Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Penny Dreadful - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge! This week's book is:

Snyder, Laurel. Penny Dreadful. Drawings by Abigail Halpin. New York: Random House, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9761350]

After spending most of her life living in a mansion with a tutor and a chef and "approved" friends with impeccable manners and hardly any personality, Penelope wishes, at the wishing well in her backyard of course, for something, anything interesting to happen to her. But interesting is not always as fun as it looks in the books Penelope spends her days reading. When her dad quits his job and her family runs out of money, Penelope quickly makes another, more specific wish. Instead of wishing for anything, she wishes for something to fix the multitude of problems left behind by all the "interesting" going on in her life and suddenly finds herself moving to Thrush Junction in the country, which for Penelope, might as well be a whole new world.

This is a hard book to summarize because the beginning is so incredibly different from the rest of the book. It all goes together. The difference doesn't cause any jarring shifts for the reader, and circumstances in the opening make the rest of the book make sense, but this is not a book about a little rich girl who moves to the county, as the first couple chapters would have you believe. Yes, Penelope has grown up rich, but finances quickly deteriorate in the Grey household after her father leaves his job. As the whole family figures out how to live without a chef, a housekeeper, or even a steady income, this becomes a book about figuring out what is really important. Houses and furniture can be let go; your family (and your books!) you take with you. Once that family gets to Thrush Junction, however, this becomes a book about finding yourself, making friends, and feeling and helping others to feel welcome. It's about community.

But I didn't think any of this while I was reading. While reading Penny Dreadful, this was just a book about Penelope, who wanted to go out and experience life. She needed to become Penny instead, and in Thrush Junction, she finds just the right people to help her do just that.

Thrush Junction is populated with a bunch of oddballs, many of whom live at Whippoorwillows with the Greys. Penelope, who has never really had friends before, must come out of her shell, and Luella is the perfect girl to drag her out. As Penelope, now Penny, learns how to have and be a friend, Luella introduces her to the rest of their little town. There's Down-Betty who was in vaudeville, Duncan who might be allergic to EVERYTHING and so is barely allowed to eat anything, Kay who runs the town diner, Jasper who is Luella's other best friend, Twent who can't say his r's (and has two moms!), and a whole bunch of other folks. The whole thing reminded me of Because of Winn-Dixie, but with a buried treasure legend instead of a dog. It has a feel-good feeling throughout that is infectious, even though the Greys money worries are a constant hum in the background. Things can be a bit episodic, but that's because that's how summer is sometimes. It's all about the people that come and go and the fun things that you get to do together for one day.

It's great to see so much diversity in the characters. In addition to Twent's two moms, Luella and her family are black, there is a wide range of ages at Whippoorwillows (and not all the old folks are grandparents), non-traditional gender roles within otherwise traditional family units, and a character who is deaf (can't tell you which without a spoiler). And there are no big deals made about any of it. These are all simply people that Penny meets during her adventures in her new town, and it's great to see them represented in literature just because they exist in real life rather than to Teach a Lesson to readers about how Everyone's the Same on the Inside!

I should also add that Penny Dreadful is also peppered with drawings by Abigail Halpin. Rather than distracting from the text, as I often think in-text illustrations do in chapter books, they add to it. My ARC only has preliminary sketches, but from those, I can tell that they're going to be awesomely full of life and emotion. My favorite one is of Penny is straggling behind Luella and Jasper on the sidewalk with the most sour look on her face ever, though the drawing of Twent "wahwing" is a close second. :)

Penny Dreadful comes out in hardback today!

Book source: ARC picked up at ALA.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Duff

Keplinger, Kody. The Duff (designated ugly fat friend). New York: Poppy - Little, Brown and Company, 2010.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9731272]

Bianca is having a rough time of it. Her mom is out of town a lot. Her two best friends insist on dragging her to The Nest, a teen nightclub, every weekend. She still can't form coherent sentences in front of her long-time crush. And then Wesley, a world-class sleaseball sits down next to her at the "bar," and tries to make friends. It'll up his chances of nailing one of Bianca's hot besties, he says, being nice to their Duff, their designated ugly fat friend who they only keep around to make themselves look hotter. So Bianca does what any self-respecting girl would do: she throws her cherry coke in his face. And then she makes out with him?

I started this book ready to be disappointed. There's been so much hype, and not all of it good, that I didn't think The Duff could possibly live up to it. Then I opened it and found a pessimistic, foul-mouthed main character that I didn't think I'd grow to care about. I brought an extra book with me to read on my commute so that i could put this one down as soon as I'd read the obligatory 50 pages (this is my personal rule for books sent to me for review). Next thing I know, I'd almost missed my train stop because I was so sucked in.

