Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
3.25 stars

Reason for reading: 2010 Newbery Medal for Book Awards Challenge

Description from the inside flap:

Four mysterious letters change Miranda’s world forever.

By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I must ask two favors.
First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

First lines: "So Mom got the postcard today. It says Congratulations in big curly letters, and at the very top is the address of Studio TV-15 on West 58th Street. After three years of trying, she has actually made it. She's going to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid, which is hosted by Dick Clark."

My thoughts: Sorry Newbery committee (since I'm sure they care!), this one didn't do a whole lot for me. Maybe I was biased ahead of time because I remember reading a review that said the book was odd or would be hard for kids to follow or something. But it just seemed to me like an excuse to write a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle and the 70's. I don't really like this trend of the recent past in kids' books - it's not really historical fiction yet and I find it just ends up seeming slightly dated. Stead is a few years older than I am, which puts her at 11 years old in 1979, which seems to be Miranda's age. I can't quite think of the right word, but it just seemed a bit indulgent. And I'm one of the few people (it seems) who didn't adore A Wrinkle in Time, so that's another bias I have against this book. I only read it last year and it wasn't my thing at all. I think a kid who hadn't read it would find all of the references confusing and annoying. While the notes Miranda finds and the suspense built by the "when you reach me" thing was interesting, I didn't find the climax all that surprising or interesting and I had to read it several times to figure it out. (Although, again, time and space stuff isn't my bag.)

But, I could be wrong - my biases might be getting me and maybe kids will love this book. I did like that the book dealt with non AWIT/time travel/70's things like friendships and how they evolve and being a lower income, single parent family, however. And the chapter headings being categories from $20,000 Pyramid (Things That Sneak Up On You, Things That Bounce) was a nice added touch.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: The Dark Divine

The Dark Divine by Bree Despain
3 stars

Reasons for reading: sounded interesting, like the Minnesota setting, YA Challenge

Description: "Grace Divine, daughter of the local pastor, always knew something terrible happened the night Daniel Kalbi disappeared--the night she found her brother Jude collapsed on the porch, covered in his own blood--but she has no idea what a truly monstrous secret that night held.

The memories her family has tried to bury resurface when Daniel returns, three years later, and enrolls in Grace and Jude's high school. Despite promising Jude she'll stay away, Grace cannot deny her attraction to Daniel's shocking artistic abilities, his way of getting her to look at the world from new angles, and the strange, hungry glint in his eyes.

The closer Grace gets to Daniel, the more she jeopardizes her life, as her actions stir resentment in Jude and drive him to embrace the ancient evil Daniel unleashed that horrific night. Grace must discover the truth behind the boy's dark secret...and the cure that can save the ones she loves. But she may have to lay down the ultimate sacrifice to do it--her soul."

My thoughts: This one was okay. I found it fairly predictable and there was a lot of Twilight-ness to it, I thought, with the longing for the bad boy/supernatural creature that she shouldn't be with, etc. I did think it was interesting that faith was a focal part of the story without making it preachy or "Christian fiction" - I thought that aspect was fairly well done. Grace's willingness to sacrifice herself for Daniel is impressive and Daniel is probably the most interesting character, although it's pretty obvious from the start what his secret is. Despain creates some fairly interesting werewolf lore and there's enough excitement with mysterious attacks, the Divines' baby going missing, and a few red herrings to keep it interesting. Not sure I'm interested enough to read the sequel, but it's a surefire hit for paranormal romance fans.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review: Ruined

Ruined by Paula Morris
3.25 stars

Reasons for reading: sounded intriguing, liked the cover, YA Challenge, One Word Title for Four Month Challenge

Description: "Rebecca couldn't feel more out of place in New Orleans. She's staying in a creepy house with her aunt, who reads tarot cards. And at the snooty prep school, a pack of filthy-rich girls treat Rebecca like she's invisible. Only gorgeous, unavailable Anton Grey gives Rebecca the time of day, but she wonders if he's got a hidden agenda.

Then one night, among the oak trees in Lafayette Cemetery, Rebecca makes a friend. Sweet, mysterious Lisette is eager to show Rebecca the nooks and crannies of New Orleans. There's just one catch.

Lisette is a ghost. A ghost with a deep, dark secret, and a serious score to settle.

As Rebecca is drawn deeper into a web of old curses and cryptic customs, she also uncovers startling truths about her own history. Will Rebecca be able to right the wrongs of the past, or has everything been ruined beyond repair?"

First line: "Torrential rain was pouring the afternoon Rebecca Brown arrived in New Orleans."

My thoughts: This one was pretty good. Somewhat predictable, but not too bad. I liked the New Orleans setting. It was actually quite interesting because the author clearly knows and loves New Orleans, but for most of the novel she has to make Rebecca loathe it. She pulled it off well, describing both the good and the bad aspects. Probably the most interesting and unique scene is when Lisette leads Rebecca through the streets and shows her the generations of ghosts that linger throughout the city.

