Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader


Title:               The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn TreaderCategory:       DVD, Fantasy
Grade:            9-15
Author:          Michael Apted, dir.
Publisher:       Fox 2000 Pictures / Walden Media
Place:              Beverly Hills, CA
Date:               2011
Pages:             N/A

Summary:     
Fox and their associates have truly outdone themselves in this stunning movie rendition of the well-loved children's classic, Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  Lucy and Edmund return to Narnia with their obnoxious cousin, Eustace, in tow.  There they find Caspian a-sail on the high seas to search for his father's seven missing lords.  After narrowly escaping being sold as slaves, the band watches as a boat of prisoners is rowed to sea and mysteriously swallowed by a strange green mist.  Further travels reveal that the mist is from Dark Island and the spell can be broken when the swords of the seven lords are found and placed together at Aslan's Table.  The adventurers set forth again and all are sorely tempted; Eustace is even turned into a dragon.  In a harrowing final battle against a sea serpent, the seventh sword is obtained and the unlikely and beleaguered Eustace returns it to the table in the nick of time. 

Review:
Teens who love this story or this series will warm to this portrayal.  Dawn Treader was my favorite of the Narnia series, and I expected to be slightly disappointed.  Instead, the movie beautifully told the story I loved, while tightening some plot elements that were admittedly somewhat linear in the original story.  While some teens may be deterred by the talking animals and younger actors, Edmund and Lucy are both young teens.  Edmund in particular struggles with establishing himself as a leader and worthy of authority, while Lucy battles with her own envy of her older sister's beautiful face.  The only major weakness in the converted plot was the addition of a random man and his stowaway child who were searching for their mother stolen by the mist.  They served little purpose other than to create a happy ending once the spell was broken, and were a bit tiresome in their predictability

The Book of the Maidservant


Title:               The Book of the Maidservant
Category:       Historical
Grade:            13-17
Author:          Rebecca Barnhouse
Publisher:       Random House
Place:              New York
Date:               2009
Pages:             229

Summary:     
The Book of the Maidservant follows Johanna, a lowly serving girl, on a pilgrimage with her tyrannical and obnoxiously pious mistress.  Fighting within the company of pilgrims eventually lead to Dame Margery’s forced removal from the group, but Johanna is not allowed to accompany her.  Forced to slave for the remaining pilgrims, Johanna keeps a careful watch for her mistress, and is eventually reunited with her.  Her joy is short-lived when she discovers her mistress has not only abandoned her again, but stolen her few possessions.  Making her own perilous way to Rome, Johanna finally finds friendly employment at a pilgrim’s hostel, but when her mistress arrives, Johanna must decide if she will allow herself to be made a servant again and return to her beloved home, or remain in a strange land as an independent young woman. 

Review:
Extremely well told, Barnhouse creates a tale reminiscent of Catherine, Called Birdy, yet with the sophistication of storytelling that teens will appreciate. Teens will also be able to relate to Johanna’s struggle to be recognized as a worthwhile human being and her final decision with no easy answer.

Bleach, Vol. 4: Quincy Archer Hates You


Title:               Bleach, Vol. 4: Quincy Archer Hates You
Category:       Graphic Novel, Manga
Grade:            12-17
Author:          Tite Kubo
Publisher:       VIZ Media
Place:              San Francisco
Date:               2004
Pages:             190

Summary:     
This fourth installment to the Bleach manga series finds Ichigo and Rukia hot on the trail of a sensationalistic TV spiritualist, Don Kanonji.  Unfortunately, while Kanonji can see restless spirits, his method of dealing with them is woefully incompetent. In fact, instead of setting the angry spirit of a hospital free, he inadvertently rips away the humanity it was clinging to and turns it into a soulless Hollow, a vicious monster.  Ichigo and Rukia must step in to save Kanonji from his own folly, although he complicates the issue by attempting repeatedly to lead the deadly fight back into the television spotlights and around all the fans.  Though Kanonji is eventually cowed and grateful, his attitude is short-lived, and soon the pompous man declares Ichigo his number one fan.  Ichigo and Rukia leave in disgust after the Hollow is dispatched, but Rukia begins having trouble with her Hollow pager.  The pair run into a strange, hostile man who destroys the Hollow they missed and declares his fervent hatred for them and all like them as the installment ends. 

Review:
With its heavy action, gigantic swords and monstrous battles, Bleach is sure to appeal to childhood fans of the comics and teens who enjoy graphic novels, particularly boys.  While it contains themes common to Japan of spirits in all things, and restless souls, this issue takes an interesting twist by looking at media personalities, the ways in which they ignite crowd fervor and the fraud that often accompanies them.  Analyzing the characterization is difficult because this is one “chapter” of an intensely complex, ongoing story.  While manga is known for complex and highly detailed characters, many toons are unfamiliar to readers who do not know the series and some confusion can take place.  Still, the unique edge on this story made it readable even for someone unfamiliar with series after time was allowed to figure out who was who.