Bianca's relationship with Wesley is clearly complicated, though she tries to play it off as the simplest thing ever: just sex. Wesley seems okay with this arrangement and helps Bianca keep up appearances at school and everywhere else for a while. They hate each other. He's a man-slut, womanizing, cocky little brat, representing everything that Bianca, a smart and confident young woman, despises. And he calls her "Duffy," constantly reminding her that he's way out of her league and that their relationship could never go public. For the most part, they maintain a snarky banter both in and out of the bedroom (it's very 10 Things I Hate About You). Until they don't. Bianca is having some very real problems at home that she's avoiding by spending all of her time with Wesley. She can ignore things when she's with him; her friends will want to help and make her talk about it. Wesley just asks her if she's okay and then listens; he doesn't push. Maybe this is because he doesn't actually care (likely in Bianca's opinion) or maybe, as she comes to figure out, it's because he has real problems that he doesn't want to talk about either.

Other reviewers have said that the relationships between Bianca and her friends is what "saved" this book for them. Their friendship is sweet, fierce and awesome. They build each other up with nary an insult. Bianca ditches her friends for Wesley and doesn't even tell them about him. I think this happens a lot (it certainly did when I was in college), and to see it portrayed here was great. Bianca's friends are both pissed and worried, and both those sentiments are clearly expressed. No one is one-dimensional. When Bianca finally spills all to her friends, they (mostly) forgive her. Casey decides to make the word duff theirs. Instead of having a fat day or a bad hair day or even a zit, they say it's their turn to be the Duff. Though the word catches Bianca off guard throughout the book, it loses it's power to make her feel ugly and fat, exactly what the word is supposed to imply.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It's all about relationships, between Bianca and her friends, Bianca and her parents, Bianca and Wesley, but it's not weighed down by emotional drama. Sure, there are really emotionally draining parts of this book, especially when it comes to Bianca and her parents, but they are tempered by sarcasm, sex, and Bianca's own personality.

Book source: ARC provided by the publisher.

Now, about the SEX:
Feel free to skip this part. I wrote my thesis on Forever... by Judy Blume and its effect on the uses and appearances of sex in literature for girls, and I saw in an interview (that I can no longer find - if it was on your blog, let me know so I can link to it!) that Keplinger was inspired by the frank discussions of sex in Forever... when writing The Duff. I can't let that just go without comment and comparison.

Now, in Forever..., there is a whole chapter about going to Planned Parenthood for birth control. There is an author's note in every edition published since AIDS became known and prevalent about how birth control is no longer enough, protecting oneself against STIs is just as important as preventing pregnancy. This information, both in the PP chapter and the author's note, are pretty separate from the story. Yes, going to PP is a turning point for Katherine, showing that she's ready to have sex, but the wealth of information about exactly what happens in a birth control appointment has nothing to do with the story. It's there so that readers aren't afraid to make that appointment themselves; it's showing them how to do it in real life.* It's very didactic. It's very 80s. For a book published in the 70s, it was very ahead of its time.

We don't get that in The Duff. This book has boatloads of sex, but it's not the this-is-how-it's-done sex that appears in Blume. The sex in The Duff is not graphic. It doesn't happen "off-screen," but the reader is not treated to a play-by-play all that often. What is present, however, is the word condom every time Bianca and Wesley do it. It's much more subtle than Blume's way of telling readers to use precaution, but because of that, it's less likely to be skimmed. It's right there in the story. It's natural, almost taken for granted, that Wesley and Bianca will use a condom every time. Later on, Bianca mentions that she's been on birth control for years. It's no big deal. She went on birth control (with her mother's knowledge) when she started having sex. It's just what you do.

Unfortunately, I don't think either approach is all that realistic. It is for some teens, thank goodness, but not for all. Both books also show a teen pregnancy or pregnancy scare. Blume is, again, way more obvious about it. If you don't do as I've shown you, you'll have a baby instead of going to Smith! But Keplinger, too, aims to show consequences. When Bianca is talking to Vikki, the school slut, about her pregnancy scare she thinks, "Had all of this made her realize the consequences of her choices? Our choices" (256).** Even though Bianca is on birth control and is sleeping with a guy who buys condoms in bulk, she recognizes that she and Vikki could easily be in the same boat. It's a huge a-ha moment for her. Calling Vikki a slut doesn't make Bianca anymore of a virgin or less likely to get knocked up. Calling someone else a duff doesn't make her more beautiful. The lesson is different, but it's told in the same way.

