Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Story of a Girl

STORY OF A GIRL: Sara Zarr: 2007: Little Brown: YA: 192

Deanna Lambert was only 13 when her Dad caught her having sex with her 17 year old "boyfriend", Tommy, in the back seat of his car. Instead of coming to her rescue like she wishes he would have, Deanna's emotionally impotent father pushes her away and all but joins the small town shunning that takes place over the next three years. This book picks up those three years later when Deanna finally confronts Tommy, her distant father, and realized that she is worth more than the town gossip suggests.

I met Sara Zarr at a conference recently and after sitting through five minutes of self righteous snorting by the school librarian next to me during Sara's brief presentation on the book, I knew I had to see for myself what it was all about. Sure this is riddled with typical teen issues of sex, identity and relationships, but there was level of coming into the self (for lack of a better word) that really struck me. Bits of this book were over dramatic with teenage regret, but I had a little eye dab moment as Deanna finally stood up to Tommy and realized that she wasn't who she had let her reputation become. Not my most favorite teen angsty thing, but worth the quick read.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY: Alexander McCall Smith: Anchor Books: Mystery: 235 pages

The African-born author of more than 50 books, Alexander McCall Smith, turns his talents to detection in this artful, pleasing novel about Mma (aka Precious) Ramotswe, Botswana's one and only lady private detective. A series of vignettes linked to the establishment and growth of Mma Ramotswe's "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" serve not only to entertain but to explore conditions in Botswana in a way that is both penetrating and light thanks to Smith's deft touch.

I didn’t like this book as well as I was hoping to. Although I did learn about African culture I felt like the book was quite jumpy. There were portions of the book that I did enjoy, but on the whole I just couldn’t get into the story. I don’t feel a draw to read any of the others in the series.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Michael Tolliver Lives

MICHAEL TOLLIVER LIVES: Armistead Maupin: HarperCollins 2007: Fiction: 277 pp.
Maupin's seventh novel won't be for everyone. But if you enjoyed his series of novels, "Tales of the City," or watched the Peabody Award winning television miniseries first aired on PBS, you will enjoy catching up with some of the characters you grew to care about.

While the author claims this isn't a follow-up to the San Francisco-based series, the first-person tale explores the life of the now middle-aged Michael Tolliver. The book acquired its title because Michael contracted HIV in an earlier book, but unlike many of his friends, he hasn't succumbed to the disease.

This glimpse into his life, his biological and logical families' lives (those chosen, close members of his circle) is satisfying. It's delightful to see how gracefully Anna Madrigal has aged and to see that the good friends stayed connected throughout their lifetimes.

The miniseries is a favorite of mine, and I welcomed the chance to see some fictional friends mature. However, if you aren't interested in reading about an endearing May-December gay romance, this isn't the book for you.


Monday, July 23, 2007

The Princess and the Hound

THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND: Mette Ivie Harrison: Eos: Young Adult: 410 pages

Prince George has the ability to speak to animals, or Animal Magic, a gift which is feared and punished in his land. When George is betrothed to Princess Beatrice, who is always accompanied by her black hound, his Animal Magic becomes essential to reverse the evil a healer is spreading through the land.

Harrison, a BYU grad, spins a wonderful old-fashioned tale. I didn’t see most of the twists in the story coming, and the whole thing was very strong until the end when things unraveled just a tiny bit for me. Overall, though, this was my favorite of Harrison’s books and one of the best fairy tales I’ve read in the last several years.


A Step from Heaven

A STEP FROM HEAVEN: An Na: Front Street Publishing: Young Adult: 156 pgs.

Young Ju is a little girl when she and her parents emigrate from Korea to America in hopes for better opportunities in life. However, they face changes and hardships they hadn’t expected like poverty, a new baby, cultural differences, and a language barrier. The story follows the family’s struggles as Young Ju grows up, embarrassed by her family’s circumstances: the impoverished lifestyle, the numerous jobs her parents work, the favoritism of her brother, and her father’s alcoholic and abusive nature. She works hard in determination to make her way in this foreign world—a way that is far from the life she is forced to be in.

This is a well-written story that twists your heart. You sorrow for the young family and their trials, especially for those who are affected by the alcoholic father. But it also makes you hope that the characters will somehow find strength and triumph over their hardships.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Death Collector

THE DEATH COLLECTOR: Justin Richards: Bloomsbury, 2006: Young Adult: 320pp.

What a great opening line: "Four days after his funeral, Albert Wilkes came home for tea."
From this grim beginning, Justin Richards launches into a ripping Victorian yarn filled with "reanimated" cadavers roaming the foggy streets of London, and four redoubtable companions racing against time and evil antagonists to discover the secret of eternal but gruesome life.
Eddie, the ragamuffin pickpocket, George, the rising young star of the British Museum, Liz, the parson's daughter and actress, and Sir William, director of the Museum's Department of
Unclassifiable Artefacts are appealingly characterized and the action is breakneck. The Death Collector is a great old-fashioned adventure story, though the ending is not as good as the rest of the book, being resolved with a deus ex machina in more ways than one.


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

H.I.V.E.: Higher Institute of Villainous Education

H.I.V.E.: HIGHER INSTITUTE OF VILLAINOUS EDUCATION: Mark Walden: Simon & Schuster: Young Adult: 309 pages

H.I.V.E. is a secret training facility for evil geniuses. Four new recruits, brought to the island location against their will, attempt to escape, but their plans change when disaster strikes the facility.

Try not to think too hard about an orphan being taken to a special school where he meets a somewhat bumbling, plant-loving student named Nigel (Neville, is that you?), two bullies without much brain power, and other somewhat familiar characters. The story premise is clever (although Evil Genius was recently published with a similar idea) and I look forward to the next book in the series (oh yes, there will definitely be more), but I did struggle with the similarities to other teen away-at-school books.