A.D. New Orleans after the Deluge


Title:               A.D. New Orleans after the Deluge
Category:       Graphic Novel, Nonfiction
Grade:            14+
Author:          Josh Neufeld
Publisher:       Pantheon
Place:              New York
Date:               2009
Pages:             193

Summary:     
A.D. tells the terrifying story of the victims of Hurricane Katrina in this graphic nonfiction work.  Neufeld chose seven different families from the white and wealthy to the poor minority to follow through their experiences during Katrina and her aftermath.  After an introduction of the seven, he opens with scenes of the storm itself, including a fairly superfluous section on Biloxi.  He follows the seven through their often frightening experiences during the storm itself and then on into the catastrophic flooding after the levee breaches, through the nightmare of the Superdome and into the reconstruction and dispersal of most of New Orleans. Some families evacuate and return home to find everything gone.  Others become rootless, wandering from place to place for several years.  Families are split up.  Babies go without food and water, while adults have no place even to use the bathroom.  Businesses flood.  Years later, both displaced and returning residents continue to rebuild. 

Review:
This graphic book mimics the feel of a newspaper in chronicling and interviewing Neufeld’s chosen seven, but also has the feel of a comic strip as it retells and highlights the perspectives of some of the many experiences residents had during the crisis.  While the original storm scenes, particularly the Biloxi ones, are somewhat confusing and the characters can be difficult to tell apart, readers will soon be able to follow the parallel narratives  through this very real and gripping “cartoon.”

Found in the adult section of the library, this book would be a gripping read for just about anyone old enough to understand it.  Though the language might raise objections over younger readers, teens will be fascinated with this unique and engrossing way of telling the Katrina victims’ stories.  Some teens may get confused among the multiple storylines or through cartoons that have difficulty conveying individual characters or significant events, but the farther one moves into this story, the easier it is to keep untangled and immerse oneself in. Several highly documented incidents such as the levee breaches and the hellish conditions of the Convention Center were portrayed in a way that was both accurate and moving; even the depositing of the President Casino onto the Holiday Inn in Biloxi was documented here. The story highlights the fear, the desperation, the courage, and sometimes the folly of both the victims and the outside help, including the government.  It also is able to demonstrate some of the redeeming qualities of humanity as total strangers offer supplies, assistance and even comic books to help New Orleans residents begin to put their lives back together again.  Though I am not generally a fan of graphic novels, I found myself completely riveted to this very true and memorable story, and teens who are not personally familiar with Katrina in the coming years will find it an eye-opening resource for understanding it.

Mercury


Title:               Mercury
Category:       Graphic Novel
Grade:            13-16
Author:          Hope Larson
Publisher:       Atheneum
Place:              New York
Date:               2010
Pages:             234

Summary:     
Mercury combines both the past and the present in this parallel graphic story of a family.  Tara is a very unhappy contemporary teen living with her aunt in the aftermath of a destructive fire that cost her family everything.  Centuries before, her ancestor Josey had lived in the house, when a mysterious traveler, Asa, came to pass.  He claimed (and proved) that the Fraser family had gold on their farm and entered into an agreement with them to co-run a mine and split the fortunes.  Although he fell in love with Josey, he killed her father and hid the gold after her father refused a marriage between the lovers.  Asa left behind a curious necklace wit a drop of mercury in it that Josey kept and passed down.  In the present, Tara’s aunt gives her the necklace as a gift.  Tara soon discovers that it will lead her to whatever she is looking for, and after learning there once was gold on her family’s property, she sets out to find it.  She and her friends discover not only the gold but the remains of Josey’s father, William and are able to save their family home.

Review:
While the plot of this book was intriguing, teens may have difficulty telling the multitude of characters from both stories apart, making parts of the story hard to follow.  As can be the case with graphic novels, some events were confusing, although in general, rereading corrected the issue.  While graphic novels tend to appeal to boys, this one seems targeted toward girls, which could cause a lower circulation.  I am not a particular fan of graphic novels; Mercury was somewhat interesting, but not the best of the genre I have read.

After


Title:               After
Category:       Realistic
Grade:            15+
Author:          Amy Efaw
Publisher:       Speak
Place:              New York
Date:               2009
Pages:             350

Summary:     
Dawn has always been determined to be different from her drug-addicted, sexually promiscuous mother.  Up until her fifteenth year, she has succeeded, making the honor roll every term, being a responsible and mature young woman, and being hailed as a potential Olympian on the soccer field.  All that changes, however, when police discover her bleeding to death from a partial delivery, and find her newborn infant in the dumpster outside.  Placed temporarily in juvenile detention, Dawn awaits the court hearing that will determine whether she should be tried as an adult for a premeditated act of attempted murder, or if she will be permitted to remain and be tried in the juvenile system.  As Dawn slowly comes out of the fog surrounding her since IT happened, both she and her lawyer must try to piece together the story of her pregnancy and delivery.  Dawn, who spends much of the narrative attempting to come to terms with the idea that she was even pregnant, will ultimately remain in the juvenile system, and is portrayed very believably by Efaw as truly being in such a state of denial that she did not know what she was doing. However, although evidence surfaces that could find her innocent on a technicality, Dawn ends the narrative in a move that will surely create discussion among teen readers by choosing to plead guilty. 