Something that I did think is way too realistic in The Duff was the treatment of oral sex, something that isn't even broached in Forever.... The thing that bothered me is that when Wesley, who always always has a condom in his pocket, goes down on Bianca, he doesn't use any kind of protection. The idea that oral sex isn't real sex is prevalent among teens. It's dangerous. I was a little disappointed that Keplinger had been SO GREAT throughout the book with the condoms and the birth control (and all without breaking up the story!), but didn't even mention a dental dam here. But turning a condom into a dental dam would have created a "let's go to PP" chapter in an otherwise clever and not remotely heavy-handed book about safe sex. It's still a little upsetting though.

I don't know if Keplinger meant for The Duff to be about safe sex so much as it was about how running away from your problems doesn't solve them (with a lot of sex). Regardless, I applaud her efforts to portray responsible choices even in the midst of an "enemies-with-benefits" relationship where sex is had for all the wrong reasons.

*For a more extreme example of this tactic of providing information about something some might think is squicky or controversial for young readers, see the "I'm bleeding to death from between my legs" chapter in the Alanna: The First Adventure. Getting her period has nothing to do with the story, but everything to do with being a preteen girl, as Alanna is.
**Quotes and page numbers were taken from an uncorrected proof and my not match the published copy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Different Day A Different Destiny - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge! This week's book is:

Laing, Annette. A Different Day, A Different Destiny. Statesboro, Georgia: Confusion Press, 2010. Print. Snipesville Chronicles 2.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/10082476/]

The Professor, doing what she does, manages to drop her modern calculator somewhere in the past. The changes this creates in the past causes changes that reach forward to our present day where it leaves a rift in time and drags Hannah, Brandon, and Alex back in time to right things. Again. Only this time they're all in 1851; Hannah in Scotland, Brandon in England, and Alex back in Snipesville where all their adventures started in the first place.

Laing has done it again! She's managed to cram a whole lot of information into an entertaining story (with a bit of actual danger thrown in this time) and created a dizzying web of characters connected to each other, the characters in Don't Know Where, Don't Know When, and Hannah, Brandon, and Alex's present day lives. Some of these connections are pretty obvious (the Gordons that Hannah lives with are the grandparents of the Scottish Mr. Gordon from the first book and a young girl in Balesworth who is the spitting image of Verity turns out to be her great-grandma), but that certainly didn't detract from their stories. And most of the connections I didn't see coming until the series of big reveals toward the end. I think that's the most amazing thing about these books for me: how some of the details all work out so seamlessly without being so obvious that I figured them out halfway through the book.

Hannah, Brandon, and Alex thought they had things bad in WWII England, but their experiences in the last book are nothing compared to what each of them goes through in 1851. Alone. In 1851, all three of them are considered adults, expected to earn a wage and take care of themselves. They each have to deal with this realization and figure out how to make their own ways and survive before they can even begin to think about how to find each other and get back home. The way that the book shifts between their stories was very clear and easy to follow. And for anyone (like me) for whom the year 1851 doesn't ring a bell, they are doing this all in the midst of preparations for Prince Albert's Great Exhibition and a growing disapproval across England and Scotland of the lingering institution of slavery in America.

Alex, still in Snipesville, comes face to face with slavery. As he travels to Savannah looking for work (with the help of a modern calculator he found in a cotton field to boost his mathematical skills), he is accompanied by a slave, Jupe, who is about his age. No matter how he tries to treat Jupe as an equal, Jupe never opens up to him or fully trusts him. Alex does manage to keep Jupe with him by lying about who legally owns him, keeping Jupe from being arrested, punished, or sold because he ran away. The situation with Jupe is complicated by the fact that Alex genuinely likes his employer, even though Mr. Thornhill buys and sells slaves in the course of his land sale transactions. This conflict eventually tears at Alex, and he remains upset and a bit broken at the close of the book. The question of how otherwise good people could participate in or even condone slavery is never answered here, which is probably as it should be.

Hannah and Brandon are free from the emotional and intellectual turmoil that Alex must endure in 1851. They're both left in horrible working and conditions by their trip back in time. Brandon "comes to" already in the pitch black dark of a coal mine (which seemed extraordinarily cruel to me) and eventually makes his way back to Balesworth. On the way he lives in a workhouse, becomes a professional mourner, and is, once again, a novelty to those around him. People assume that Brandon is a former slave, especially after he tells people that he was born in America. England, having recently abolished slavery in their own country, is on a crusade to have the same happen in America. Many people, especially the upper class women, want to know Brandon's thoughts on the subject and want to hear all about his experiences. The fact that he has to fabricate these experiences based on what he learned in history classes doesn't seem to bother anyone.

