Monthly Archives: January 2008

“The Interns: Fashionistas” by Chloe Walsh


I'll have to say right up front that I'm not a big fan of that subset of YA chick lit that features bitchy teen girls acting like extras from "Sex and the City," all while name dropping the latest clothes, bags, shoes, gadgets, makeup, and jewelry. These books always tend to strike me as superficial and mean spirited, thus overriding whatever candy confection fun there is to be had from watching beautiful people tool around in fabulous clothes.

"Fashionistas" fits squarely into the genre I just derided above, but, to its credit, it occasionally reaches higher, showing glimmers of heart, touches of honesty, and the rare flicker of genuine female friendship. Mostly, however, this book is about as shallow as my bank account.

Our four interns — spoiled socialite Aynsley; smart and mousy Ava; brassy, diva-like Nadine; and country girl Callie — are spending the summer working at Couture, a glitzy fashion magazine in NYC. The plot, such as it is, involves tons of drinking, flirting, backstabbing, manipulation, and designer clothes, as Aynsley and Nadine bar hop each night while Ava lives some sort of double life and Callie steals designs to get ahead. Fun!

I guess the author is going for a "Gossip Girl" tone, as there are occasional snarky posts from the Fashionista blog, but, honestly, those feel like an afterthought. This book is incredibly fast-paced, using an MTV quick-cut edits style to (a) maintain the runaway locomotive pace, and (b) distract the reader from the fact that there's not a whole lot of substance behind these cardboard characters and flimsy plot elements. "Fashionistas" is, at best, a guilty pleasure. Still, I wish more had happened; there's barely any romance here, and that should be a chick lit staple! Since the book ends abruptly at the midpoint of a glamorous party (needless to say, I felt cheated), those who are still marginally interested will have to wait for the "Truth or Fashion" sequel to find out if Callie's lies get exposed, Nadine finally sobers up, Aynsley loses her internship, or Ava … well, if something ever happens with Ava, since she's a mere shadow in this book.

"Fashionistas" comes out May 8th, and, really, I can only suggest it to high school age fans of the genre who have tired of the other series books. Also, although marketed as a teen novel, the girls here are mostly in college and they act accordingly. This one's not for the younger set. Consider yourselves warned.

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Posted by on January 31, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“The Night Tourist” by Katherine Marsh


I guess the easiest way to describe "The Night Tourist" is as a ghost story / Manhattan travelogue. You don't hear that one every day, I'm sure!

Ninth-grader Jack Perdu is the only child of a single father, an archeology professor at Yale. Despite his young age, Jack himself is a Classics scholar who is translating Ovid's "Metamorphoses" from Latin into English. Would you be shocked to learn, then, that Jack is an introspective loner with no friends? Yeah, I thought not.

Jack survives a pretty severe car accident with no apparent damage, although, just to be safe, his father puts him on a train to New York City to see a special doctor. The doctor basically photographs Jack and sends him on his way. Okay, then. While in the office, Jack does manage to snag an antique subway token. Good thing, too, because when Jack follows mysterious prep school student Euri into the bowels of Grand Central Terminal, that pilfered token allows him to cross over into the underworld. See, Euri is actually dead, and has been for some time. Turns out Grand Central is a sort of holding point for trapped souls, those who have died in Manhattan but have not yet moved on to the afterlife. Each night, those souls get transported above ground via fountains throughout the city. The souls (ghosts, spirits, whatever you want to call them) get to spend each night flitting about New York, but they must return to Grand Central each dawn.

So why is Jack — who survived the car accident — stuck in the underworld, too? Good question, and that's basically the central mystery of this appealing and beautifully written novel. Is Jack dead? Can he locate his deceased mother during his three days in the underworld? Will Euri be able to pass over, or, perhaps, somehow become human again? I promise, all these questions are answered, although the ending admittedly left me a bit befuddled. While it's refreshing when a teen novel doesn't wrap up in a neat bow, the resolution felt like a letdown. Eh, see what you think.