But...there were some odd things. The mystery of Rebecca's family history comes to light, but not why her father, who has spent his life trying to protect her, suddenly delivers her into danger. And, frankly, gives her into the care of a woman who seems to barely be able to look after her own daughter and lets her life be ruled by her psychic feelings. Both adults of course epically fail in their mission to protect her. Anton has reasons for trying to distance himself from Rebecca, but I thought it was pretty clumsily done, making his character uneven. And while they tied into the prophecy that is the backbone of the novel, his dangerous actions at the end of the novel (I won't spoil it) didn't make sense to me other than the prophecy had to be wrapped up, so he did something wildly dangerous and destructive.

If you're interested in New Orleans and like a ghost story, this is a pretty good, quick read.

Review: Three Girls and their Brother

Three Girls and Their Brother by Theresa Rebeck
4 stars

Reasons for reading: recommended by a colleague, Alex Award winner for Book Awards Challenge

Description: "They may be the granddaughters of a famous literary critic, but what really starts it all is Daria, Polly, and Amelia Heller’s stunning red hair. Out of the blue one day, The New Yorker calls and says that they want to feature the girls in a glamorous spread shot by a world-famous photographer, and before long these three beautiful nobodies from Brooklyn have been proclaimed the new “It” girls.

But with no parental guidance–Mom’s a former beauty queen living vicariously through her daughters, and Dad is nowhere to be found–the three girls find themselves easy prey for the sharks and piranhas of show business. Posing in every hot fashion magazine, tangling with snarling fashonistas and soulless agents, skipping school and hitting A-list parties, the sisters are caught up in a whirlwind rise to fame that quickly spirals out of control.

When Amelia, the youngest of the three–who never really wanted to be a model in the first place–appears in an Off-Broadway play, the balance of power shifts, all the pent-up resentment and pressure comes to a head, and the girls’ quiet, neglected brother reaches a critical point of virtual breakdown. And against the odds, even as the struggle for fame threatens to tear the family apart, the Hellers begin to see that despite the jealousy, greed, and uncertainty that have come to define their relationships, in the celebrity world of viciousness and betrayal, all they really have is one another."

First line: "Now that it's all over, everybody is saying it was the picture, that stupid picture was behind every disaster that would eventually befall my redheaded sisters."

My thoughts: This was a fun read. I can really see why it won the Alex Award (for adult books that are appealing to teens) - it's actually not far from a YA novel, just a bit longer. The characters are teens and it's fast-paced with lots of glamour and glitz. But at its heart, it has the relationships of the four siblings. These seem fragile, non-existent, hate-filled, and just confused at times, but in the end, the Heller children really do only have each other. As with lots of actual YA novels, the adults in this book are horrifyingly neglectful and damaging! Their father buggered off and started a new family, their mother is a drunk, faded beauty queen who wants to live out her dreams through her daughters no matter what harm it does them, and the agent looking out for their interests is a piranha/parasite who will stay with them only as long as they make her money. Another awful but entertaining adult is the cutthroat, very scary Hollywood mover and shaker woman who is enormous, wears caftans, and claims to be Kafka's great-granddaughter. The way everyone treats Phillip is appalling - that he survives, hangs on to his sanity, and still manages to love his sisters is amazing. At the photo shoot Phillip describes dancing with his sisters as a lot of fun and basically the last moment they'll have like that for a while and it's really lovely.

Each sibling gets a chance to narrate, which could have been annoying but wasn't, it added to the story. Amelia really sounds 14, Phillip sounds like a confused teen boy who wants things to be okay and to do the right thing (and who is actually really smart), sexy party girl Polly tries hard takes charge when the chips are down and Daria is coolly imperious but very capable (though she is taken down a much-needed peg or two). The appearances of odd hairdresser Laura add considerably to things - Phillip has a crush on her and she turns out to be very resourceful, even if her ability to filter her thoughts as they come out of her mouth is nonexistent.

It's not Kafka, but this book is entertaining, heartbreaking, funny, and satisfying with a close look at the manipulating and just badness behind Hollywood and also at sibling relationships.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: All is Vanity

All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz

2.5 stars

Reasons for reading: book club selection, hardcover book for Four Month Challenge

Description: "In All is Vanity, Margaret and Letty, best friends since childhood and now living on opposite coasts, reach their mid-thirties and begin to chafe at their sense that they are not where they ought to be in life. Margaret, driven and overconfident, decides the best way to rectify this is to quit her job and whip out a literary tour de force. Frustrated almost immediately and humiliated at every turn, Margaret turns to Letty for support. But as Letty, a stay-at-home mother of four, begins to feel pressured to make a good showing in the upper-middle-class Los Angeles society into which her husband’s new job has thrust her, Margaret sees a plot unfolding that’s better than anything she could make up. Desperate to finish her book and against her better nature, she pushes Letty to take greater and greater risks, and secretly steals her friend’s stories as fast as she can live them. Hungry for the world’s regard, Margaret rashly sacrifices one of the things most precious to her, until the novel’s suspenseful conclusion shows her the terrible consequences of her betrayal."

First line: "I was a promising child."