Hannah, of course, has the most tumultuous time. She's forced to be a piecer in a mill, first cotton and then jute, and earns pennies a week. She's fired twice and almost starves to death in between. She has a lot to complain about, but what Hannah is the most worried about is her lack of shopping opportunities. Her attitude is, once again, off-putting for most of the book, which is a shame as her storyline was the one I was the most interested in. At some point during her ordeal, it seems like Hannah may be learning something from the life she's living. She makes friends and finds herself in a family; she agitates for workers' rights (to hang out in the park) and gives an upper class woman who lives off mill profits the scare of her life by walking her through a tenement neighborhood. Still, as soon as she is rescued by the Professor and given a fancy dress and a bit of pocket money, all those hard-learned lessons fall right out of her head. She can't even be polite to a waiter, and why should she? It's his job to serve her. Ugh. I was really happy when the Professor ditched her again and she had to become a house maid.

Even with my disappointment in Hannah's character development, or lack thereof, I really enjoyed A Different Day, A Different Destiny. I also learned a lot about the working class in the British Empire during the Industrial Revolution and British involvement in the American Abolitionist Movement.

Book 1: Don't Know Where, Don't Know When
Book source: Review copy provided by the author. Thanks!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Low Red Moon

Devlin, Ivy. Low Red Moon. New York: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit: bloomsburykids.com/books/catalog/low_red_moon_hc_105]

Avery's childhood was a bit isolated, but never lonely. She lived in the woods with her mother and father. Her father wrote for the local paper, her mother made jams and taught Avery at home. Then someone, no something, took it all away and left Avery lying in her parents' blood with no memory of what happened to them. Now she's living with Renee, her estranged grandmother, in town and going to school to try to distract herself from all she's lost. That's where she meets Ben, beautiful Ben who moved to town just before her parents died and is the only person who is as comfortable in the woods as Avery is. Just when Avery thinks she might be able to move on, weird things start to happen: her father's friend tries to buy his land, Avery's hair turns blood red, and another land-owning family in the woods turns up dead. Avery knows she has to find out who killed her parents before anyone else dies, and she's terrified that Ben has something to do with it.

Low Red Moon is paranormal romance at its best, but it is also so much more. It is also a book about a girl who is dealing with the loss of her parents. Avery, who has little to no relationship with her grandmother even though they are so close geographically, just wants to go home, but when she finally makes it to her parents' house, it's not longer home without them there. It's also a murder mystery with some all-too-human players, such as her father's friend who wants to turn the woods into a strip mall. With all of this going on, you might think that the paranormal romance aspect of the plot might push everything over the top, but it is actually what makes everything gel together.

As in all your favorite paranormals, Avery and Ben have an almost immediate feelings for each other, a bond that goes (a bit) beyond attraction (though there are plenty steamy make-out scenes). But Avery is not the swooning type. She does not also immediately trust Ben or follow all of his for-your-safety commands (why do these paranormal guys all think they're love interest are so freaking helpless?). She reserves a bit of herself for, well, herself, even as she throws herself headlong into a pretty fast-moving relationship with Ben. It is during one of their massive make-out sessions that she discovers a patch of fur on his back. Not man-sweater fur, actual fur. The fact that Ben is more than human (werewolf, to the rest of us) terrifies her, even though Ben swears he would never ever hurt her. Ben, who she feels can see into her soul. Ben, who is a distractingly good kisser. Ben, who is a certifiable monster and moved to the woods near her parents' house just before they were murdered. Ben, who also doesn't remember the night they died. Avery makes the mental jumps that any rational human would make.

I don't want to say too much more. While reading, my head was split between thinking that of course Ben killed Avery's parents and thinking, as paranormal romances have been teaching me since Twilight, that tru lurv conquers all and that Ben couldn't have possibly hurt her parents. Even though Avery and Ben hadn't met yet when they died. And even though Ben has a really good reason for wanting Avery's dad to shut his pie-hole. I was torn between the romance and the facts as we know and see them, just as Avery is. Her struggle is real and by the time she opens up and asks for help and advice, it looks like it might be too late.