Review:
Efaw spent seven years researching the phenomenon of “dumpster babies” and creates a disturbing and truly sympathetic portrait of a young woman caught in a trap of her own making that will leave a profound impression on readers. Not since Unwind have I read a more powerful, disturbing or thought-provoking book as After.  While some people have criticized it as irrelevant, melodramatic and overly detached, I feel that this book has done a masterful job of portraying this little-known yet oft-occurring situation.  Efaw commented that she took seven years to research this book, and it shows on every page. Having worked and lived with young adults who were pregnant for months without knowing it, and one who even delivered her son before finding out she was pregnant, I can absolutely believe the seemingly impossible circumstance of being pregnant due to some form of trauma and denying it so thoroughly that no one is the wiser.  The writing is often very detached with an “out-of-body” feel to it; however, this is exactly the impression the author intended to create as the main character is experiencing an extreme depersonalization of the events happening to her.  While the content is disturbing for younger teens, older girls will appreciate this story; Efaw builds an absolutely believable character and makes it possible for readers to actually sympathize with this young woman who has committed such a heinous act.  At the same time, many will be likely to question many of Dawn’s decisions, opening the door for discussion on many levels.  The ideas of guilt and innocence, victimization, parental neglect and abuse, and second chances all run through the story and give developing teens a marvelous opportunity to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Lockdown


Title:               Lockdown
Category:       Realistic, Urban
Grade:            12-15
Author:          Walter Dean Myers
Publisher:       Amistad
Place:              New York
Date:               2010
Pages:             247

Summary:     
Reese is in juvenile detention for stealing prescription pads for the local dealer.  Because his rehabilitative potential is high, he has been chosen to pioneer the work program for the prison, and works at a nearby nursing home cleaning and spending time with the elderly Mr. Hooft.  Though Hooft is antagonistic and often racist, Reese slowly begins to appreciate him, particularly after hearing the stories of Hooft’s internment in a children’s camp during World War II.  Meanwhile, back at the prison, several inmates have selected a smaller boy, Toon, as the target of vicious harassment.  When the guards do nothing to stop the impending fights that could get Toon killed, Reese steps in, and is punished for fighting to save Toon’s life.  As Reese continues to get caught between trying to stay out of trouble and trying to stay alive, the people in his life believe in him less and less, especially when police return to the jail attempting to pin him for dealing the drugs that got a local addict killed.  With only Mr. Hooft and his baby sister Icy who still keep the faith, Reese must struggle daily to maintain the hope that not only can he survive his prison sentence, but that he can make a better life for himself once he is back out on the streets. 

Review:
This story is a good alternative for younger students who may not be ready for the graphic details or controversy of Monster, but can still connect with the basic content of Myers’ more intense works.
Walter Dean Myers is adept at writing for some of the overlooked teens of today, particularly minority males.  While Monster is a graphic, highly controversial glimpse inside the prison system, Lockdown contains similar messages of hope and persistence in a version friendlier to younger students.  Reese is a beautifully complex character, and Myers does a wonderful job of overlaying both the traditional “attitude” and hostility often seen in young African-American males on top of Reese’s true concern for his little sister, wish to prove himself and have someone care, fear of the streets, and honest desire for a better life.  Myers also allows readers a fair glimpse at the vicious cycle and destructive nature of the prison system; the conclusion in which Reese does manage to get out and build a better life for himself gives readers a satisfying end, but it is tempered by the failure of most of Reese’s fellow inmates to do the same.  Though the book does offer hope to young people at risk of similar fates, it deals honestly and soberly with the myriad of destructive elements that can keep someone from reaching his potential.  A powerful read that lends itself to thought, connections and discussion, Lockdown will find a strong welcome among its target audience.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West


Title:               Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
Category:       Fantasy
Grade:            16+
Author:          Gregory Maguire
Publisher:       Regan Books
Place:              New York
Date:               1995
Pages:             406

Summary:     
Wicked takes on the daunting task of approaching one of the world’s best-loved classics from a daring, unpopular, and rather adult point of view.  Born a green infant with monstrous teeth, Elphaba grows into a sophisticated and serious, if somewhat aloof and acerbic, young woman.  During boarding school, she rooms with a pretentious young woman from the north named Galinda, and eventually develops aspirations of political reform, not unlike the suffragettes, although her group’s style more closely resembles that of Malcom X or the Black Panthers.  After her married lover is caught in the crossfire of her plan and murdered, Elphaba buries herself in the West of Oz, and eventually journeys to the Vinkus with her son to beg his widow’s forgiveness.  The kidnapping of this family, and an alien visitor to Oz who drops a house on her crippled, pompously devout sister leads Elphaba to the East where she learns Galinda, now Glinda, has given the visitor the sister’s precious shoes, a symbol to Elphaba of her father’s favoritism.

The Wizard, trying to rule a country in political turmoil and on the brink of war, orders the visitor, Dorothy, to kill Elphaba, who is somewhat sarcastically known as the Wicked Witch of the West.  Furious with the girl’s theft of the shoes and believing Dorothy means her harm, Elphaba captures her.  Although Dorothy insists she has no intention of harming the Witch, the story winds to its inevitable, if accidental conclusion.  Through the book, Maguire attempts to establish the Witch as a fully three-dimensional and completely misunderstood character and explain along the way many of the best-known and loved components of Baum’s Oz, including the presence of the Great Book of Magic, Glinda’s rise to power as a sorceress, and the creation of the silver slippers. 

Review:
The book is very long and paced somewhat slow with high-handed language that will likely deter younger teens.  Maguire makes some interesting attempts to characterize the three major magic powers of Oz and the Wizard himself as well.  While his characterizations are complete, and he certainly creates an interesting take on the Witch of the East (who died immediately at the start of the original Wizard of Oz and almost nothing is known of from the Oz canon), his characterizations of Glinda and the Witch of the West are thorough, but extremely inconsistent, both with the original canon (and movie) and even internally.  While the book may be a wise or even required read for older teens or young adults, diehard fans of the original series may be disappointed in this revisitation of Oz.

