Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Booklog: The Boy in the Basement, Finding Lubchenko, The Improbable Cat

The Boy in the Basement
, by Susan Shaw

Charlie lives in the basement, because Charlie was bad. Father has decreed that Charlie must stay in the basement, and so Charlie does. At night, when Father is asleep, Charlie sneaks upstairs and has some bread and peanut butter and water from the tap, and he opens the back door to pee. One night, Charlie accidentally locks himself out, and confused and delirious, he wanders until somebody finds him and takes him to the hospital. There, Charlie struggles with hallucinations, terrors and illness, and when he recovers, he is placed in a loving foster home. But while Charlie may have physically recovered from his illness, mentally and emotionally, he has a long way to go.

This is a powerful and sometimes horrifying story of extreme child abuse and recovery. Charlie's abusive father looms as a powerful and terrifying figure in Charlie's mind. Father has effectively cut Charlie off from the world, telling him that if he ever went outside, he would be ruined, and so Charlie literally knows nothing of the world. Large outdoor spaces frighten him, and he has never heard of Christmas, Halloween, soccer, or love. While parts of this book are difficult to read, Charlie's recovery and slow reintroduction to the world is inspiring.


Finding Lubchenko, by Michael Simmons

Evan Macalister describes himself as a "poor kid living in wealth and comfort." His dad, Evan Macalister Sr, the millionaire owner of a succesful pharmaceutical company, believes (a)that hardship builds character, and (b)that his son is good for nothing. Evan must work as an office aide at his dad's company to make pocket money to buy stuff like tshirts and sneakers, let alone movies and pizza. And so Evan does what any other resourceful, up-to-no-good teenager would do: he steals office supplies - dvd burners, printers, and laptops - from the company and sells them on ebay. Life is good - his dad is fingered for murder and bioterrorism. And the only evidence that could exonerate him is on a laptop that Evan has stolen. Evan is faced with a choice: turn in the laptop and face his father's ire (and maybe go to jail), or solve the mystery himself. And so Evan and his two best friends jet off to Paris to search for a man named Lubchenko, who may hold the key to proving his father's innocence.

Someone on Amazon called this "Ferris Bueller Goes to Paris," and that's a pretty apt description. Evan is irreverant and up to no good, but also immensely likeable. Even as he can't stand his rigid, Scottish Lutheran father, he can't let him get fingered for a crime he knows he didn't commit. Evan is a ridiculous amount of fun, and so is this novel. He drags his best friends - and us - on a madcap, ridiculous adventure across Paris - and of course, against all odds, succeeds in saving the day. This is a fun, fast-paced read. It's not too deep or too serious, but it isn't meant to be. How can anyone resist Ferris Bueller meets James Bond? I am very excited to read the sequal.


The Improbable Cat, by Allan Ahlberg

It was a quiet summer night when the little grey kitten came limping into David's backyard, miawing pitifully. His family instantly fell in love with the kitten and welcomed it into their home. David, allergic to cats and loyal to his dog, stayed far away from the cat, and was therefore the only one to notice when his family started to act suspiciously strange. At the beginning, they only started to be spacey and irritable, but then it got worse. His mother would go shopping and only bring home large amounts of expensive fish and meat - for the cat. His father took to smoking again. His sister, once lively, would only sit on the couch, stroke the cat, and watch game shows. And that wasn't all. The cat was growing at an enourmous rate, far quicker than a normal kitten should. When David returns from a camping trip, he finds his house in shambles, his father drunk, and the cat - has turned into something enourmous and uncatlike. It will take all of David's skill and courage to figure out how to oust the cat and save his family.

This very short book reads like a ghost story told around the campfire. It is atmospheric and genuinely scary, and pulls you in and makes you turn the pages faster and faster, eager to find out what the cat is, and what David can possibly do to save his family. But the end is weak. Like many ghost stories, it doesn't tie everything up - indeed, it clearly admits that sometimes you never really know what happened and how, just that it happened. But I still wanted to know! I wanted to know what the cat was, and what it wanted, and what David's father meant when he said "Not much longer now, don't spoil things." I wanted to know!