About the romance: I know there has been a lot of criticism around the blogosphere about the unexplained attraction that is mistaken for love in all of these paranormal romances. Well, that's probably what's going on here too. Instead of this being a chaste "love" story (not that there is anything wrong with chaste teenage romances!) all about how hot the other person is, Avery and Ben get it on. They're attracted to each other, so they make out, feel some crazy connection to each other when they kiss, and think they're in love. Let's be honest, there's nothing all that paranormal about that. It happens to young adults, in books and in real life, all the time. As much as I wanted them to have a more meaningful relationship, it is pretty realistically portrayed. With all that is going on in Avery and Ben's lives, they don't have a ton of time to go get coffee and get to know each other. Does that mean they should constantly make-out in alleys? No, but they do. We can only hope that if Ben is not a crazed mass-murderer that they'll go back after this is all over and find out each others favorite colors.

Also, that hair turning red thing that I dropped into the booktalk? It's important. It's just dropped into the beginning of the book and its weird and scary when it happens. It's just left hanging until everything comes together in the end. It's super-subtle foreshadowing that makes you want to re-read to see if you pick it up the meaning the second time around.

Low Red Moon came out earlier this week and is available for purchase. The published copy also has 60 more pages than the arc I reviewed, allowing me to let a few holes in the story pass as I hope they're patched up by now.

Book source: ARC picked up (and signed!) at ALA

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Kneebone Boy - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge! This week's book is:

Potter, Ellen. The Kneebone Boy. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9970335]

Otto (the oldest one with a scarf he never takes off and his own sign language he uses instead of actually talking), Lucia (the middle one who translates for Otto and is generally snarky and in charge), and Max (the youngest one and a bit of a know-it-all) keep pretty much to themselves. Not that they have a choice. Since their mother went missing, everyone in town has been avoiding them. The only person who will have anything to do with them is Mrs. Carnival, who watches them when their dad goes away to paint portraits. It's not great; it's not fun. But the Hardscrabble children are used to it.
Note to the reader: If you ever want your life to turn topsy-turvy, say, "Things will go on just as they always--" Oops, I almost said it.
Otto says it, and for a second topsy turvey look like a good thing. They'll be sent to London to stay with their cousin Angela rather than staying with crabby old Mrs. Carnival! But then they arrive in London only to find Angela on holiday. In search of an adventure and unwilling to return to Mrs. Carnival, they head to their secret great-aunt Haddie's where they find more weirdness and mystery than they bargained for.

This book is not a fantasy; there is no magic. Weird things happen and you think that they MUST be magical/paranormal/fantastical, but there is a rational explanation for all of it. Weird creaky (not squeaky) rats that run on the same path all the time? Taxidermy-ed miniature zebras? A hole in the floor that goes forever? A cat with five legs? All explained. Well, not the cat, but he's the most believable bit to begin with. Still, this is certainly not realistic fiction. It is precocious-kids-left-on-their-own fiction, or rich-people-are-crazy fiction. Lemony-Snicket-type fiction. Let's just call it unrealistic fiction, shall we?

Even though they live with their father, the three Hardscrabble children are pretty used to fending for themselves. Since their mother mysteriously disappeared (and both Otto and their father were suspected of killing her and burying her in the garden), their father has been sad. He's also been taking more portrait clients; former royals who have been kicked off their thrones and who don't often pay their bills. Still, the Hardscrabbles manage.

Adventure upon adventure, the kids all end up in Snoring by the Sea, a small town outside of London, where their secret great-aunt Haddie is staying. They meet a taxidermist who could easily be mistaken for a Viking invasion reenactor, take up lodgings in a castle folly with Haddie, suffer through some ghastly American food (even though Haddie never gets her hands on the "fluff" to make fluff-r-nutters), and hear the local legend of The Kneebone Boy. The local aristocracy, the Kneebones, sent all of their children to grow up in the castle folly, back in the day. That way they adults could do adult things and the kids could do whatever their hearts desired. It also kept the Kneebone children from the oldest child of each generation, the Kneebone Boy, born half-human half-animal. The Kneebone Boy was kept, every generation, locked in a tower in the castle. This is all just legend, of course. But there is something weird going on in the forest surrounding the castle and the castle folly. The Hardscrabbles are certain that the Kneebone Boy is real and that he has escaped, and they're determined not to let him be captured and locked away in his tower again.

Unrealistic fiction has the most awesome and memorable characters, and Otto, Lucia and Max are no exception. They are all precocious, sarcastic, and quick-witted little monsters, constantly attacking each other, but not in a mean way. They're all just too smart for their own good, or at least each is trying to prove to the other two that he or she is the most knowledgeable of group on any given subject (Max usually wins). Lucia, the middle child but still clearly the leader of the group, is used to Otto going along with her, her ideas, and her adventures, especially as she is his translator. She's also still stuck in the thinking that Max is just little. Too little to be of help, too little to be a friend the way that Lucia and Otto are friends, too little to make decisions for the group. Through their adventure, each of the Hardscrabble children gets more of a will of their own, and instead of making them grow up and grow apart, they realize that they not only need each other but truly like each other as well.