Quite frankly, I was disappointed with Wicked.  I was pleased at the opportunity to read it and had heard very good things about it, but it fell vastly short of my expectations.  I had devoured the original fourteen books by Baum before I was ten, and reread them routinely all through my teen years and even into adulthood.  While Wicked demonstrates ample evidence that Maguire read the books, his documentation of previously established events in this story wavers between the events of the books and the events of the movie.  He cannot seem to remain consistent as to which story he is telling, and thus leaves glaring holes and inaccuracies throughout his story.  He is not even consistent with himself, attempting to rationalize occurrences such as the Witch’s green skin with weak and often offensive solutions. 

Elphaba is born a monster for no apparent reason with green skin, a horrible personality, a deathly fear of water that is hard to swallow, and teeth like a shark, which she inexplicably loses before she becomes an adult.  In boarding school, she has completely transformed to a serious, brilliant and studious young woman with a profound sense of social justice.  By the end of the book, she has been titled the Wicked Witch, more by accident than by design, and although her anger and frustration lead her to attempt to commit a few truly vicious acts, she is generally unsuccessful.  Much of the book bogs down with lengthy travels, times in seclusion, or rambling diatribes about the soul or forgiveness, from which Elphaba can seem to derive no conclusions.  At the end, she suddenly and wholeheartedly believes that the Scarecrow is her long-lost Winkie lover in disguise returning for her, and flies into an inconsolable fury when she realizes this is not the case, a sequence that is incredibly jarring and almost impossible to credit.

The Witch’s life as portrayed by Maguire appears to be a purposeless ramble through her years in which she accomplishes nothing, has no idea what she wants or thinks, and dies accidentally as purposelessly as she lived.  While I appreciate the author’s attempts to humanize the Witch and sympathize with her, and recognize that it is held in some popular esteem, I cannot truthfully say that I found this book to be enjoyable, accurate or particularly recommendation-worthy and I cannot imagine many teens that will not get mired in its endless grind.

Along for the Ride


Title:               Along for the Ride
Category:       Realistic
Grade:            13-17
Author:          Sarah Dessen
Publisher:       Viking
Place:              New York
Date:               2009
Pages:             248

Summary:     
A surprisingly appealing book, Along for the Ride followed teenage Auden.  Studious to a fault, precocious and far too adult for her years, Auden has grown up in the shadow of two extremely successful and prestigious parents and one carefree, spoiled older brother.  After her parents’ divorce, Auden, who cannot sleep nights as a lingering result of the constant fighting, spends nights at the local cafĂ© drinking coffee and reading.  Feeling increasingly disconnected from her mother, Auden eventually decides to spend the summer with her father, his new wife, and their newborn baby.  She discovers quickly that her father has not changed from the spoiled, selfish man he was with Auden’s mother, and that baby Thisbe is a screaming, colicky infant ready to drive Auden’s harried stepmother over the edge.  Auden is reluctant to get involved, but instead begins working at her stepmother’s small store.  Though at first she disdains the girls there, she soon discovers that one, Maggie, is easily as smart as Auden herself, but has somehow balanced intelligence with all the happier parts of being a teen. 

Though Auden is curious, it is the mysterious Eli who finally draws her out of her shell.  Suffering from the loss of a friend in a car accident a year earlier, Eli is wary of intimacy with most of his peers.  The two of them, kindred spirits and fellow insomniacs, begin to explore the town together at night on a quest to give Auden the experiences she missed out on.  A disagreement separates them, but Auden, after watching her family and her father’s consistent refusals to take action to make things work, decides that she will learn to ride a bike – one thing that she has never learned, which will require her to try over and over and over again.  In the process, she will come to understand herself far better, and take another chance on her own relationship. 

Review:
Though Auden’s pompous attitude and detachment from her peers should be distasteful to a reading audience, it was surprisingly easy to sympathize with her anyway.  Teens who have had broken or dysfunctional families will particularly appreciate Auden’s resentment at being caught in the middle and her viewpoints as she watches her family crumble, come together and crumble again.  Relationally oriented, the book is very realistic and contains enough humor and scenes of teens enjoying themselves to keep it from being dry, preachy or overly angsty and dark.  Auden and Eli are well developed with often obnoxious quirks and flaws that manage to make them entirely sympathetic.  The secondary characters are relatively well developed too although some readers may tire of the sometimes relentless descriptions of them behaving the same way over and over again.  Multiple themes run through the book without causing it to be preachy, including family bonds, divorce, stepfamilies, and peer relationships of all kinds.  The question of whether or not people can truly change is a dominant focus throughout the story, and Auden’s journey into the person she truly is, as opposed to who her parents want her to be or believe she is, is both warming and poignant.

The False Princess


Title:               The False Princess
Category:       Fantasy
Grade:            14-18
Author:          Eilis O’Neal
Publisher:       Egmont
Place:              New York
Date:               2011
Pages:             319

Summary:     
A nomination for Teens’ Top Ten that will surely be a fierce competitor, The False Princess is the quintessential princess fantasy for lovers of that sub-genre, and even readers beyond it.  Not long after her sixteenth birthday, Princess Nalia’s world is turned upside down when she is told that she is not, in fact, the princess Nalia.  Born Sinda, she was brought to the palace as an infant to stand in for Nalia, who was squirreled away into hiding to avoid a dire prophecy.  Now that the danger seems to be past, Nalia is to be brought home and Sinda must go.  With a scant handful of coins and the clothes on her back, Sinda is sent to live with her father’s sister, Varil, a cold woman who is both impatient and resentful of Sindra’s ineptness at common tasks and her striking similarity to her mother, a woman Varil detested and blamed for her brother’s death. 

