Monthly Archives: February 2008

“Sweethearts” by Sara Zarr


Before I say anything else, let me wholeheartedly recommend author Sara Zarr's first book, "Story of a Girl." There's a review in this very blog, so please click here and check it out for yourself. Believe me, "Story of a Girl" deserved all the praise it received, including being selected as a finalist for the National Book Award.

"Sweethearts," Zarr's latest novel, is much different in tone and subject matter, although Zarr's quiet, poetic writing remains constant. This is basically a small story about claiming the person you are and want to be. I know, I thought it would be a love story, based on (duh!) the title, as well as the cover image of a heart-shaped cookie with one bite removed. I guess in a sense it is a love story, but not a typical kiss-kiss, hug-hug one, if that makes sense.

Jenna Vaughn is a senior at a small arts high school in Utah. She has reinvented herself over the years, morphing from fat, unkempt, picked-upon Jennifer Harrison to thin, popular, and beloved Jenna Vaughn. Jenna's lone friend from childhood, Cameron Quick, literally disappeared from her life one day after a troubling incident involving his abusive father. In surviving Cameron's loss — Jenna was told he died — she destroys the person she once was. Growth and change are all well and good, but Jenna genuinely has little sense of herself anymore. Almost all Jenna's actions and words, including her decision to become Ethan's girlfriend, reflect how she thinks she is "supposed to" behave in order to be normal and liked. Her own wants and needs, even her true personality, have been buried.

You see where this is going, right? Cameron mysteriously reappears in Jenna's life, with little explanation as to where he's been all these years, and helps her remember who she is. That seems terrific, I agree. Unfortunately, all we know about Cameron is that he's tall, good looking, aloof, unfailingly loyal to Jenna, and possibly damaged in some way. Sadly, this remains basically all we know about Cameron even as the book ends. He plainly loves Jenna, and she him, but not in a traditional way. They don't date or even kiss, but it's as if they've shown each other their souls and now connect on a level that moves beyond high school love. While that's lovely, the relationship is so distant, so elusive, that I found it difficult to become fully invested, emotionally, in their story.

Have any of you folks read Gabrielle Zevin's "Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac"? Do you remember Naomi's damaged, lost boyfriend, James, who always seemed two steps removed from the reader? That is exactly what Cameron is like. Eh.

As I said, the writing here is just beautiful, with lyrical passages and beautiful, quiet moments that never go over the top. It's also a fairly short book with mostly believable teenagers acting in mostly believable ways, which should be good news for our teen readers. I'd say this is a book aimed squarely at the high school audience, although there's nothing offensive or graphically portrayed here, meaning younger readers might enjoy it as well. I do recommend this book. I only wish Cameron's character evolved into something more than a distant, almost mythic hero making essentially a cameo appearance in Jenna's life.

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Posted by on February 28, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“This is What I Did” by Ann Dee Ellis


Am I the only one who judges a book by its cover? I did here, and, to be honest, I wasn't quite sure what to make of "This is What I Did," what with its ugly pea green cover and spare white outline of a young boy in a baseball cap. Flipping through the book, I immediately noticed that instead of chapters, the story is divided into short sections composed primarily of dialogue. Cool, I thought, I'm all for a fast read! What was really interesting was that each section was separated from the others by a stark black graphic image. These included such apparently dissimilar icons as E.T., a DNA double helix, a shovel, a fly, an overturned bicycle, a sleeping bag, an elliptical machine, and, yeah, Peter Pan.

Hrm, what to make of this, I thought. So random! But I'll give author Ann Dee Ellis credit, because all these odd images relate directly back to her story of 8th grade outcast Logan. See, Logan is keeping a huge, shameful secret involving some type of awful incident with his former best friend Zyler and his pretty neighbor Cami. All we know now is that Logan is a bullied loner and the victim of cruel pranks and rumors by a group of his classmates. He's severely disconnected from his folks and younger twin brothers, and his only meaningful contact with his peers revolves around sharing palindromes (words or phrases that are spelled the same front and back) with the eccentric actress Laurel.

