Monday, January 29, 2007

Review: Set in Stone by Linda Newbery

SET IN STONE is a rather difficult story to explain, but I shall do the best I can.

Samuel Godwin, a young artist, has no idea what he is getting into when he accepts the job of art tutor to the teenaged daughters of Mr. Ernest Farrow. Moving to the grand house of his employer, Fourwinds, he comes to care for Juliana and Marianne Farrow, the two motherless girls, but also their governess and companion, Charlotte Agnew.

The beautiful house and its mysterious inhabitants hide many, many secrets which Samuel will soon discover, and much of the story is devoted to these discoveries. However, a big part of it is also how the household moves on after the tragedies of the past. Even those tragedies, however, are not what they seem. At Fourwinds, nothing is what it seems to be.

This beautifully written story is haunting and tragic, sure to captivate readers and keep them interested throughout it all. The suspenseful narrative switches back and forth between the perspectives of Samuel and Charlotte; this is an interesting way of telling the story, but not essential to the marvelous novel. The characters are magnificent and realistically portrayed, the plot well-crafted, and every aspect of the story excellent! It is a romantic, tragic, dark, and yet hopeful tale of lies, mysteries, and secrets that will capture readers’ imaginations and hearts, surely gaining Linda Newbery a new fan of anyone who picks it up despite the fact that no description written will do justice to this magnificent book.

SET IN STONE is good enough to gain itself a place in English classrooms, certainly--but it’s also a story that will entrance teenaged readers, unlike most of that which is thrust into their hands by teachers who make them into the reluctant readers they are.

While it is historical fiction, with most of the story taking place in the year 1898, the history is not the important part. Certainly, the time period in which it is set plays a part, as does all of the setting, but it does not make the story what it is. In this way, it reminded me a bit of Celia Rees’ THE WISH HOUSE (another one for anyone looking for a wonderful novel). SET IN STONE is a stunning tale by a brilliant author whose backlist I will surely be looking up!

Rating: 10/10

Review: Private by Kate Brian

PRIVATE is the first in a series about a bunch of teenagers attending a posh private school in New England. It doesn’t sound like a particularly smart or original book, and that first impression would be, for the most part, correct. It’s not as fun to read as I would have expected, either, but it did get me hooked on the series--enough so that I’ll probably read INVITATION ONLY, book number two!

Reed Brennan is a scholarship student at Easton Academy eager to leave her dull suburban life, drug addicted mother, and complete lack of a social life behind in Croton, Pennsylvania, and Easton Academy looks like her ticket out. Reed will do anything to fit in with her overprivileged classmates, especially when the Billings Girls take notice of her. They’re the most popular and powerful clique on campus, and, being the new girl, joining their ranks seems, to Reed, like the perfect way to finally find her place at Easton Academy.

No part of this book is exceptionally wonderful, but it’s all good enough to pass a few hours reading it. None of it is exceptionally bad, either. The characters are rather flat but not terribly so, and the story itself is rather unoriginal but not horrible. The writing, too, is decent but not wonderful. I expected more from Kate Brian after reading her wonderful book MEGAN MEADE’S GUIDE TO THE MCGOWAN BOYS, but this book serves its purpose--it’s enough to get readers hooked on the series!

Rating: 7/10

Review: Ophelia by Lisa Klein

Even those of us who haven’t read HAMLET probably know something of the story. Think hard enough, and you might even recall some details picked up from television, books, and other people. Remember Ophelia? Even if you don’t, you will still love this book. It’s HAMLET, retold from Ophelia’s point of view--and it’s quite different from the story William Shakespeare told! I haven’t read Shakespeare’s version, but I’m sure I’d like Lisa Klein’s better--this beautiful and tragic story is my new favorite book! And I don’t say that lightly; I always have trouble choosing favorites, but not in this case.

Ophelia is simply one girl of many in the Danish court. Hamlet is the prince. What are the odds that he’ll even notice this girl? It’s not likely, but he does. Even less likely, they fall in love. They keep it a secret, but all seems well; the two are blissfully happy in the way only lovers can be.

Soon, though, life at the court of Denmark turns dark. Bloodshed and madness take over what was once a happy place, and nothing is what it seems to be. Loyalties are changing, lives are at stake, and Ophelia does not know what to do. Her beloved Hamlet is a part of the madness; indeed, perhaps the source of much of it. When she runs out of options, Ophelia does what she feels she must.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story from this point on, but rest assured it is very different from Shakespeare’s telling of it. And it is nothing short of brilliant. OPHELIA is a gripping, beautifully written novel with so many elements of a marvelous story: love, conspiracy, danger, despair, deceit, murder, madness, mystery…This story lacks nothing that would make it more brilliant--except maybe a few hundred more pages or a sequel!