Sindra’s stability is rocked once again when her anger and frustration bring out dangerous latent magic in her.  She flees back to the capitol city where an eccentric wizardess, Philantha, takes her in and agrees to train her.  With her best friend Kiernan, who is determined to stand by her whether she is princess or peasant, Sinda uncovers a mysterious third girl in the princess triangle.  The court wizardess, Melaina, secretly replaced the true princess with her own daughter, hoping to reclaim the throne she believes was stolen from her ancestors.  With another terrible prophecy hanging over her head, Sinda must find the true Nalia and bring her home before Melaina’s daughter, Orianne, is crowned. 

Review:
In the tradition of Beauty and Ella Enchanted, yet far more sophisticated, this book is a delightful pleasure that nevertheless focuses on themes such as loyalty, family, forgiveness, identity and self-acceptance, and a young woman’s growth into independence.  While it does create a setting outside our modern-day natural realm that will deter some teens, and the plot is convoluted, teens who enjoy fantasy will devour this book.  All of fantasy’s favorite stock characters are brought into play, yet the author skillfully takes common components of a traditional tale and consistently does surprising things with them, making the story both the best of traditional stories and a novel escape from them. 

As I mention below, the cover impelled me to read this book.  Although it is a subgenre I tend to be fond of, I was not particularly anxious to immerse myself in a fantasy – they do tend to take more focus and brain power than contemporary realistic fiction.  The novel caught me up in it right away, and was both easy to read and easy to imagine.  While the plot was quite convoluted and sometimes a little confusing for a time, the characters were all unique enough that I never confused them – quite a feat when three imposter princesses that all share the same name are running around. 

The author captured the feel and tone of some of today’s most-loved fantasies like Ella, the Stravaganza books, and Shannon Hale’s writings, but never developed the pompous, often tiresome atmosphere that high fantasy can sometimes take.  The story was unique, with plot twists I did not anticipate, and the many adventures of Sinda and Kiernon were colorful and varied without growing stale, leading to a natural and satisfying conclusion that did not feel forced or contrived.  While the book was not gritty, profane, or angsty, it did still deal with issues of contemporary teens: Sinda struggled with her own identity, felt isolated, dealt with family authority that did not understand her and seemed harsh, agonized over the yesses and no’s of a first love, and went on to save a kingdom.  Appealing mainly to girls as the title will probably send many teen boys running for cover, False Princess will nevertheless find a happy home among girls coming from their childhood princess crazes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie


Title:               The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie
Category:       Nonfiction
Grade:            10-18
Author:          Tanya Lee Stone
Publisher:       Viking
Place:              New York
Date:               2010
Pages:             109

Summary:     
A trend seems to have grown in recent years to write children’s and teen nonfiction on high-interest topics for pleasure reading.  Stone continues this in The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie. This book follows not only the history of the Mattel toy company and the rise of the Barbie doll to her modern throne, but examines other areas of interest including various types of art inspired by Barbie, the impact Barbie has had on girls’ self-perception and the surrounding controversy, and even the tendency for childhood acts of aggression and violence perpetuated on Barbie. 

Review:
Although written in a narrative style, the book is highly visual with photographs and photo collages, captions, quotes of note and other sidebars of stories or information.  Though most of the book is in black and white, the center contains several full-color pages, including some rather disturbing photos of jewelry made from Barbie’s dismembered body parts. Large print and washed out photo backdrops break up the monotony of text on white pages along with the visuals, and make this an inviting look into the life of this modern icon of beauty.

For the most part, this was an inviting book, well written and easy to read.  While it definitely has a niche audience, teens who loved Barbie as a child (or still do) will find it welcoming and extremely informative, not just about Barbie, but about her mother company, Mattel, and her creator, Ruth Handler.  A great resource for a unique research report should the occasion arise, the narrative writing style makes “pleasure” reading for this work an actual pleasure.  While the content is accessible for tweens, the subject matter could easily be useful or interesting to an older teen or even an adult, making this a versatile addition to a library collection in spite of it’s narrow overall niche.  It’s one weakness seems to be some organizational flaws; some information seems repetitive and re-introduced  in multiple parts of the book.  Not a major issue, this slight quirk should not prevent anyone from enjoying the overall presentation.

The Great and Only Barnum


Title:               The Great and Only Barnum
Category:       Biography
Grade:            9-14
Author:          Candace Fleming
Publisher:       Schwartz & Wade      
Place:              New York
Date:               2009
Pages:             142

Summary:     
Barnum’s biography is a fabulous, easy-to-read look at the world’s greatest showman. 

Review:
With biographies generally a hard sell, Candace Fleming has created an enticing look into P.T. Barnum’s life and filled it with visuals, and extra stories and information.  Chapters are separated by full-page illustrated titles, the font is larger than one would generally expect in a nonfiction work, and virtually every page contains photographs, primary source drawings, captions, or black sidebars with extra information or supplemental stories.  The student-friendly text and high visual appeal would make this book accessible even to upper elementary and tweens and younger teens would definitely appreciate this resource for biographical reports.  The narrative, personable writing style would even allow this book to be read simply for pleasure. Although persuading students to select it could be difficult; several might find they were pleasantly surprised at the contents.