The Kneebone Boy comes out in hardback today!

Book source: ARC picked up at ALA.

*Quotes and page counts are from an uncorrected proof and may not match the published copy.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Werlin, Nancy. Extraordinary. New York: Dial Books - PenguinGroup, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9701860]

Seventh grade is a chance for Phoebe Rothschild to make a new start for herself. Yes, she's one of those Rothschilds. They're all wealthy, powerful, and leading almost charmed lives. There is nothing Phoebe can do to get away from her prestigious name, but she can make sure that her privilege doesn't make her a horrible person. As a huge step in this direction, Phoebe ditches her Mean Girl crowd in order to befriend new girl Mallory. Mallory, who shows up to school in a faerie costume. A see-through faerie costume. While not wearing underwear. Phoebe is going to help Mallory survive middle school and use the power that comes with her famous last name to provide aid for Mallory and her mentally unstable mother. Mallory is touched by Phoebe's kindness, but she's still hesitant. One should never develop feelings for one's mark. Especially since Mallory is not only trying to con Phoebe, she's trying to break her.

Yes, this is another faerie book. But instead of a human protagonist being plagues by faeries or sucked into their world, most of this book is story about two girls who are the best kind of best friends. They share everything, build each other up, and act like sisters from a fairytale rather than like siblings in real life. Phoebe is a Rothschild as in the actual real-life Rothschilds (the author's note explains the significance of the real Rothschilds and that Extraordinary is only based on a real family not real people). Phoebe is loaded and Mallory has almost nothing, but that never seems to come in the way of their friendship, even though Phoebe's mom is paying for Mallory's mom to have around the clock care. There is never that you-owe-me sentiment that can sometimes creep into those kinds of relationships. Everything is perfect. Except...

This story is broken up by numbered conversations with the Faerie Queen. It seems Phoebe is very important. She is needed desperately by an ailing Faerie Court and it is Mallory's job to prepare Phoebe for whatever it is that she must do. Though we see most of the story (everything but these Faerie Queen convos) from Phoebe's point of view, it is Mallory's conflicting loyalties that are the real meat of this story. She loves Phoebe in that intense way that teenage girls have, where your best friend is your whole world, but she knows that if she doesn't do what she's been sent into the human world to do, the Faerie Queen and her Court will fade away, along with Mallory and all of her people. Mallory struggles with this for years, putting off her choice between her family and her best friend. In the mean time, she hides her assignment and helps Phoebe come into her own, not as a Rothschild, but as Phoebe. But that's not what Mallory was sent to do. Seeing Mallory's struggle, the Faerie Queen sends in the one person who can break up Mallory and Phoebe's all encompassing girl world: a smokin' hot guy who just happens to be Mallory's older brother.

With the addition of Ryland, Phoebe has her own conflicting loyalties to contend with. She's drawn to him inexplicably, but she knows it would hurt Mallory SO MUCH to find out that she's in love with him. Let me take a moment to say that this never strayed into the paranormal romance trope of intense, surprising (only to the character), and irrational tru lurv at first sight. Ryland is an ass. He really is a horrible guy. But he's a faerie, and a pretty powerful one at that. He glamours Phoebe. So even though smart, funny, confident Phoebe knows that she shouldn't date a guy who treats her like a child, constantly tells her she could stand to lose a few pounds, and whose whims make him either enchanting or incredibly hurtful, she can't seem to stop seeking him out. When he's not there, she knows he's bad for her; when she sees him, no matter what comes out of his mouth and how much it wounds her, she's convinced that she can't survive without him. You can almost see the magic that Ryland is throwing at Phoebe drown out her rational self, a self that used to be supported by Mallory. Except that Mallory can't seem to forgive Phoebe for dating her brother. And no matter how cruel Ryland is to her, it is Mallory's abandonment that breaks Phoebe's heart.

In the end, this is a story about an amazing friendship that is so convincing and alive. Werlin's portrayal of both girls and their relationship is what makes this story great; the faeries are simply a fascinating and (amazingly) original plot device to show how far each girl is willing to go for the other. Phoebe and Mallory have the kind of friendship where you say I love you and mean it; the kind that you would sacrifice anything for. And in the end, one of them has to.