Monday, July 16, 2007

They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: They True Story of Three Lost Boys From Sudan

THEY POURED FIRE ON US FROM THE SKY: THEY TRUE STORY OF THREE LOST BOYS FROM SUDAN: Deng, Deng, Ajak, Berstein: Public Affairs : June 2006: 311: NonFiction

Caught in the middle of an intense genocide in Sudan, thousands of children became homeless and parentless in the mid 1980's. In this novel three boys; Alepho, Benson, and Benjamin, tell their story of being exiled from their home in Sudan and forced to walk thousands of miles for refuge in Kenya, where even there they are starved, beaten, and separated from their family. It does have a bit of a happy ending when all three of the boys leave for America, but there was still a bit of melancholy in it for me as they were leaving what remained of their family and everything they'd ever known.

This was a truly heartbreaking read. We hear about/read so many tragic things that we sometimes become callus to suffering - this book absolutely put the horrific events taking place in Sudan back into very human terms. It is a remarkable story of survival and to me, a story about community.


The New Policeman

THE NEW POLICEMAN: Kate Thompson: Greenwillow Books: Young Adult: 442 pages

Time is leaking from J.J. Liddy’s Irish town into the land of the fairies, causing problems in both worlds. When J.J. crosses over into the fairies’ world to try to stop the leak, he helps solve an old family mystery and discovers the true identity of the new policeman in town.

Thompson has spun a clever and imaginative tale that has already won several British awards and is sure to receive praise on this side of the pond as well.



INCANTATION: Alice Hoffman: Little, Brown, 2006: Young Adult: 208pp.

Alice Hoffman's latest is the story of Estrella deMadrigal, a 16-year old girl who lives in Spain in the 1500s. Her family and friends seem safe from the rising terrors of the Inquisition--her brother is at the Seminary studying for the priesthood, her grandparents are austere but highly respected members of the community, and Estrella is best friends with Catalina, the girl next door. Then things fall apart. Catalina pulls away because her intended young man and Catalina fall in love; the remaining Jewish residents of the village are tormented, their books burned and their goods taken; friends denounce neighbors for a share of their linens and silver, and Estrella discovers that who she thought she was may not be who she truly is. Incantation is a moving, lyrical narrative for young people and adults about intolerance, remembrance, love, and the lime tree, both bitter and sweet.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Without a Map

WITHOUT A MAP: A MEMOIR: Meredith Hall: Beacon Press: 2007: Biography: 248 pgs.

This is an engrossing story of a woman who grew up in the 60's and got pregnant when she was 16. That part of her story isn't unique; as with many other girls during that time her family and community shunned her and she was forced to give the baby up for adoption. What is unique is her life since.

She spent time living on a boat, then hitchhiking through Europe, slowly selling off everything she owned until she was penniless and alone in the Middle East. Eventually she moved to Maine and had two additional children. During that time her father cut her out of his life, and she constantly tried to comprehend a mother that would abandon her scared child when she needed her most.

I loved this story, she never adopts a "poor me" attitude, but deftly portrays the pain and longing that she feels for her parents and lost son. The conclusion of her story is very powerful without being overly sentimental. If you enjoy this type of memoir you would also like Jeannette Wall's The Glass Castle.


Monday, July 9, 2007

The Game

THE GAME: Diana Wynne Jones: Penguin: 2007: Young Adult: 179pgs.

Because of her disobedience, Hayley is sent abruptly from her grandmother's domineering presence to a houseful of aunts and cousins she has never met, but not before her grandfather introduces her to the mythosphere--shining skeins of evertwisting light and story surrounding the earth. When she arrives at her cousins' place, she finds them playing a game which sends them on quests into the mythosphere after objects ranging from Beowulf's drinking horn to the golden apples of the Hesperides. The rest of the story plays out in good-natured tension between rules and business, and myth and fancy. The Game is a bit of a toss-off for Diana Wynne Jones, one of the great fantasists of this or any generation, but it is still fun, especially trying to figure out which character in the book corresponds to which archetype or myth. There is a helpful glossary at the book discussing the main characters, but of equal interest are some of the bit players, Baba Yaga, for instance, whose part is small but crucial. Mild fun from a mistress of the genre.


Saturday, July 7, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION: Michael Chabon: HarperCollins: Fiction: 411pp.

Meyer Landsman is a detective in the Federal State of Sitka, the temporary Jewish state founded in Alaska after World War II in Michael Chabon's alternate history, mystery novel, and meditation on religion, race. Landsman leaps into action on page one when the proprietor of the flophouse where he lives finds a body in room 208. In his search to discover the young man's identity and to identify his murderer, Landsman runs into and afoul of homicidal Hasids, chess prodigies, Zimbalist the boundary maven, and the FBI, not to mention his ex-wife who has suddenly become his boss. In steady counterpoint to the machinations of the case itself runs the fact that after 60 years, the Alaskan homeland of the Jews will revert to the United States and there is nowhere left to go. Chabon observes all the conventions of the hard-boiled detective novel, including a wealth of the strained but apt metaphors peculiar to that genre, though The Yiddish Policemen's Union transcends those bounds to become a peculiar treasure of contemporary fiction. (Word to the wise: some profanity of both sorts)


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Girl at Sea

GIRL AT SEA: Maureen Johnson: HarperTeen: Young Adult: 323 pages

Seventeen-year-old Clio is thrilled when she lands a job at the art store where Ollie works, and she anticipates a romantic summer and her first kiss. Her plans and her life change, though, when she’s called away to help her estranged father work on an archaeological assignment on a yacht in Italy.

Read it! Maureen Johnson writes some mighty fine contemporary teen fiction.