Booklog: Harmless, The Bermudez Triangle, Kissing Kate

Harmless, by Dana Reinhardt

Anna, Emma and Maria were out where they weren't supposed to be, when one of them got a call from her parents. Where was she? Why weren't they where they were supposed to be? To keep themselves from getting in trouble, they concoct a lie, a story of a foiled rape attempt. They never expect how far their lie will go, and how much it will spiral out of their control. Before they know it, their harmless little lie has taken on a life of its own, and their lives have changed more than they ever expected.

This is a powerful, thought-provoking story, told from the POVs of the three girls in alternating chapters. Each of the three are unique, well-defined characters who change and grow believably as events progress. From quiet, dorky Anna to tomboyish Emma to sexy, cool Mariah, none of the girls stay a stereotype for long. This is a fascinating look at a lie spiralled out of control, at the way one thoughtless decision can have catastrophic consequences. It's tight and compelling and will keep you turning pages to the inevitable end.


The Bermudez Triangle
, by Maureen Johnson

Nina, Avery and Mel have been best friends all of their lives. And now, for the first time, as Nina heads off to precollege camp in the summer after their junior year, they are going to be apart. But how much could happen in ten weeks? As it turns out, plenty. Nina falls in love with Steve, the eco-warrior down the hall. And while she is away, Mel has her first kiss, too - with Avery.

This book is not as good as the other Maureen Johnson books. As you may know, I consider Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes to be possibly the best teen novel ever, so I was kind of dissapointed in this book. The premise seemed a little Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants to me, but unlike those girls, we never really see how the girls mesh as friends. Even though they talk a lot about how close they are, and how much they care about each other, it's hard to see. The bond between them feels more - well, fictional - than actual. It's not a bad book. Mel's struggle to come to grips with her homosexuality, as well as Avery's to understand whether she's homosexual, bi, or just in love with her best friend are compelling. But Nina's relationship with Steve is predictable. And the book drags, and ends on a vague, undefined note that left me feeling vaguely unfulfilled.


Kissing Kate, by Lauren Myracle

Lissa and Kate have been best friends for the last four years, but all that changes when, while drunk at a party, Kate kisses Lissa - and Lissa kisses Kate back. Now, there is an awkward tension and silence between them, the kiss hanging heavy and unmentioned over their friendship. While Kate keeps trying to pretend it never happens, Lissa is struggling to understand what the kiss meant to her - and what it means for her relationship with Kate. As Kate pushes her further and further away, Lissa must turn to a new unlikely friend to help herself sort out what she really feels and what she really wants.

First of all, I hate books where the protagonist claims that their ex-best friend isn't talking to them anymore since they had a fight, but it's patently obvious that the protag themselves is the one avoiding the best friend. Especially when Lissa is waiting desperately for Kate to call her, so they can talk after a week of awkward silence, even though Kate told her straight up "we need to talk - please call me." This is an awkward book that had the potential to be so much more. The relationship between Lissa and her younger sister Beth is beautiful, and I wish it had been explored more, along with their family dynamic (the girls are raised by their bachelor uncle; their parents were killed in a plane crash.) Lissa just shuts Kate out, while Kate keeps trying to work things out - yet Lissa repeatedly blames Kate for their distance. And even though the narrative keeps insisting that Lissa and Kate were insperable for so long, we don't even understand thier friendship during Lissa's frequent flashbacks. Kate is such a one-dimensional character that it's hard to understand how Lissa could feel so strongly about her. And towards the conclusion, Kate's denial of her newfound sexuality and desperate attempts to cling to the platonic friendship they once had is painted as cowardice - which strikes me as unfair. Just because Lissa can deal with her newfound sexuality so easily doesn't mean that Kate should - and how can it be wrong for Kate to miss her friendship.