OPHELIA is a smart, well thought out novel full of wonderful characters and surprising plot twists. This dark, emotional, and powerfully written novel is certainly a tragedy; we know that from Shakespeare. However, all through it, there is a note of hope, even when all seems hopeless.

I’m sure those who have read HAMLET would enjoy Lisa Klein’s retelling of the story, but one doesn’t have to have read that to enjoy OPHELIA. Anyone will enjoy this moving, romantic, and breathtaking work of art.

Rating: 10/10

Review: Loving Will Shakespeare by Carolyn Meyer

Anne Hathaway is simply a “yeoman’s daughter,” and Will Shakespeare is a boy who will someday grow up to write plays for the court of the queen of England--and leave his loving wife behind for the excitement of London. Anne is seven years older than Will. They are very different, but, despite their many differences, they become friends, and eventually lovers. Everyone has heard the tale of William Shakespeare’s will, and how he gives to Anne only is “Second best bed.” There have been many interpretations of that--is it some inside joke, or is did he simply feel his wife was second best? No one will ever know, but that doesn’t make this story any less interesting

I suppose that most of my issues with this story lie with the story itself, or, rather, the ending of it, but that is history, and thus unchangeable. The idea of LOVING WILL SHAKESPEARE is a brilliant one (despite the fact that history cannot be changed), but the story itself fell rather short of my high expectations for it. Anne was a wonderful character, but she was the only one who felt consistently real. The minor characters, even Will, sometimes seemed as believable as Anne, but much of the time they were flat and two-dimensional. Carolyn Meyer’s writing, however, was quite good. Despite its shortcomings, this is a story worth reading, and I’ll probably read more by Carolyn Meyer.

Rating: 8.5/10

Review: Getting It by Alex Sanchez

GETTING IT is not the best written book I’ve ever read, but it does tackle some tough issues quite admirably, with likeable characters and a fairly believable plot. Carlos Amoroso is convinced that he’s the only fifteen-year-old virgin around, and he wants to change that. He’s got his eye on Roxy Rodriguez--but she doesn’t even notice his existence, and Carlos doesn’t know how to change that. While watching television one night, he flips to Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It gives Carlos an idea.

He asks Sal, the guy at school everyone says is gay, to help him out. In exchange for making over Carlos so that girls will notice him, Sal wants help starting a Gay-Straight Alliance at their school. Carlos isn’t sure what he thinks about that--one thing he inherited from his father is homophobia--but he’ll agree to anything to get Roxy’s attention.

The issues addressed in this novel are important, and the characters are good. Alex Sanchez’s writing doesn’t really flow as well as it should; it’s a bit awkward and inconsistent sometimes. However, GETTING IT is not a bad book; it has potential, certainly, but it could be better. It’s worth reading, though, especially if you’re interested in books about gay teenagers (Carlos is not gay, of course, but homophobia is the main issue addressed in this book), or specifically gay Latino teenagers. I might even pick up more by Alex Sanchez!

Rating: 8/10

Review: Kitty Goes Californian by Pepper McNeil

Kitty is a New York City surfer chick (how many of those are there? As Kitty says, Manhattan is the one island with no surfing around!) who goes to spend the summer with her father in California. To her, it sounds like a summer in paradise--she loves her father, and she loves surfing! She says goodbye to her NYC family and friends, packs up Trixie, her surfboard, and heads to the West Coast, eager to start her summer surfing adventure.

Not all goes as planned. First of all, everyone she sees on the California waves is good. Kitty’s from Manhattan; she doesn’t measure up to the Cali surfer-gods and -goddesses! Before long, though, she meets Zeke, who helps her to get out there in the water and do what she loves. She already loves surfing, but could she be falling for Zeke, too?

This is a fabulous romantic surfing adventure! To enjoy this book, you don’t have to be a surfer, though--just because Kitty’s all about the waves doesn’t mean everyone else can’t enjoy this awesome story. The story idea is fun, certainly, but what really made me love it was Kitty’s distinctive voice. Pepper McNeil has really captured the character of Kitty on paper, and the results are amazing! All of the characters are pretty great, though. There were very few moments where the awesomeness of the story did not shine through; the vast majority of this book was brilliant! Pepper McNeil is a talented writer, and I’d love to read more from her--I’d be thrilled to see a sequel to KITTY GOES CALIFORNIAN!