A note about the cover and internal illustrations:
Oh.My.Gosh. I hope they keep them. The cover of the ARC is a-maz-ing. It doesn't look like much in the above picture, but on the actual ARC it looks like it's over-dyed or super-saturated or something (why will my graphic designer sister not answer the phone when I need real words for things like this?). The colors are totally and unnaturally bright and deep. On amazon it looks like they've toned it down a bit, but I'm hoping that's just amazon doing some over zealous color correction or something. The unnatural beauty of the grass, the dress, the shoes(!), everything is so important to the story in ways that I cannot tell you for fear of spoiling. Just suffice it to say that if the grass on the published copy looks like something you could grow in your own yard, do yourself a favor and imagine that it's actually the color of really good astro-turf, but still alive! As for the internal illustrations, they're great too and really help to off-set the conversations with the Faerie Queen.

Book source: ARC provided by publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Journey to Atlantis - for Tween Tuesday

Tween Tuesday was started over at Green Bean Teen Queen as away to highlight awesome books for the 9-12 yr olds or Tweens. Any book highlighted on Tween Tuesday also counts for the In the Middle Reading Challenge! This week's book is:
Roy, Philip. Journey to Atlantis. Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2009. Print. The Submarine Outlaw Series 2.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9545628]

With a little help from Alfred's grandfather, Ziegrfried has added extra speed, power, and, of course, safety precautions to the sub. It's a good thing, too, as Alfred will need them all as he crosses the Atlantic in search of the lost city of Atlantis.

I was worried/excited that Journey to Atlantis would break entirely from the precedent set by the first book in the series and suddenly have mermaids, a city suspended under a bubble on the bottom of the ocean, or other such impossibilities. Worried for readers who were drawn to the first book because of it's realistic tone and wealth of information; excited because Atlantis is pretty cool. Turns out, my worry was unnecessary. Magical creatures don't suddenly pop out of the ocean to take Alfred, Hollie, and Seaweed to their underwater palaces; this book is planted firmly in reality. Still, the ocean is still an unfathomable place, exactly why Alfred wants to be free to explore it, and not everything he encounters during his trip across the ocean can be rationalized or explained away.

Alfred studies quite a bit in preparation for this trip, looking especially at accounts of others' search for the lost city. He also studies at sea navigation, international law for water travel, and modern day piracy (in order to avoid, not to practice). All of this studying happens before the opening of the book (luckily), but the knowledge Alfred acquired over the winter shows throughout the novel and, of course, is shared with the reader. What might be considered an information overload in another series, fits well with the Alfred (and Ziegfried) we were introduced to in the previous book.

During his trip, Alfred meets scholars, sailors, world travelers, and many other people during his travels (yes, including pirates!). Though he continues to be brave and good, sacrificing his time and, in some cases, his safety to help others, this book is more about the exploring that Alfred is finally able to do rather than his adventures in the submarine. The descriptions of the Mediterranean, the western coast of Africa, Azores are amazing. Roy practically paints pictures of these locales, in addition to describing the people Alfred gets to meet. Though the story remains a bit episodic, Journey to Atlantis has a clear goal in mind throughout: find the lost city. Alfred retraces the steps of other explorers, circles sonar abnormalities, and most importantly, lets himself believe that there might be something left of Atlantis to find. His eagerness to continue the search ties all of his other encounters together, making this book flow much more smoothly than the last. I can't wait to see how Roy improves on the next book in the series as well.

Again, my "big" complaint is actually a minor one. After the heroism Alfred showed the previous year exploring his own coastline, his grandma and grandpa decide to support his decision not to be a fisherman, which is great! Grandpa expresses his approval by suddenly showing up at the boathouse one day to help Alfred and Ziegfried work on the sub, and Grandma, well, Grandma does this:
The observation window, in the floor of the bow, was also the same, except that Hollie's beloved blanket, rather frayed at the edges, had been replace by a lovely quilt my grandmother had knitted especially for him.
Does anyone else see the problem? Probably not. And, no, it's not that you should never replace a dog's blankie because they freak out about it (Hollie whines until he gets his old blanket back). The problem is that you quilt a quilt, or maybe sew it. You knit an afghan. Of course, this little sentence is probably not a problem for very many people, just knitter and quilters, and we're really not the intended audience, so I guess it's okay. :-)

This is a great second book in a series. It takes us beyond the premise of the first book, but does not act  ONLY as a bridge to the third book. No Second Book Syndrome here! The third book in the series, River Odyssey, will take Alfred, Hollie and Seaweed up the St. Lawrence River where Alfred hopes to find not only a sunken ocean-liner but his father. It is available for purchase from the publisher's website!