This book ends so abruptly that I was left trying to remember if I had finished it only a couple of hours after I had.

Booklog: Life As We Knew It, How I Live Now, While I Live (sometimes known as the "Life" trilogy)

Life As We Knew It
, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Miranda is a typical teenager, and her diary reflects that: changing friendships, fights with her mom, and homework. When she begins to hear reports that an astroid is on course to crash into the moon, she barely pays attention. But when the collision shifts the moon off its axis, Miranda's world is changed forever in an instant. Massive tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanos wipe out millions, and all of the things Miranda used to take for granted begin to dissapear: food, water, gasoline, and contact with the outside world. Miranda records her family's struggle to survive in her diary, and we follow as things go from bad to worse.

This was my second disaster book in two days. It is completely different from How I Live Now, but possibly even more compelling. It feels real. It feels like something that could happen to us, right now. This is a quiet book. We don't see New York submerged, and we're not witness to the volcanos - all we see is Miranda's family, stockpiling food, rationing batteries, and clinging to each other. We see them grow and mature and adjust. This is a haunting book. It's been three days since I finished it, and I still can't get it out of my head. I literally could not put it down. Buy this book. Buy it now, and then set aside some time and start to read it. It is just that good.


How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

In the not-too-distant future, Daisy, a Manhattan resident, is sent to live with her cousins on the English countryside. At first, the English countryside is something of a paradise. Daisy forms an instant bond with her cousin Edmond, and she spends her days gallivanting with her cousins. Until the war comes. A nameless enemy invades England. At first, Daisy and her cousins live in a sort of untouched paradise, separated from the war by the countryside. But then the war finds them, and Daisy and her cousin Piper are separated from the boys.

This book is clever and engaging and it draws you in and then it breaks your heart. I didn't expect the direction the book took. It shocked me. I kept thinking that something would change, that the direction would turn back, but it didn't, and that is the brilliance of this book. It is a war story, and in war, things often start out kind of okay and then move to awful. It feels true. It hurts. Daisy's voice is incredibly vivid - I can almost hear it in my head even now, a week after reading it. Daisy, her family, her world - they all stand out in stark colors in my head. This is one of those great books that lingers in your heart after you've finished reading.


While I Live: The Ellie Chronicles #1, by John Marsden

It is four months since the war ended, and for Ellie Linton, life is slowly returning to some form of normalcy. She is living on her family farm with her parents and helping to pick up the pieces of their life. She is back in school, and is slowly reclaiming who she was before the war. And then, in the blink of an eye, devestating tragedy strikes. Now, Ellie must pick up the pieces all over again and struggle to hold on to everything that she's managed to build. And this time, some of her enemies are closer to home.

If you haven't read Tommorow, When the War Began and its sequals, then go out and read them, and then read this book. They are about a group of teenagers who, upon returning from a camping trip, discover that their country has been invaded, their houses ransacked, and their families taken captive. Those books blew me out of the water. They are so well-written, so intense that I literally could not breathe at times when I was reading them. You know how when something traumatizing happens, something that shocks you, that image is indelibly burnt on your brain - a snapshot of the moment? One of the scenes in those books is like that for me. Indelibely burned. I still gasp for breathe when I think about how it felt when I read it - like a punch in the gut. That's how good these books are.

I was a little afraid to start reading While I Live. I knew that Ellie's narrative would grab me, and I knew that if something bad happened to her, it would hurt me. It would hurt me a lot, the way the life of a character you have spent seven books with matters to you. And I was right. Ellie's tragedy made me gasp with pain. And that's when I knew that John Marsden hadn't lost it, that even after a war, even during an uneasy truce, these books were still carried by Ellie's strong voice. These books are good. They are as good as their predecessors, if quieter (at least in part.) I am hungrily looking forward to more books in the Ellie Chronicles.