I found this book to be an extremely pleasant and intriguing read.  While I have always been fond of the circus, and even entertained thoughts of training as a clown and joining it when I was younger, the book opened up leagues of information that I knew nothing about in the life of P.T. Barnum, mainly his museums and tours prior to beginning in circus work.  Fleming has managed to create a readable, visually appealing, and extremely informative and interesting work on a topic that might be of higher interest than other biographies, but of which little is known.  My only concern would be that older students might reject the book because of its overall tone and visual cues that it was written for a slightly younger audience.

The Dark Game: True Spy Stories


Title:               The Dark Game: True Spy Stories
Category:       Nonfiction
Grade:            14-18
Author:          Paul B. Janeczko
Publisher:       Candlewick
Place:              Somerville, MA
Date:               2010
Pages:             231

Summary:     
Spy stories have been a popular trend for several years now, and The Dark Game adds weight to the subject because it is the real deal – adventure, top notch gadgets and espionage that really happened.  Beginning with the Revolutionary War, Janeczko discusses the course of espionage and central intelligence agencies worldwide up through recent history.  Not only does he highlight some of America’s best spies, but also talks about some of the double agents who turned traitor and delivered American intelligence into enemy hands.  He includes sections on famous espionage cases such as the Zimmerman Telegraph, talks about special spy equipment and discusses several of the many codes spies have used to communicate. 

Review:
While shying away from the more modern approach to nonfiction, Janeckzo in fairness does make great effort to keep his book readable and avoid overly dry or tedious information dissemination.  The book is full of mini-biographies and stories, along with photographs and diagrams as needed.  While his narrative style of writing may have been the reason why this book has been honored with a YALSA award, it would reach a broader audience if it were done as a full-color, high-visual book in the vein of the DK books.  Nonfiction readers accustomed to a “snippet-style” work may be put off by the narrative format, along with younger teens and tweens, although Janeczko does keep his chapters short; older teens will appreciate the more in-depth look at the topic, particularly if they are fans of espionage fiction.  The book also reveals several surprises about our favorite traitors and historical personages like Benedict Arnold and George Washington, although the extensive discussion of the Cold War with no mention of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was a glaring lack. 

Speak


Title:               Speak
Category:       Realistic
Grade:            13-17
Author:          Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher:       Penguin
Place:              New York
Date:               1999
Pages:             198

Summary:     
Melinda is unquestionably the pariah of the school.  After she called the cops to bust up the party event of the summer, even her best friends won’t speak to her.  What no one knows, and Melinda can’t seem to say is that more happened to her at that party than just a couple of beers and some crazy dancing.  Hiding from her once-friends and herself, Melinda finds it harder and harder to even speak at all, chewing her lips raw instead.  Unfortunately, she can’t avoid what happened, or the boy who caused it forever, and when he begins dating her once-best friend, Melinda knows she must find her voice.  Through art and the support of one or two friends who slowly come back to her, she does find the courage to talk about being raped and eventually to confront her attacker and triumph. 

Review:
Similar in characterization and tone to The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, Speak combines an extremely intense subject matter with strong characterization, a bit of humor and an easy-to-read, candid tone that is engrossing. I have been wanting to read Speak for years, and based on all the controversy and “dark” gossip I heard, did not expect it to be as easy a read as it was. The most surprising part was the very positive tone and outcome, even through a time in Melinda’s life where she was deeply disturbed.  On the flip side, Anderson’s portrayal of the callous nature of kids and even adults when faced with a disturbed youth was sobering and, I feel, very realistic.  Teens will be able to connect to Melinda’s isolation and the disconnect between her and the adults in her life, particularly her parents.  Supplemental information suggested that often boys do not understand this book, and do not know why Andy’s actions against Melinda constituted rape nor why she reacted the way she did, but that the book has been used successfully to help them begin to both understand and respect the opposite sex in a new way. 

Some of the parts of this story seemed faintly contrived; I had trouble believing Melinda could confiscate a janitor’s closet that remained unlocked all year, and go completely unnoticed.  Likewise, while I appreciated Melinda’s opportunity to go “girl power” on Andy and put his life in danger, I found the scene with the shattered mirror slightly hard to believe.  Nevertheless, the book’s honesty, power, and warmth of approach have earned it high praise and a lasting place in the literary canon, and I am happy to be in wholehearted agreement.

The Wee Free Men


Title:               The Wee Free Men
Category:       Fantasy
Grade:            10-14
Author:          Terry Pratchett
Publisher:       HarperCollins
Place:              New York
Date:               2003
Pages:             263

Summary:     
Nine-year-old Tiffany’s family has lived in the hills of Chalk country for as long as they can remember.  For as long as she can remember, she’s wanted to be a witch.  Unknown to Tiffany, she is a witch, and will soon be called upon to use all her powers to rescue her sticky little brother from the Queen of the Elves.  Fortunately, she is not alone, as the wee free men, the Nac Mac Feegle, have befriended her and are ready to come to her aid… when they can stop drinking, fighting and looting, that is.  Armed with her frying pan, her friends, and the wisdom of her Granny Aching, Tiffany ventures through the gate into the Queen’s world, discovering creatures straight out of her nightmares, and also creatures that could put her into new nightmares.  As the tricks of the Queen grow more devious, Tiffany rescues another missing boy, Roland, but fails to save her brother.  Ultimately, she must face the Queen alone on the border of the real and the magical to bring her brother home. 

Review:
The book is told in high fantasy style, although far more readable than most high fantasy; however, its landscape and language can be jarring for non-fantasy readers, who will not care for it.  The story is told in an offbeat, humorous tone that makes it accessible for younger teens, tweens and even upper elementary students, and of course, the child hero uses her common sense, her bond with her family and her own powers of observation to save the day.