This book reminded me somewhat of Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere," which takes place exclusively in "London Below," a sort of parallel world beneath London's streets. I liked that it explored the larger issues of life, death, and forgiveness, while also providing lots of action (flights through the city, guard chases, etc.) and plenty of humorous touches (for example, there is a souls orientation in the New York Public Library). Add in liberal doses of the Classics and a lovely sense of wonder in seeing New York from an utterly new perspective, and you have the makings of a complex, enjoyable, yet gentle novel about love and friendship. While I'd recommend this book for middle school age readers and up, I suspect that there are many adults who would like "The Night Tourist" as well. I hope you'll give it a try.

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Posted by on January 30, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Football Genius” by Tim Green


"Football Genius" is former NFL player-turned-author Tim Green's first book for young people. Since we're a week away from the Super Bowl, and since we New Jerseyites have a dog in this fight, let me take this opportunity to say, GO GIANTS! Now back to our regularly scheduled review.

The story here is pretty simple. Troy is a Georgia sixth grader who never knew his real dad. He's a second-string quarterback for the Tigers, even though he has gobs more talent than Jamie Renfro, the starter. See, Jamie's dad is the coach, and both father and son are complete jerks and bullies. To show Jamie up, Troy steals an official Atlanta Falcons football from Seth Holloway, an NFL veteran who lives in a nearby gated community. Conveniently, Troy's single mom has just landed a job with the Falcons public relations staff, so it's easy enough for her to arrange a meeting with Seth at which Troy is to apologize for his actions and return the ball.

Mom also snags some field passes from Mr. Langan, the kindly owner of the Falcons. So what goes wrong? Well, Troy has this uncanny ability to predict exactly what the next play in a football game will be. He labels it "ESP," but it's more like his brain is acting as a supercomputer, calculating all the possible options based on field position, past plays, the players involved, etc. Troy is incredibly normal in all other aspects of life, but the football genius talent (title alert!) is something else. So when Troy finds himself on the sidelines for the big Falcons / Cowboys game, where he knows without a doubt what play the Cowboys offense will run, he storms up to defensive coordinator and all-around bad guy Coach Krock to try to warn him. Thus follows an extended bit in which Troy lands in tons of trouble, nearly gets his mom fired, and then continually pesters mom, Seth, and the entire Falcons establishment to let him help the struggling team by using his football genius talent for their benefit.

First off, I should state there are plenty of good things to say in this book's favor. Overall, it is a very sweet and wholesome book. It's refreshing to see honesty and morality portrayed in a plain, non-judgmental way. Troy knows stealing, trespassing, and lying are wrong, and he believably struggles with his conscience to do what is right, all without any "fire and brimstone" overtones. The friendship between Troy, the girl kicker / punter Tate, and the big lineman Nathan is nicely portrayed, too, as these kids seem like real, genuine friends who stand up for each other in ways both ordinary and heroic. They seem like the kind of friends any 12 year old would love to have. The kids are also resourceful, devising intelligent, often complicated schemes to get Troy's mom, Seth, and the Falcons to believe in Troy.

On the downside, you'll need to suspend a lot of belief to buy into "Football Genius." I'm willing to buy that a kid can read plays and predict football action better than professionals. But that that same kid would be so pivotal to an NFL team's success is a bigger leap of faith, one which the novel never fully justifies. There are some gaping holes in the plot (um, don't the Falcons ever play away games?) that you'll have to overlook to enjoy this novel. Even beyond all this, some of the characters are stock villains at best. The bad guys — Krock, Jamie, Coach Renfro — are so one-note, so unrelentingly evil, that you half expect them to start twirling a mustache or something. It really is that hammy and overdone.