Rating: 9/10

**Review also posted on TeensReadToo.com**

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Review: How It's Done by Christine Kole Maclean

Grace is an eighteen-year-old girl who wants to, like any other teenager, break free of her home, the life she's always known, and her parents. Grace wants independence from her strict, fundamentalist Christian father and the house that looks like every other house on the street, in the neighborhood that is a prison to her.

When she meets older, charismatic college professor Michael, she thinks he is her escape. He's not that much older than her, and he is oh so much more worldly and mature than the boys her age. Grace falls head over heels in love.

She had anticipated a life full of excitement, sophistication and happiness with him, but being involved with Michael brings unexpected complications to Grace's life. She doesn't want to stay with her father, but she's having doubts about her relationship with Michael, too…What is the right choice, and will Grace have the guts to make it?

HOW IT'S DONE is a wonderful book that should be required reading for everyone, especially teenage girls! Readers will feel drawn along with Grace as she is pulled into her love for Michael, as it changes her life. They will feel her elation as her life seems to be improving, and her helplessness and despair as the reality behind all that she thinks is true comes to light, and she is forced to deal with all of it at once.

Christine Kole Maclean, with her excellent writing, has created magnificent, believable characters who are all a part of the fantastic story she tells in HOW IT'S DONE. This is a brilliant, flawless novel in every way. It's a must-read!

Rating: 10/10

Review: An Order of Amelie, Hold the Fries by Nina Schindler

AN ORDER OF AMELIE, HOLD THE FRIES is told in a series of notes, text messages, letters, and emails, mostly between Tim and Amelie. Tim is walking on the street one day, watching a beautiful girl, when, miraculously, a scrap of paper falls out of her bag--with a name and address on it!

He writes to the address, only to learn that the girl he is writing to, Amelie, is not the beautiful one he saw on the street that day. Undaunted, he keeps writing, undeterred by Amelie's efforts to get him out of her life and interested in girls his own age (she's a few years older). The two strike up an unlikely friendship, and then--could it be? A romance?

The form of this book is very interesting. The words that go between the two characters (as well as a few other characters) are not just pictured as text on a page; they are illustrated by very interesting and cool pieces of art. For instance, one page has text messages exchanged by Tim and Amelie where they discuss meeting at a Chinese restaurant. Each message appears on the screen of a white line drawing of a cell phone against a background that is a dim photograph of a Chinese restaurant. The way this book is set up adds a lot to the story. It also makes it a quick read; even reluctant readers might like this one!

The depth that Nina Schindler manages to give her characters through a short book with only the letters, notes, text messages, and emails of the characters involved is remarkable. It's a great story, too; how Tim and Amelie meet is quite original! This is a great book, one not to be missed.

Rating: 9.5/10

Review: Terrier: Beka Cooper Book One by Tamora Pierce

TERRIER is the latest from a brilliant author whose earlier works you've got to read if you haven't already! My expectations for this book, as it is by Tamora Pierce, were, of course, quite high, and I was not disappointed. This might be my new favorite of hers (though it still might be beat out by the Song of the Lioness quartet--it's close), which is certainly saying a lot.

It's the story of Beka Cooper, a Lower City girl and member of the Provost's Guard who lives centuries before Alanna the Lioness and those characters of her world known to fans of Tamora Pierce's other work. Beka lives in the dark time spoken of in one of the Alanna books when every sword, whether held by a man or a woman, was needed. Indeed, Alanna was not the first Lady Knight; hundreds of years before, women could earn their shields without having to hide who they were. In fact, one of the many fascinating characters known to Beka is a lady knight named Sabine. She reminded me of Alanna. Mattes, one of the guardsmen whose job it is to train Beka in their ways, reminds me of one of Alanna's friends, Raoul. Rosto is quite like George Cooper (whose ancestor Beka is!) as well. And fans of the Song of the Lioness quartet will also recognize Beka's cat, Pounce!

When Beka trains to be a Puppy in the Guard, she knows someday she'll be a Dog, and she wants to be a good one. She's quite excited to be assigned to one of the best pairs in the Lower City; indeed, in all of Corus! She knows it'll be hard work, that Mattes and Clary will work her hard, but she's ready for it. This is what she wants to do. She's aided by her friends, her cat, and her magical Gifts of listening to the winds and to the pigeons who carry the souls of the dead.

Soon after she starts her work, Beka learns of some dangerous goings-on in the Lower City, and it's up to her to stop it, as only a true Lower City girl could--one with Beka's listening talents, at that. She knows the people, she knows their ways, and she is uniquely fit for figuring out what's going on in her neighborhood, and that is what she will do.