Discworld is a bit confusing to me, as I had understood this series to be sometimes classified as adult fantasy, yet have a hard time even classing it fully as teen literature.  Wee Free Men was a decent book, and fortunately, no prior knowledge of Discworld was required to read this story and enjoy it; it is capable of standing alone.  I would not exactly classify this as a children’s book, but many teens may be put off by the extreme youth of the heroine and the simple, magical plot elements.  It does not contain a lot for contemporary teens to relate to, either in plot, characterization, or theme, and the extreme fantasy setting will be off-putting to teens who do not love the genre.  Nevertheless, for teens who do truly enjoy fantasy, this book is a decent addition, easy to read, and putting it down does result in the “I wonder what happens; I guess I’ll keep reading” feeling. 

Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto


Title:               Seth Baumgartner’s Love Manifesto
Category:       Realistic
Grade:            13-16
Author:          Eric Luper
Narrator:       Nick Podehl
Publisher:       Brilliance Audio
Place:              Solon, OH
Date:               2010
Pages:             N/A

Summary:     
When your girlfriend breaks up with you, you lose your job, and you discover your father is having an affair, the day can’t get much worse.  Seth Baumgartner’s response is to start a podcast, the “Love Manifesto,” in which he anonymously tells the stories of sleuthing after his cheating father, plays appropriate music, and lists all the reasons why he loved his ex-girlfriend… the ones he was never able to say to her face.  Seth Baumgartner’s Love Manifesto is a comic look at the trials and tribulations of major teen milestones like holding a summer job, dealing with parents, breaking up and falling in love. 

Review:
Seth’s dry commentary and the goofy antics of his best friend, Dimitri, are definitely laugh-inducing on a regular basis.  Nick Podehl is a decent narrator, with a wonderful ability to mimic pitches and accents that allowed him to singlehandedly bring the cast of this comedic romp to life.  He takes listeners along as they follow Seth at work, on the golf course, and into the seedier parts of town as he tries to put the evidence of his father’s affair together.  Reviewers have pointed out that the podcast itself was one of the weaker elements of the book, and this appears to be true – it seems to add very little to the story and was generally a low point; however, teens with a love for current music will appreciate the incorporation of many favorite artists and songs into the podcast.  The most important storylines appeared to be Seth’s blooming relationship with Audrey and the growing evidence of his father’s infidelity.  When Seth forces that issue to a head, he unearths a startling discovery about his family that I nevertheless found completely predictable.  All in all however, the book was a funny and enjoyable read that will draw boys and girls alike to its pages. While Love Manifesto definitely has its faults, it was one of those stories that just ends up being fun.  I generally do not care for audio books because I can read much faster than I can listen and get impatient with droning narrators.  Podehl was decent as a narrator; his dialect and pitch work during dialogue was fantastic, making his characters believable and usually distinct (even the girls). His non-dialect work was fair, but he did get into a slight rut on occasion that sent me to sleep.  In both his and the author’s favor, however, I was able to “get into” this story as an audio book right away, which is unusual.  Some of the plot points in Love Manifesto were a bit clunky and either predictable or unresolved, and the book may attract children younger than its intended audience.  Many teens will be able to overlook these flaws though, I think, due to the humor and candid realism with which Seth approaches his disaster of a life.

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things


Title:               The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things
Category:       Realistic
Grade:            12-16
Author:          Carolyn Mackler
Publisher:       Candlewick
Place:              Cambridge, MA
Date:               2003
Pages:             246

Summary:     
Reminiscent of Speak, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things deals with an extremely difficult subject realistically but with a touch of humor and a positive, resilient outlook.  Virginia Shreves is not only a bit larger than average, she is the black sheep of her family, who are all intelligent, slender, and stylish.  While her older brother is wildly successful at college and her parents are prestigious and well-to-do, Virginia suffers a steady stream of cruelties from her peers at school and desperately hates the way she looks.  Along the way, she muses over the role food plays in her life, tries to find a niche in school now that her best friend has moved, and experiments with romance in the form of the local geek, Froggy.  When her perfect brother, Byron, is suspended from school for raping another student, Virginia’s world begins to come apart.  Resentful that her family continues to ostracize her and make cruel comments about her appearance while still favoring her brother, Virginia begins the search for her own identity and the strength to make decisions for herself, even in defiance of her family.  Ultimately, Virginia is not only able to come to terms with herself, but establishes her own niche at school and becomes a leader in her own right. 

Review:
A definite girl-power book, Big Round Things deals honestly with the very real issues of disordered eating and the importance of appearance in our society.  Powerful scenes of Virginia abusing her own body in tears and dealing with stress through food help send messages to teens about their bodies without being preachy, moralistic or overly factual – Mackler does a great job of showing the effects of obesity and disordered eating instead of just talking about it.  Virginia is a complex, fully realized character, although other characters in the book tend to be far more two dimensional.  Humor and a relatively straightforward plot line help keep this book readable and Virginia’s eventual self-acceptance and empowerment is heartwarming. As the title and cover of this book could easily appeal to readers younger than its intended content, it is not difficult to see why people have objected to this book frequently.  However, like Speak, the overall impact of the book is extremely positive and affirming to teens who struggle with obesity or simply disordered eating.  In spite of the often serious subject matter, the book was a lot of fun to read.  Teens will be attracted to the simple language and the realism, including Virginia’s struggles to get her parents to see her as a person and allow her to make some of her own decisions and function independently.  It is difficult to tell whether Virginia’s parents were really as shallow and callous as they are portrayed or whether that was simply her perception of them; nevertheless, teens feeling misunderstood will completely relate to this protagonist. 