I think there are better sports books out there for young middle schoolers, particularly Mike Lupica's "Travel Team" books (which also feature a sports underdog and a great boy / girl friendship) and John Feinstein's sports / mystery mash-ups "Last Shot," "Vanishing Act," and "Cover Up" (all of which present smart, capable kids entering the professional sports world in much more believable ways). Still, there's nothing especially wrong with "Football Genius," which is an easy-to-read novel just about bursting with pages and pages of on-field football action. It's incredibly clean and inoffensive as well, making it a good choice for young sports lovers, both boys and girls.


Posted by on January 25, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Otherspace” by David Stahler, Jr.


Oddly enough, I am about to review the third book in the "Truesight" sci-fi trilogy, having never read the first two novels. Fear not! Although I'm sure knowledge of both "Truesight" and "The Seer" would've enriched my experience, "Otherspace" works pretty well as a stand alone novel. Besides, author David Stahler does a capable job filling in the back story, so we quickly learn (or, for you veterans out there, are reminded) that Jacob was born without vision to a colony of Blinders on the planet Nova Campi. Basically, Blinders were genetically engineered by the shadowy Foundation to be sightless beings. Jacob's colony was repressive — they even employed a group of Listeners to monitor behavior — so when he mysteriously gained his sight as a young teen, Jacob had no choice but to flee the group. Along with Jacob's sight came a sort of visionary talent, an ability to see glimpses of the future in confusing, often fractured dreams.

As our novel begins, Jacob has decided to leave his home planet and surrogate family to follow the vision of a young boy who calls him to the remote world of Teiresias. There, Jacob believes he'll find a whole settlement of people just like him, ex-Blinders with remarkable talents. He also hopes to gain control of his visions and, ultimately, discover where his destiny lies.

From here, it's a flat-out space adventure, which, as a general rule, I tend to enjoy. "Otherspace" does not disappoint. Once Jacob boards the space vessel Odessa, we find the conflicted Captain Bennet, who seems torn by Jacob's very presence on the ship, and a disturbing fellow passenger named Folgrin. Ships in this universe travel long distances by entering something called otherspace (hence, the title of the book; nothing gets past me, right?). Otherspace, a sort of hyperspace through wormholes, leaves most passengers in a state of paralysis; for Jacob, it's a time when he becomes wonderfully alive to the streaking stars and the harmonic music of the galaxy. All this is intriguing enough, and that's before we even factor in space pirates; a witch and her bagpipe-playing husband (!); a luxury liner; a planet partially in perpetual darkness; an underground settlement; betrayal and redemption; a budding romance; and a race against time to save Teiresias from the clutches of evil. Good stuff!

I can't think of another way to describe this book other than as a rollicking adventure with a serious vibe. Mostly, it's plain fun, and after a bit of a slow start, it jets along nicely. While it's hard to get a good handle on some of the characters, the swift pacing, incredibly cool space details, and gentle philosophical overtones will keep you interested. This is an obvious recommendation for fans of the first two books, but, beyond that, I think middle school readers — and boys in particular — will enjoy "Otherspace." The book comes out at the end of April … look for it then!

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Posted by on January 23, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Suite Scarlett” by Maureen Johnson


Hooray for advance reading copies! "Suite Scarlett," Maureen Johnson's ("13 Little Blue Envelopes") latest book, doesn't officially come out until May 1st. I was incredibly lucky to snag an advance reading copy, which is basically an uncorrected version of the book in paperback format, typically given out for promotional or review purposes.

I cannot overstate how much I love all of Maureen's books. In an age of mindless chick lit for girls, Maureen writes novels where the heroines are smart, spunky, and with fierce independent streaks. But the books are also pretty breezy and light as well, and you can generally count on a big old dollop of romance mixed in, too. What more can you ask for? 😀

"Suite Scarlett" lives up to everything I've come to expect from a Maureen Johnson novel. Here's the basic setup: Scarlett Martin is the 15 year-old daughter of a hotel-owning family. Before you get any grand illusions of the Four Seasons, you should know that the Hopewell Hotel is a shabby, art deco hotel in Manhattan that has no staff, no guests, a creaky elevator, clogged toilets, and a barely functioning kitchen. It's summer time, and all of Scarlett's friends are off on adventures while she's stuck working at the Hopewell. Scarlett's parents barely make more than cameo appearances in the book, so the focus is mainly on Scarlett; her older brother, Spencer, who is a budding actor and physical comedian; her older sister, Lola, who dates a rich, dumb guy and works the makeup counter at Bendel's; and her younger sister, cancer survivor and all-around brat Marlene.