Booklog: Zazoo, The Black Tattoo, Fairest

, by Richard Mosher

Thirteen-year-old Zazoo is an orphaned Vietnamese girl who lives on the quiet banks of a French canal with her elderly adoptive Grand-Pierre. Her life is peaceful, marked only by worries about her increasingly aged and beloved grandfather. One day, her life is disturbed by a seemingly chance encounter with a boy on a bicycle who asks questions that lead Zazoo to start to question her grandfather's past. What happened to him during World War II, which he calls the Awful Time? And why do the villagers call him a hero, but seem to be afraid of him?

This is a quiet story about past life and present, filled with missed romance and romance that spans generations. Zazoo's narrative is lively and sweet and innocent, peppered with poetry and occasional true insight. And the mystery of Grand-Pierre's past, as well as the motives of Zazoo's bicycling friend, are compelling enough to move the story to its very beautiful and touching end. It's not an exciting story, but it is a lovely one.


The Black Tattoo
, by Sam Enthoven

Jack's best friend, Charlie, has always been cooler than him. So when Charlie is chosen out of the blue to be the leader of a mysterious demon-fighting Brotherhood, Jack can't help but follow his friend. But when Charlie sports a moving black tattoo on his back overnight, and starts exhibiting superpowers, Jack begins to worry - and rightly so. Because Charlie hasn't just joined a secret Brotherhood - he's actually been possessed by the very demon they are sworn to fight, and the demon is using Charlie as a pawn in his quest to destroy all of existance. And so, Jack and Esme, a girl who has trained all her life to fight the demon, will follow Charlie into the very depths of Hell to stop the demon and save Charlie - if they can.

The cover copy was intriguing. The book, however, was nothing like I anticipated. Charlie gets possessed very suddenly, before we have a chance to care about him, or Jack. Esme is introduced, but only barely - we hardly know her enough to care about her. And before we know it, our characters have been catapulted into Hell, which is another dimension, accessable through a pub, where everything changes. The story segways into a demonic gladiator scenario, and then jumps and jumps again, from plot point to derivative plot point. The story as a whole, I suppose, is original, but it's so choppy that it's hard to follow or even care. The characters are undeveloped, to the point that I found that I really didn't care if they lived or died. This book is totally and completely forgettable.


Fairest, by Gail Carson Levine

Aza is not just not pretty: she is downright ugly. Tall and broad with an unpleasant complexion and dull black hair, she is so unattractive that she was abandoned by her (probably noble) parents in a room in the Featherbed Inn when she was a baby. Luck was on her side, however, and her adoptive parents raised her with love. Now, as an adult, Aza posesses one of her country's most prized talents - a powerful and beautiful singing voice. Through a twist of fate, Aza finds herself journeying to the royal court for the royal wedding - and winds up in the favor of the beautiful new queen. What seems like royal good luck soon becomes royal danger as the queen forces Aza to use her talents in her service. Aza must figure her way out of a royal mess before she ends up dead or worse.

With Ella Enchanted, Gail Carson Levine hit the nail on the head. Ella was the perfect rewritten fairy tale - a compelling plot independant of the familiar fairy tale, an engaging heroine, a genuinely likeable prince, and truly despicable villains, not to mention a structure for the story that made perfect sense. In Fairest, GCL tries to capture the same magic again, and fails miserably. It's the same formula, but it doesn't work as well. Aza isn't half as likeable as Ella, with her desperate longing to be pretty, and the prince feels like we're supposed to like him because GCL thinks he should be likeable - but he isn't, at all. The whole structure, with the Ayorthan emphasis on singing, feels forced and kind of stupid. The twists feel unnatural. It reads like the poorer, less interesting cousin of Ella Enchanted. Completely underwhelming.