The mystery of Logan's secret unfolds as he recounts Scout hazing, the old days with Zyler, school play rehearsals, and psychologist visits. Logan mixes events in the past and present, merging them together in a detached way that keeps the reader constantly guessing about what happened. While this is an effective tactic for a mystery or psychological drama — everyone loves suspense, right? — it unfortunately keeps Logan forever beyond the reader's reach. I had the hardest time empathizing with this empty boy. While I understand that Logan's blankness reflects his inability to cope with his past, for far too much of the novel he is almost completely devoid of genuine emotions, wishes, and regrets. As a character, he remains much like that blank outline on the book's cover.

"This is What I Did" is by no means a bad novel, and it is short, serious, and engaging. I just think there are better middle school books on either bullying (going all the way back to Robert Cormier's "The Chocolate War") or the destructive power of secrets (E.L. Konigsburg's "Silent to the Bone" comes immediately to mind). If you give this book a shot, please let us know what you think.

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Posted by on February 20, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan


I can't believe it took me so long to read a book you all have known about for ages! I guess the idea of young Olympic gods in modern times made me think "The Lightning Thief" would be heavy or boring. I was so, so wrong. This is a clever, fun, action-packed book that expertly weaves ancient Greek myths throughout its highly entertaining narrative. It's about the farthest thing from boring I can imagine. My bad!

Perseus ("Percy") Jackson is the son of a candy store worker and a cruel poker-playing stepfather, whom he calls "Smelly Gabe." Percy has attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, so he's had a rough time just completing the 6th grade at Yancy Academy, his upstate boarding school for challenged students. Most of his classmates and teachers overlook Percy, and he, too, sees himself as nothing special. Yes, there was the small matter of accidentally vanquishing his sinister math teacher Mrs. Dodds during a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but, afterward, all Percy's classmates seem to have forgotten her very existence. Yet again, Percy fades into the background of Yancy life.

Once the school year ends, Percy heads home, accompanied on the NYC bus by his only Yancy friend, Grover Underwood, a scrawny guy with atrophied leg muscles. Grover makes some cryptic statements about being Percy's protector, but none of that makes sense until later, when Percy and his mom are attacked by a minotaur, a part man / part bull creature. Grover is actually one of Pan's satyrs with cloven hooves (!) sent to keep Percy safe. He must get Percy to Half-Blood Hill, a summer camp sanctuary for kids who are half-god and half-mortal. Turns out, Percy's dad was, in fact, an Olympic god, although at first he's not sure which one. Go figure, right? With training at Half-Blood Hill, Percy should discover more about his history and learn how to protect himself from all the bad guys and monsters who are out to get him.

When Percy finds out the gods are viciously fighting over Zeus's stolen lightning bolt, the Oracle instructs him to embark on a westward quest with Grover and his new half-blood friend Annabeth. The group must find and return the bolt to Zeus, lest the world be plunged into all-out war and chaos. Along their journey, Percy, Grover, and Annabeth have tons of adventures, including encounters with all sorts of ancient gods and monsters. What's great is that these old myths are transformed by modern, often humorous twists. For example, god of war Ares is a grizzly biker, Medusa owns a roadside diner with an impressive sculpture garden, and Procrustes, the bandit who stretched folks on an iron bed, now runs a mattress emporium in LA!

I can't recommend this book highly enough to middle school readers, both boys and girls. Not only is "The Lightning Thief" a terrific avenue into the world of Greek myth, it's also a fast-paced, silly, and ultimately heartfelt book in its own right. Two sequels ("The Sea of Monsters" and "The Titan's Curse") will allow you to follow Percy on more adventures, and there's a fourth book, "The Battle of the Labyrinth," due out in May. Enjoy!


Review #1:

I like this book. It's very interesting, and I like Greek mythology. It also has a lot of action.

Review #2:

It's a mythology book with a twist of reality.

Review #3:

This book has a lot of action. The Greek mythology in the book makes it more exciting. It was a great book!

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Posted by on February 14, 2008 in Uncategorized


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