Scarlett has resigned herself to a hot, dreary summer when a very wealthy, eccentric guest, Mrs. Amberson, arrives for a lengthy stay at the Hopewell. Mrs. Amberson soon makes Scarlett her assistant, which primarily involves procuring odd teas and running strange errands, all in the name of Mrs. Amberson's unwritten book. At this point, I was so worried "Suite Scarlett" would veer off into "The Devil Wears Prada" territory, with an overbearing, demeaning boss ordering around a young woman. Not to worry. Mrs. Amberson, although a bit childish at times, definitely has Scarlett's best interests in mind.

While all this is going on, Spencer is facing his parents' one-year deadline to find a paying acting job, lest he be forced to enroll in culinary school. Spencer is a natural actor, so when he lands the part of Rosencrantz in a production of "Hamlet," Scarlett is thrilled. Ok, it's "Hamlet" to be staged in a parking garage, and Spencer will be riding a unicycle, but it's a real acting job, right? Even better from Scarlett's perspective, Eric, a handsome, seemingly sweet guy from North Carolina, has been cast as Gildenstern, Spencer's partner in comic relief. Eric will be spending lots of time with Spencer, running lines and practicing physical tricks and stunts, which is just fine by Scarlett. She likes the way Eric treats her as if she's someone special and magical.

That's probably enough of a plot outline. What follows is a sort of madcap, almost screwball comedy involving the staging of the play, the larger-than-life Mrs. Amberson, a misguided scheme to exact revenge upon one of Mrs. Amberson's old rivals, a budding romance between Eric and Scarlett, and some family angst. Yes, that's a lot to take in, but it also makes for great reading, since there's plenty of light comedy and a nice dash of sarcasm along the way. I also loved the interactions between Scarlett and her older siblings, Spencer and Lola. It's so rare to find siblings who are true friends in a young adult novel, particularly when that depiction never enters saccharine or artificial territory. Maureen has created a believable family where the brothers and sisters get on each other's nerves, argue, and yet still help and support each other. They actually like each other. Go figure.

I read this book in basically one sitting (is "devoured" too strong a word, I wonder?), which I believe is the way lots of you will read it as well. I think you'll love Scarlett's smart, resourceful character, and you'll find yourself eagerly cheering on Spencer's cockeyed production of "Hamlet." While this book has some flaws (younger sister Marlene seems like no more than a hollow plot device, and a few elements — the eccentric actor, absent parents, and romance that ends on an unsettled note — are recycled from previous novels), these are minor complaints when compared to the sheer enjoyment of reading "Suite Scarlett." I can't wait to recommend this to my young female readers, in say grades six and up. This one's a keeper!


Posted by on January 15, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher


One quick disclaimer before I launch into my rave review of Jay Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why": I listened to the audiobook version, which is performed with compelling depth and emotion by Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman. While I think the text alone should make a fantastic read, the audiobook brings it up to a whole other level, as we get to hear the sad, increasingly desperate voice of suicide victim Hannah Baker.