My thoughts: Well, none of the book club members liked this one much. We felt there were some sparks of good writing, but the two main characters were a bitch (Margaret) and an idiot (Letty). Letty's financial situation spiralled out of control too quickly and too ridiculously for it to be believable. The book is referred to as satire, so I suppose that was supposed to be the satirical element about consumerism. Still didn't make it an enjoyable read. The person who chose the book had heard it was great, but couldn't remember where and now doesn't know why anyone would say it! One thought was that it does describe how difficult the writing process is and how people tend to treat would-be authors as though it's very simple. So maybe other writers liked it for that!

The verdict: No-one thought it was actually all that badly written, but overall it wasn't enjoyable and neither character got our sympathy.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Review: Summer at Tiffany

Summer at Tiffany by Marjorie Hart
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I have an interest in Tiffany and New York history; sounded good; Autobiography for Four Month Challenge

Description: "New York City, 1945. Marjorie Jacobson and her best friend, Marty Garrett, arrive fresh from the Kappa house at the University of Iowa hoping to find summer positions as shopgirls. Turned away from the top department stores, they miraculously find jobs as pages at Tiffany & Co., becoming the first women to ever work on the sales floor, a diamond-filled day job replete with Tiffany-blue shirtwaist dresses from Bonwit Teller's—and the envy of all their friends.

Looking back on that magical time in her life, Marjorie takes us back to when she and Marty rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, pinched pennies to eat at the Automat, experienced nightlife at La Martinique, and danced away their weekends with dashing midshipmen. Between being dazzled by Judy Garland's honeymoon visit to Tiffany, celebrating VJ Day in Times Square, and mingling with Cafe society, she fell in love, learned unforgettable lessons, made important decisions that would change her future, and created the remarkable memories she now shares with all of us."

First line: "From the top deck of the bus, Marty and I were mesmerized by Fifth Avenue as we watched glamorous stores spring up like pages out of Mademoiselle."

My thoughts: This was a love letter to the bygone days of New York City and to Tiffany & Co. I enjoyed the first-hand descriptions of everything from eating at the Automat (I wish we still had them!) to VJ day. The celebrity visitors to the store were my favourite parts - giddy newlywed Judy Garland and sultry Marlene Dietrich, whom I didn't know had been so dedicated to the USO. I loved the stories of the inner workings of the grand store - the amazing secret elevator that could run by itself, the way the salesmen "rang" their diamond rings on the glass counters to call the pages, and the amazing goods to be had on every floor. And really, it was quite an amazing feat that two girls from Iowa could walk into Tiffany and be hired as the first women to serve on the shop floor.

This isn't an earth-shattering book, but it provides a brief look at a pivotal summer in North American (and world) history and at places and a way of life that are basically lost to us forever.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: Amy and Roger's Epic Detour

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour by Morgan Matson
4.5 stars

Reasons for reading: it looked fun, YA Challenge, Book with proper name in title for Four Month Challenge

Description: "Amy Curry thinks her life sucks. Her mom decides to move from California to Connecticut to start anew--just in time for Amy's senior year. Her dad recently died in a car accident. So Amy embarks on a road trip to escape from it all, driving cross-country from the home she's always known toward her new life. Joining Amy on the road trip is Roger, the son of Amy's mother's old friend. Amy hasn’t seen him in years, and she is less than thrilled to be driving across the country with a guy she barely knows. So she's surprised to find that she is developing a crush on him. At the same time, she’s coming to terms with her father’s death and how to put her own life back together after the accident. Told in traditional narrative as well as scraps from the road--diner napkins, motel receipts, postcards--this is the story of one girl's journey to find herself."

First line: "I sat on the front steps of my house and watched the beige Subaru station wagon swing too quickly around the cul-de-sac."

My thoughts: I loved this book! It absolutely made me want to head out on a road trip right this minute. In fact, the descriptions of Kentucky have bumped it up near the top of my to-visit list. The inclusion of the souvenirs from the road was fun and I liked Amy's notes on the different states (many of them are varying degrees of "big") and the couple of times she makes a note to herself not to talk to Roger about cult favourites like Hoosiers (in Indiana) and The Wire (in Maryland) because he can go on and on and on about them. I loved that they explore regional fast food, after getting over their disappointment that In n Out burgers are a west coast thing. Their reaction to the wonders of Sonic was very similar to mine (they have cherry-limeaid! and mozzarella sticks!) a couple of years ago. I'm now also dying to try Chick-fil-A.

But it's not all happy times - Amy is still incredibly traumatized by her dad's death, which she believes is her fault (the truth behind the accident is revealed slowly through flashbacks and while it's not a big surprise, it's still heartbreaking to read). Roger is dealing with being suddenly dumped by a goddess-like but very bitchy girl and he can't quite get over her. So, rather than follow Amy's mom's boring route, they set out on their epic detour to get some answers and find some closure. They meet some interesting folks along the way, like the golf course lawn-mower who fronts a Wizard of Oz-inspired band in Kansas (of course). And there's music, too! Amy is a musical theatre actress and Roger has eclectic tastes, which show up in his the iPod playlists.

The verdict: Join Roger and Amy on their journey before summer's officially over - you won't regret it!