Book 1: Submarine Outlaw
Book source: Review copy from publisher

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Thin Executioner

Shan, Darren. The Thin Executioner. New York: Little, Brown and Company - Hatchette Book Group, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9460780]

Among the Um Aineh, being the son of the executioner is almost as good as being the son of the king. In a world of warriors where strength and honor are valued above all, even the youngest son of the executioner, Jebel Rum, can't get the respect he thinks he deserves with a tiny frame. He sets off on a quest to save his honor, a quest that will require him to travel the length of Makhras with a slave by his side, a slave he must sacrifice to Sabbah Eid. In return he'll be granted invincibility that will allow him to beat any man in competition or combat and gain the confidence and respect of his father and his people.

All of the publishers' blurbs and pre-pub info says that this book was inspired by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I didn't get that from the story. Sure, It's a story about a young teen traveling with an adult slave who agrees to the trip in an effort to free his family. They get waylaid and sidetracked by a pair of con-artists who seem like friends but really want to sell them to the highest bidders. They travel along a river (but never on it!) and meet many new people with ideas like and unlike their own, and through their trials, the teen and the slave become friends. Okay, so maybe it's a LOT like Huck Finn, but the feel of the story is completely different. Huck Finn is light-hearted, easy-going fun on the surface with issues of race, slavery, violence, theft, general immorality boiling underneath.* In The Thin Executioner, the bad stuff is all right out in the open.

The society in which Jebel has been raised is exceedingly violent. The executioner is an exalted member of society in the way that movie stars are exalted in ours. They are not only men who mete out "justice," but also the providers of entertainment. Anyone convicted of any crime is executed; the Um Aineh have no jails and don't really hold much regard for human life. And their slaves aren't even considered human. Slaves live in their own section of the city where the living conditions are very degraded, can be beaten without recourse, and can be sentenced to death at the wish of their owner for any reason or none at all. Tel Hesani volunteers to accompany Jebel on his quest, knowing he will be executed at the end of it, to free his wife and children from this existence.

Once Jebel and Tel Hesani are on the road, Jebel depends on Tel Hesani's knowledge of the world and other people in it to survive, but still treats him with disdain. Because Jebel is eager to spend time with people like himself, meaning not slaves like Tel Hesani, they end up in quite a few compromising situations. The trials and tribulations of traveling through Makhras add up quickly, much more quickly than the change of heart I was expecting from Jebel. Tel Hesani saves him time and time again, and yet he's still valued as slightly more than a piece of shit by Jebel. About halfway through the book, I had to set it aside. Jebel's attitude is a lot to take. It isn't until Jebel and Tel Hesani are separated and Jebel gets to experience the life of a slave for himself that his ideas about slavery, human life, and Tel Hesani begin to change. When they're finally reunited, they continue on the quest, but Jebel (finally) seriously doubts whether he'll be able to kill Tel Hesani in the name of a god he's not sure is real in exchange for supernatural powers that may or may not exist.

The Thin Executioner is a long book, and I think that a lot of the obstacles Jebel and Tel Hesani meet on their way to Sabbah Eid could have been cut out without risking important plot points or character development. Still, it can be a gripping story. I had a hard time being in Jebel's head for so much of the book when he was such a self-centered jerk, but the payout is worth it in the end. If like me, you're suffering from post-Mockingjay pre-Monsters of Men malaise, The Thin Executioner just might soothe your gratuitous-violence-with-a-message seeking soul for a little while.

If LibraryThing is to be believed, Shan dedicated this book to the country of Jordan "which inspired much of this book's setting and plot, and whose landmarks provided the names of all the characters (with three exceptions) and places" (my ARC doesn't have the dedications page). Jebel also describes his crush as "slim and curvy, with long legs, even longer hair, dazzling brown eyes and teeth so white they might have been carved from shards of the moon. Her skin was a beautiful dark brown color" (2).** He also repeatedly describes the off-putting paleness of Tel Hesani's people. Based on these three things and a vague memory of a description of Jebel himself, I'm thinking Jebel and the rest of the Um Aineh are middle eastern, making this a fantasy book featuring POC! A rare and wonderful thing!

Book source: ARC provided by publisher via yalsa-bk.

 * Admittedly, I don't think I've ever read Huck Finn all the way through (but I've seen the movie with Elijah Wood about a million times), so my assessment of the tone of the original may be a bit off. 

 ** All quotes and page numbers are taken from an Advanced Reading Copy and do not necessarily match the published copy.