Booklog: 13 Little Blue Envelopes, The Silent Room, Midnighters #1

13 Little Blue Envelopes
, by Maureen Johnson

Ginny's Aunt Peg was free-spirited and whimsical and magical and unpredictable and wonderful - and then, as suddenly and unpredictably as she had lived, without giving her family any warning at all, she died. A few months later, Ginny recieved a package in the mail from Aunt Peg - a package containing a letter. Contained in the letter was $1000 and instructions to buy a plane ticket to London and visit Aunt Peg's favorite restuarant. At the restuarant, Ginny found the rest of Aunt Peg's package - a packet of thirteen little blue envelopes, with instructions to open each one only after she had completed the task in the previous one. And so off Ginny went to London, to follow Aunt Peg's legacy.

This book is one of those rare, nearly perfect teen novels. It is just. so. good. Ginny is an immensely likeable protagonist, and while her adventures backpacking across Europe ought to be fictionally glamorous, they alternate between being wonderful and unglamorously lonely - ie, realistic. There is romance, but not too much of it - enough to keep things interesting, but not the focus of the book by any means. No, this book is about Ginny's journey of discovery - both about herself and about the aunt she's always idolized. It reads poignant and funny and painful and true, with a couple of twists that I didn't expect, but that made perfect sense. I really loved this book.


The Silent Room
, by Walter Sorrells

This is another of my Wicked Parent books. I know, it's cliche, I still can't help but be grabbed by it, every time. In this book, written as a series of letters from Oz to his deceased father, Oz's mother remarries Don, a cruel man who sets out to sneakily destroy Oz's life. He is brutal and mean to Oz, and his mother turns a blind eye, but the worst comes when Don sets Oz up for drug possession, and Oz is sent off to Briarwood, a school for the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquants. Even though Oz knows that it's all a mistake, he is unprepared for the brutality of Briarwood - until he begins to realize that there's something more than a simple rehab school going on. There's something bigger and far more dangerous, and if he and the other kids can't work together to figure it out, he - and his mother - may not survive it.

It's an intriguing premise, but if it sounds familiar, that's because it is remeniscent of Louis Sachar's Holes. It feels like the same premise too, if more violent and harsh. It starts strong - so strong that at times, it turned my stomach - but it got weaker as the book went on. Oz's voice was strong and steady throughout, but all the rest of the supporting cast - from the villainous teachers to Oz's fellow students - felt one-dimensional and shallow. It was a dramatic, thrilling It was an okay read, but nothing to write home about.


Midnighters #1: The Secret Hour, by Scott Westerfeld

At exactly midnight, the world as we know it stops - for one hour. This is the time when the ancient creatures of primal human nightmare prowl, the only time that they exist in the world. During the secret hour, all humans are frozen - except for the Midnighters. Born on exactly the stroke of midnight, the Midnighters are awake and active during the secret hours. Each of them has a gift that helps them navigate the secret hour and protect them from the darklings. And during the secret hour, they and the darklings exist in a sort of uneasy truce - until Jessica Day comes to town. And then, everything changes.

On the scale of Scott Westerfeld books, these are better than the Uglies books, but not as good as the Peeps books. They're fairly good, but they read far more like a series with an unpredicted number of volumes than a finite trilogy (or duology,) and as such, they move a little bit slower. The characters take longer to become interesting, or likeable, and the secrets are doled out slower. One of the things I liked so much about the Peeps books was how quickly things happened, how things actually happened instead of dragging on, and that's missing in these books. That said, it's an engaging start. The secret hour is intriguing - as several reviewers have already said, who hasn't wanted an extra hour in the day? - and the different skills of the Midnighters are interesting. I look forward to reading the next book in this series.

Booklog: Wide Awake, Octavian Nothing, Rules of Survival

Wide Awake
, by David Levithan

Wide Awake pretends to be a political novel in the cover blurb, but to me, it reads a little bit more like a political science fiction novel than I had expected. It feels like a fantasy of politics, when things work like they should work, like we want them to work, and not like they actually work.