Tender Morsels


Title:               Tender Morsels
Category:       Fantasy
Grade:            14+
Author:          Margo Lanagan
Publisher:       Alfred A. Knopf
Place:              New York
Date:               2008
Pages:             433

Summary:     
Liga has grown to womanhood in a dark and violent home.  Impregnated by her father on multiple occasions and finally gang-raped by a group of town boys, Liga flees to the woods to take her own life and that of her infant’s.  Instead, a powerful magic enables her to escape into her own personal heaven, where she raises her two daughters in peace.  Yet the borders of her heaven are not secure; when the town witch breaches them for the sake of a self-centered dwarf, visitors begin to come occasionally to Liga’s new world from her old, most often trapped in the form of a wild bear. Though Liga is content, her younger daughter Urdda is restless.  Eventually escaping to the real world, Urdda manages to find a powerful sorceress to bring her sister and mother back as well, where they discover that the old witch-woman’s meddlings have created a powerful imbalance in the world.  Together they must build a new life for themselves and learn to live again in their real world. 

Review:
A dark book, Tender Morsels deals with many very serious issues such as incest, abortion, vengeance, and rape, but also takes a look at love.  Carolyn Lehman of Humboldt State University comments that the novel also explores the idea of dissociation as a response to severe trauma (http://amongamidwhile.blogspot.com/2008/10/fifth-star-for-tender-morsels-slj.html). Slower-paced, this novel is nevertheless richly characterized and a very intense read. Tender Morsels was a disturbing book to read.  Some teens may like it simply out of morbid fascination for the graphic indignities visited upon Liga.  It is, very loosely told, the story of Snow White and Rose Red from the old fairy tale canon, and folklore fans will appreciate that element of it.  Unlike most teen novels, and in a lack I felt sorely, the novel does not provide much hope for the much-abused Liga even by the end.  While allowing her to marry the Bear she fell in love with would likely be too predictable, having him marry her daughter seemed to be a depressive and unjust ending for her.  While Urdda’s own blooming sorcery did avenge Liga for the cruelties of the town youth, her story ended as it had begun, with redemption perhaps, but no joy.  Older teens may appreciate the richly developed characters, and the unresolved questions at the end leave the book practically begging for discussion.  While Tender Morsels is not for the fainthearted, it is definitely a book that will provoke thought and leave an impact on its readers.

Ship Breaker


Title:               Ship Breaker
Category:       Science Fiction, Dystopian
Grade:            12-17
Author:          Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher:       Little, Brown & Company
Place:              New York
Date:               2010
Pages:             323

Summary:     
An exciting and very readable addition to the dystopian and steampunk science fiction genres, Ship Breaker tells the story of young Nailer, a teen who is still small enough to scavenge the pipes of the many wrecked tankers that litter the coast of his primitive world.  Living with his drug-riddled, abusive father, Nailer dreams of being the next “Lucky Strike,” a scavenger who found and was able to profit from the discovery of a secret, unclaimed cache of oil.  When a hurricane wrecks a luxury ship near Nailer’s home, he and his crew leader, Pima, believe their wish has come true until they discover the wealthy daughter of a powerful shipping company mogul barely alive onboard.  Though Nailer chooses mercy and rescues her, knowing it could cost him his chance to grow rich and escape, Nailer’s father is not so generous.  Nailer, Pima and Sadna escape, and a full-scale chase across the country, over land and sea, ensues.  Eventually Nailer must make a choice between his own life and that of his father, in this brutal, environmentally-oriented story. 

Review:
Ship Breaker combines the best of the dystopian genre with complex and likeable characters, common struggles and themes that contemporary teens can relate to, and a fast-paced, readable narrative sure to make it a hit. In spite of the fact that Ship Breaker creates an entirely new post-Apocalypse dystopia, Bacigalupi’s characters, like Westerfeld’s in Uglies, struggle with contemporary and relevant wishes and worries that will arouse sympathy and understanding from modern teens.  Nailer is forced to makes several extremely difficult life-and-death decisions, not just for his own life, but for those of his friends and family.  Teens will be able to relate to Nailer’s wish to find a way out of his circumstances, and his struggle over being free of his father, and remaining loyal to him because of the bond of family.  They will also have strong opinions about Nailer’s choice to sacrifice his own happiness, riches and even freedom in order to save another’s life, not once but several times.  In spite of the foreignness of Nailer’s environment, the book is highly readable, its characters and situations easy to like and relate to, and its bittersweet conclusion leaves us satisfied without being overly sappy or moralistic. Some books just make us think.  While Ship Breaker for me was not on par with After or Unwind, it is both a highly engaging read and a promising classroom tool for discussion.  Teens are often highly engaged, opinionated, and vociferous when it comes to questions of ethics and morality, and Nailer’s choices leave a lot of room for debate and discussion.  Though dystopian stories are often a deterrent to many teens, who prefer more familiar settings, Nailer deals with a whole spectrum of issues they can relate to, from substance abuse to domestic neglect and violence, romance, and even working that first dead-end job.  Ship Breaker is action-packed with a colorful array of characters and landscapes that keep it from being preachy, and includes a strong undercurrent of environmentalism that will strike a chord with today’s concerned teens.
 

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