Yes, as stated in the preceding sentence, high school student Hannah Baker is dead as the novel begins. Her suicide, shrouded in mystery and rumor — as her life often was — has devastated her sort-of-friend and one-time hookup Clay Jensen. As the novel opens, Clay has received a mail package with no return address. Inside, he finds a set of cassette tapes (think 80s-style Walkman) recorded by Hannah in the time before her death. Hannah has directed one side of each tape (13 in total) to a friend, classmate, or enemy who in some way contributed to her emotional destruction. Clay listens to the tapes through his headphones as he retraces Hannah's last steps, visiting the home of a peeping tom, the local coffeehouse and diner, and the site of a climactic party. As each tape passes, Clay is increasingly horrified to discover that the most popular girl in class, the cheerleader, and the guy who is everyone's friend have committed awful — or at the very least terribly mean-spirited — acts upon Hannah. At the same time, Clay keeps searching his memory for the instance when he, too, wronged Hannah. Clay is confused, because he genuinely cannot recall feeling anything for Hannah but longing, affection, and, finally, sorrow.

At first, I thought Hannah's voice from beyond the grave, and her insistence that the tapes' recipients retrace her steps, keep her secrets, and pass her package along to the next person, smacked of an ugly vindictiveness. But as Hannah's heartbreaks become clear, as the awful toll of each misery, ill-founded rumor, and broken friendship pile up, I lost any sense of animosity toward her character. Instead, I felt much like Clay, wanting only to reach through those tapes and somehow stop this sad, broken girl from completely destroying herself.

I won't say too much else about the plot, because it's important to follow Hannah's story of betrayal in the order in which she presents it. As I mentioned, it's the impact of all those actions, the sum total upon Hannah's psyche, that makes this book so devastating. I think as soon as you start reading, you'll be hooked. Even knowing in advance that Hannah is dead, this gripping novel is full of suspense. It also works great as a discussion book, as "Thirteen Reasons Why" raises lots of complex issues like the effects of teen gossip, self-destructive sexual behavior, loneliness, and, of course, suicide. Since many of these topics are a bit sensitive for younger readers, I'd say this one is targeted squarely at high school age folks. I don't think you'll be disappointed. Truly, this is one of the best books I've read in the past year, and it deserves every bit of praise I can heap upon it.

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Posted by on January 14, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Safe” by Susan Shaw


Susan Shaw's "Safe" feels to me a bit like a gentler "Speak," perhaps one geared more toward younger girls. The novel begins on Tracy's last day of 7th grade, as she is walking home from a half day of school with her best friend Caroline. An older teen in an orange car grabs Tracy just as Caroline's front door slams, attacks her, and leaves her for dead in the street. In the aftermath of the assault, Tracy spends a summer as a virtual prisoner, afraid to leave the safety of home to visit friends, hike in the woods, or attend her beloved basketball camp. Tracy's dad is super understanding, giving her plenty of support, and even taking her to see a therapist. But Tracy is so closed off from the experience that it takes almost the entire book for her to attach the word "rape" to what happened to her. As the summer passes, we see Tracy struggle with disturbing thoughts, which continue to arise despite all her best efforts to move beyond the rape. Tracy's only real refuge during this time is her piano playing, which is a hobby she didn't much enjoy prior to the attack. During the summer, Tracy discovers a newfound love of music, spending entire days at the piano, practicing, composing new music, and losing herself and her troubles in the notes that she plays.

"Safe" is a short novel that packs quite a punch. There are elements of poetry throughout the book (Tracy cherishes a poem copied from a magazine and repeatedly recites to herself a snippet of an old lullaby), which give the whole novel a quiet, lyrical tone. Tracy's attack is also portrayed very discretely, with no shock value or gratuitous details. Instead, the novel focuses on Tracy repairing the battered part of her spirit, and, as such, the book is ultimately quite hopeful and inspiring. My only criticism, and it is admittedly slight, lies in the fact that Tracy's friends and schoolmates seem remarkably immune to gossip about her assault. When Tracy returns to school, even boys (8th grade boys, mind you) that she barely knows are sensitive and encouraging. Malicious gossip among teens is so prevalent — consider how many times you've recently read a news story on cyberbullying — that creating a world where it doesn't exist at all struck me as patently false. Other than that minor criticism, I have no hesitation recommending this book to middle school readers.

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Posted by on January 14, 2008 in Uncategorized


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