenmarket every week. Note the lack of comfy couches and pianos, and how the platform is right next to the train tracks, as opposed to Beach's original plan for the waiting area to be separate from the boarding platform)

Though that's not to say all of our platforms are miserable

(From Flickr user wallyg The awesome art at the Museum of Natural History's stop. You can walk right from the subway platform into the museum!)

I was utterly enthralled by this book - it's such a fantastic story, even for those who aren't from the city. Beach's story is one that captures the imagination from the moment one first hears of it: how did a person build a subway in secret in one of the biggest cities in the world?

Apparently, Beach's subway is still beneath the streets - it was discovered when the current subway system was being expanded. I would love it if the MTA could get some of it out and put it on display in our transit museum. Then again, since we just had the ceiling collapse in a station built in 1903, I wonder if it really has survived?

Thoughts on the current state of NYC transit aside, Secret Subway is a fascinating look at forgotten New York history, a must read for history fans (for the look at transportation and politics in 19th century New York), transit buffs, and all of those who <3 NY.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Review: Reality Check by Peter Abrahams

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominations

It took a little searching to confirm my hunch, but Peter Abrahams started his writing career with mystery novels for adults. Then apparently he took a turn into young-teen mystery writing before producing Reality Check, a mystery novel for older teens. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but the tone and writing style of this novel definitely evoked more of an "adult" novel than a YA novel. There was a bit of...restraint in the narration, that's the best I can put it. A restraint we don't usually see in YA novels. There's always a bit of distance between our narrator and what's happening in the novel.

At the beginning of his junior year, the most important recruiting season for college football, Cody sustains a potentially career-ending knee injury; at the very least he's going to be on the bench for the rest of the season. What a way to start the year. To add insult to his injury, his rich girlfriend, Clea, has been shipped off to an East Coast boarding school, in part to keep her away from the decidedly-working-class Cody. Cody breaks up with Clea before she leaves, drops out of school, and settles into a job with a local landscaper - and halfway figures that's going to be the rest of his life, since without football college is definitely not an option.

But not too long after she leaves, Clea is reported missing out at her school. Cody, despite being unsure what his feelings for Clea are, knows he needs to go out there to help in the search. He drives from Colorado and Vermont, hiding who he really is and his relationship with Clea, and joins in the search, even taking a job at the school in the horse stables to stay close to the action.

Out at the school is a cast of suspicious characters, from the eccentric stable hand and Clea's brooding new boyfriend, two rival law enforcement agents, who seem to want conflicting things from Cody. He doesn't know who to trust - or whether Clea is even still alive.

This is a compact, solid mystery novel, though I felt the ending fell short in the same way that School for Dangerous Girls did - there's a distinct climax, and then a very rushed description of the aftereffects of that climax. Like once the mystery is solved, there's no point in reading any more book. Yes, the journey and figuring out "whodunnit," or even what "it" was, is the point of the story, but I still prefer a satisfying, complete conclusion to the story.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: Going too Far by Jennifer Echols

Found via: BBYA 2010 nominated titles

The annotation for this title reads "Meg is the blue haired girl in a small town, John is the cop who picks her up one night, and the relationship that develops causes all sorts of problems."

I was adding this to my library request list at "blue haired girl," because that was me, from 5th grade through high school. Okay, it was more often green, and only a streak, as opposed to a whole head like Meg does (my hair was waist length - no way Mom was going to help me turn all of that green). And much to my parents' relief, I was never picked up by the cops at night, but I still felt, just from this annotation, that Meg was a girl after my own heart.

And I was right: I loved Meg throughout the book, even when she made it hard to be lovable.

Meg is counting the days until she can get the hell out of her little Alabama town, away from her parents who seem hell bent on shackling her to their little restaurant. She's just days away from spring break of her senior year - a spring break that is going to take her to see the ocean for the first time in her life - when she, her boyfriend, and the class valedictorians are picked up by the cops on the forbidden railroad tracks. Eric, Meg's boyfriend, gets let off easy, thanks to his father's money, but Meg and her friends are sentenced to ride with the various emergency departments for the week of spring break, so they can learn their actions have consequences.

Meg is assigned to ride with the police for the week, specifically with the enigmatic, handsome, and young Officer John Avery. He's the opposite of Meg in every way: serious, clean cut, and with a pathological need to follow and enforce the rules. But despite this, and despite all of her better judgment, Meg feels a connection, and wonders if she might be falling for the police officer, and if he might be falling for her.

Meg and John were both great, well rounded characters. Echols teases out the hints about the darker sides of these two: both Meg and John have demons to contend with, and neither is going to show their hand to the other unless pushed. Echols taunts us with hints about what makes these two tick, but withholds the payoff until it has the greatest impact on the story, the characters, and the reader. It's an extremely rewarding read.