The format of TERRIER is different from that of Pierce's other books. It's told as Beka's journal, for one thing, meaning it's in first person. All of her other novels are in third person! It's certainly a change, but she does quite well with it. The only problem is the length of some of these journal entries! Beka is tired from her work as a Puppy; she's not going to write twenty, thirty pages in her journal at night! She probably won't even remember enough to write such long entries! That is the only flaw I found in this book, and that's easy to overlook. This is a page-turner, a wonderfully written story, with amazing characters. Whether you're a fan of Tamora Pierce, of fantasy, or of books in general, read this book!

Rating: 9.7/10

Review: Battle of the Bands by K.L. Denman

When picking up BATTLE OF THE BANDS, don't expect the deep reading experience you'd get from a full-length novel. As long as you don't make the assumption that this quick read manages to cover all of that, you'll love it!

Jay, Kel, and Cia are the Lunar Ticks. They love their music, and work hard to get their band to the top. They compete against other bands, and they're pretty good--but they could never beat Indigo Daze, fronted by the beautiful Rowan. They don't have Rowan's talent--and Jay isn't sure he can keep writing songs. That's not his only problem, though; he's also got his life to deal with, as does anyone else.

BATTLE OF THE BANDS says a lot in a half-hour's read. It's powerful and attention grabbing, telling a fascinating story of love, life, and music. The characters are wonderful; I'd love to read a sequel (perhaps a longer one rather than one written for reluctant readers), maybe from the point of view of one of the other characters--Cia or Rowan would be most interesting to me personally. It's definitely a good book, and K.L. Denman has the potential to be a brilliant writer. I hope she turns her talents to a longer, higher-level book next time--I wasn't ready for this shorter story to be over when it was!

Rating: 8.5/10

Review: Forever In Blue by Ann Brashares

**This one, book number four, is being released today!**

Forever In Blue is the fourth and, I believe, final installment in Ann Brashares' popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. I myself have loved each of the previous books in the series, and I'm sure many of you have, too.

This fourth book was slightly disappointing. Sure, it was great; I doubt Ann Brashares is capable of writing a bad book! However, I didn't think the ending tied up enough loose ends, considering there will probably not be any more books in the series. It left some loose ends, which is fine if you're planning on a sequel...but not so much for the last book. But perhaps that's just a matter of personal taste. And it's not like everything was left dangling, but not everything was tied up, either. I also missed the presence of a couple of familiar characters--for the most part, the girls' families and significant others weren't as present in this book as I would have liked. I especially missed Bridget's boyfriend, Eric. I was also disappointed that Carmen's relationship with Win didn't work out (this is revealed early on), and I felt that some of the new characters weren't as realistic as the old (Carmen has a friend, Julia, who didn't seem as real as she should have, for example).

However, it was exciting to find out what comes next for the girls of the Sisterhood. It's the summer after their first year of college. Now being apart is not just a summer thing; it's an all-the-time thing. Lena is spending her summer working on her artwork, and she meets a guy--but she can't forget about Kostos (I missed Kostos in this book...even though he made mistakes, he was a favorite of mine). Carmen goes with her actress friend, Julia, to a theater festival in Vermont. Bridget goes on an archaeological dig in Turkey. The destination itself wasn't what I would have expected for her, but something readers will connect to past books does happen--she falls for an older guy. This time, however, she has a boyriend (Eric) at home. I really didn't like this part of the book. It didn't seem completely like the Bridget I feel I've come to know in the past three books. Tibby stays in New York, and is having some problems with Brian, her boyfriend. This felt a lot more realistic than Bridget's problems. I missed seeing as much of Tibby's family and Brian as in the previous book, though...

Fans of the series will be glad to read this book, but it's not for those new to the Sisterhood. It's an enjoyable read, even if it didn't quite meet my high expectations! It was still well-written and full of great characters (even if a few were missing), and certainly worth reading.

Rating: 8.5/10

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Happy New Year!

I hope everyone has a great 2007! On to updates:

I have been reading a lot more than I've been reviewing, as I have limited internet access, so expect some reviews of awesome books within the next couple of weeks! Especially as I made one new year's resolution--read 365 books this year. Yup, a book a day. I've been keeping up so far!

Second, everyone go vote for your favorite review at the YABC Teen Reviewer Finalists page. Yes, I am one of the finalists, with my review of DEAR ZOE. Go pick your favorite and email your vote to Kim at kim@yabookscentral.com.

Third, yes, that newsletter contest is coming soon! As well as perhaps another contest...keep checking back for details (and sign up for the newsletter!).

I'll get the January contest round-up posted soon!