Duncan, our protagonist, is a gay Jewish teen in a not too distant future when a gay Jewish man has just been elected president of the USA. This not too distant future is an interesting place. For one thing, there's a lot of interesting politics in the past - a McCarthy-esque political rampage, a government waging war on just about everybody, a Great Depression, etc. For another, now that they're past it, things are - a lot better. Duncan is openly gay, and involved with his boyfriend Jimmy, and that's just not a big deal. I liked that. In most of the books I've read that had gay characters, even gay characters who were proud and comfortable with thier orientation, it's always just an issue. It's there, like a small white elephant in the room. In this book, it just doesn't seem important. The important thing isn't that Duncan is gay - it's his relationship with Jimmy. It just feels so healthy. It's refreshing.

The book starts as Abraham Stein, a gay Jew, has been elected president, and continues as his oponents try to claim that his lead was faked. And Duncan and his friends, who have been working on Stein's campaign all along, are involved in the effort to help fight to keep Stein's win.

It's a cool book. In some ways, it reads more like the fantasy of the perfect political world than anything else - a little bit too optimistic, a little bit too nice. But even so, it's refreshing to read about a world like this, a society like this - and to look forward and hope that someday it will become a reality.


The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson

The shocking Octavian Nothing is nothing like I expected it to be. The cover copy made me suspect fantasy of a sort, some sort of fascinating historical fantasy with some mystery and science involved. The true story is nothing like that at all, but is, rather, far more shocking.

Octavian grows up in a house where he and his mother Cassiopeia are the only ones with names. All the other men of the house have numerical denominations instead. Octavian is trained carefully and educated in all of the finest arts and fields. Everything about him is carefully studied, down to the weight of his feces. For Octavian is an African slave, bought in utero along with his mother, to be the prime subject of an experiment to discover whether an African boy, given the same training as a Caucasian boy, is capable of the same intelligence, the same excellence. Oh, and all this is taking place during the Revolutionary War, in a manor-house in Boston. And that's only the very beginning of the story.

Octavian Nothing is not fantasy, and it is not for the light-hearted. This is a treatise on slavery at a time when it had not yet become a contested issue in the states, for there were not even states yet. It is a book about what makes a man, and what it means to be a thinking person. And it is a book about slavery. It is fascinating and compelling and, at times, shocking in its intensity. It's not a book to be taken lightly. But it is definitly a book worth reading.


The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin

The Wicked Parent is one of my book kinks. If there's a Wicked Parent in the story, I am in. This is not just a Wicked Parent story, but a really rivetting, excellently written one. In The Rules of Survival, Matt, the oldest of three children, writes a letter to his youngest sister, Emmy, detailing their experiences with their dangerously unstable mother. He says that he is not sure if he will ever give it to her, but that he wants to get it down on paper. He describes how he and his sisters grew up at the whim of their mother, Nikki, whose mood swings and manic obsession with fun controlled thier life. Matt tells how fear and constant vigilance defined life for himself and his sister Callie, as they tried to predict and work with Nikki's moods, and to protect Emmy from her.

This book is powerful and utterly impossible to put down. Matt and Callie's struggles to survive living with their mother are compelling. At one point, Matt mentions that he once thought about telling a teacher about his mother's behavior, but then he realized that nothing he could say could make what Nikki did sound as bad as it was, and the dangers of the foster system were enough to scare him into silence. What's shocking is not just Matt's struggle, without the aid of any of the grownups who should have been there to step in and protect them from their mother (his divorced father, their aunt who lived next door) but the idea that there really could be children living like this, right now. Matt's struggles strike true. They feel real, real enough that someone else, someone real, could be living in just that sort of situation. The Rules of Survival is a compelling, well-written story that is well worth a read.

Introducing a Kidlit Junkie

I'm a kidlit junkie. Not only do I love children's books, but I work in a children's bookstore where I get to read and recommend books to children (and adults buying for children) all day long.

This blog is for keeping a record of what I've read and what I think, and also for general reactions and discussion about kidlit these days (a certain Newberry winner with a contraversial word on page 1 comes to mind.)

And so, onward! You know what they say. So many books, etc etc.