I have just one complaint: who the heck photoshopped the cover? Check it out on Amazon - that is the worst 'shop of an eyebrow ring I've ever seen. Would it have been so hard to find a pierced model? Or give her a clip on hoop ring? Or leave off the ring entirely, since I don't recall Meg ever wearing an eyebrow ring? I usually don't give covers a second look, but this one made me cringe every time I looked at it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: Pure by Terra Elan McVoy

Found via: Amelia Bloomer Project

Because sometimes it takes my library ages to get a book to me, I'm going to start making notes in my blog entries about where I found a book so I can remember why the heck I picked it up. Occasionally I'll start reading a book and wonder what possessed me to read it...and absolutely won't be able to remember what made me think it was ever a good idea.

Not that I had that problem with Terra Elan McVoy's Pure, a great look at the purity ring/abstinence pledge phenomenon that's swept America over the last several years.

I have to admit, I went into this book with quite a bit of bias: I happen to find abstinence pledges/purity rings/purity balls (yes, that's really what they're called) a little frightening. Not that abstinence is a bad thing (far from it), but the overtures of male-owned female sexuality and lack of comprehensive education that goes along with these things is more than a little unsettling. I wasn't sure what side of the debate Pure was going to settle on: a celebration of abstinence? Or an evisceration of the movement?

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that McVoy does a wonderful job of exploring a lot of the complexities of the issue. Pure follows Tabitha and her three best friends as they start high school. All of them had taken pledges in middle school at various times to remain abstinent, and all wear abstinence rings as a physical reminder of their pledge. Tabitha and her best friend, Morgan, took the abstinence pledge together at 12; during school they met Cara and Priah, another pair of best friends, and the two pairs quickly became a foursome.

High school, of course, is a time of change, and Tabitha begins to have a lot of questions about her abstinence pledge, first as she begins her own romantic relationship (she wonders whether and when she should tell the boy she's interested in about the pledge she made), and then when Cara breaks her pledge and the rest of the quartet seems to turn against her. Tabitha not only navigates the murky waters of her faith, but friendship as well.

By the end of the book, it definitely feels like McVoy comes out heavily on the side of abstinence, but certainly not fanatical about it and purity rings like some of the characters can be. What seems to be a book strictly about the abstinence pledge phenomenon turns into a rather complicated little book about faith and friendship.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review: The Extra-Ordinary Princess by Carolyn Q. Ebbitt

I kind of love The Amelia Bloomer Project, and always get excited when a new post pops up in my Google Reader. The blog just lists the nominations for the list with a quick summary, a quick way to judge whether it'd be something I'd be interested in. I also love the sheer variety of books nominated: everything from adult fiction to children's picture book biographies.

The Extra-Ordinary Princess is certainly an extraordinary book - another one of those that I absolutely couldn't put down.

Princess Amelia is the fourth princess of the kingdom of Gossling - which she figures is probably a good thing, since fourth princesses never get to be queen and she's not very good at doing princess-y things. Her hair is unruly and red (princesses should have hair as fine as spun gold), she always messes up court dances, can hardly read, and prefers to take sword fighting lessons with the gardener's son over most anything else. Her older sisters sometimes ridicule her, but her mother, Queen Charlotte, is always trying to convince Amelia that she really is no ordinary princess; maybe she will never be queen, but that is hardly the only way to judge a person's abilities.

When a terrible plague sweeps through the kingdom, taking the lives of the beloved king and queen along the way, Amelia's oldest sister, Merrill, finds herself thrust into the unexpected role of Queen. However, because Merrill is still several weeks shy of her 18th birthday, an interim ruler must be found, and by the laws of succession that ruler turns out to be a previously-unknown uncle. Of course, in true fairy tale fashion, this uncle is in fact an evil sorcerer, and casts a terrible spell on the three oldest princesses: Merrill is turned into a willow tree, and the twins Lily and Rose are turned into swans. It's merely a quirk of fate that Amelia escaped: she was quarantined in the winter palace, first to escape the plague, and then prevented from returning to the castle with her sisters by a nasty bout with chicken pox.

What follows is nothing less than an epic quest tale - but this time with an underdog princess in the lead role, rather than a hobbit or boy wizard. I could probably go back through the book with my copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and map out most of the monomyth (the only glaring omission I can think of: no Gandalf/Dumbledore/Obi-Wan character dies). Some of the details are whittled down for a younger audience; some fight scenes are glossed over (because war is terrible and bloody and difficult to write about), and time seems to be strangely compressed and expanded whenever it fits the needs of the plot (Amelia has 40 days to break the curse on her sisters, but it's hard to keep track of how much time has elapsed at various parts of the book until some character reminds Amelia "We only have x days to break the spell!"). However, otherwise it's a rousing adventure staring almost solely women.

This is definitely a title that should end up on the final Amelia Bloomer list, and I'm sure will makes lots of other best-of lists once we reach the end of the year.
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