Monthly Archives: April 2008

“The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” by E. Lockhart


Lots of you may already know author E. Lockhart from such super popular novels as "The Boy Book" and "The Boyfriend List." I have to confess this is the first book I've read by her. Further confession: I probably wouldn't have picked it up if not for the absolutely rave reviews it received in Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. Having said that, I'm so glad I took the chance, because "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks," aside from its somewhat unwieldy title, is a great read with a smart, spunky main character and a decidedly feminist bent. What's not to like about that? 🙂

I fear that any plot summary will fail to capture the snarky, dry humor that really sets this book apart. Nevertheless, here goes. We have boarding school student Frankie Landau-Banks about to start her sophomore year at Alabaster. Just one year before, Frankie was one of those plain girls who hid in her sister's shadow and was content with swimming and debate club. Frankie's summer transformation catches the attention of gorgeous senior Matthew Livingston, the resident big man on campus. At first, Frankie is thrilled beyond words to be Matthew's girlfriend. The status makes her feel important and noticed. Frankie also discovers she loves being included in Matthew's crew of friends, particularly as that relates to Alpha, the de facto leader of Matthew's group. As time passes, Frankie begins to feel increasingly less valued than Alpha and the boys. It's almost as if Matthew dismisses her as simply another pretty girl, when, in fact, Frankie is wickedly smart.

One night, Frankie stumbles upon a meeting of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, Alabaster's exclusive, male-only secret society. Frankie's dad had been in the Order back in the day, when grand pranks were pulled on campus, so she had heard whispers of their feats. Now the Order is led by Alpha and Matthew, and, as Frankie learns, their schemes are all pretty lame. Still, Frankie wants so badly to be respected for her mind — and her deviousness — that she assumes Alpha's identity (online) and begins directing the Order to commit all sorts of fiendishly clever pranks. We're talking everything from dressing up statues in ladies' underwear to an ultra-ironic yet effective rebellion in favor of cafeteria vegetables. The pranks capture the attention of everyone at Alabaster. Frankie is proud of her evil accomplishments, but also annoyed that she cannot claim any credit. You can probably guess that at some point here, Frankie will be exposed as the Order's true mastermind and that revelation will have far-reaching effects on Frankie, Matthew, Alpha, and the rest of the school.

See, I knew it. This plot summary is still lacking. You'll have to trust me that this book is dry, hilarious, and witty. I mean, come on, Frankie honestly uses the word "dulge," as in the proposed opposite of "indulge." How great is that? Frankie is a debater, so she crafts some pretty compelling arguments over the course of the book on, among other things, a girl's place vs. a boy's place. I also loved how Lockhart weaved Frankie's school research on public performance art into the story, since Frankie uses a lot of what she learns to craft the Order's missions. My only quibble is that I felt the ending was just a bit of a letdown, although I get why Lockhart went in that direction.

As I said, this is a smart, insightful book that's a great combination of boarding school tale, coming of age story, social commentary, and female empowerment manifesto. Don't let the title put you off; I think girls in 7th grade and up will love Frankie.

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Posted by on April 25, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Coraline Graphic Novel” by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell


I know lots of you have read Neil Gaiman's "Coraline," perhaps as part of your school's required summer reading program. Did you know that HarperCollins is releasing a graphic novel version of "Coraline" this summer? Well now you do!

Very quickly, for newbies out there, Coraline has moved to a new flat (British speak for apartment) with her folks. She's terribly bored during her first summer there, and while her unusual neighbors provide a bit of mystery and diversion, Coraline longs for something more. Her parents don't seem to pay enough attention, so Coraline takes to exploring on her own. One day, she opens a locked door and finds not the bricked-up entryway she expected but an entirely new passage into another world. This new world looks very much like Coraline's, but on this side of the hall, her mother has black button eyes and evil intentions. With the help of a talking black cat, Coraline must be brave and clever enough to outwit her "other mother," rescue her real parents, and return back to her own world.

I was so impressed with the focus of the graphic novel adaptation. P. Craig Russell, who adapted the story and illustrated it as well, very capably selects scenes from the book to depict here. His graphic novel maintains the same steadily creepy pace as the original book, building toward the big confrontation between Coraline and her other mother. The illustrations are also stellar. They perfectly capture the spooky yet still gentle tone of the novel. If you've read the book, I think you'll get a huge kick out of seeing Neil Gaiman's imaginative novel come to life before your eyes in everything from the snarky black cat to the disintegrating other father. It's a scary but fun take on a now classic novel, and I recommend it to all our readers in middle school and up.

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Posted by on April 24, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Lock and Key” by Sarah Dessen


Sarah Dessen has acquired such a loyal group of readers that any review of her latest novel, "Lock and Key," will likely have zero effect on her circulation stats or sales figures. But since I really loved the story, maybe it'll attract some new readers to her!

Ok, so I'm about to heap praise on the book. First, though, one small negative point. I had a minor issue with the fact that several plot elements seem to have been recycled from "Keeping the Moon" (as in, emotionally detached girl gets shipped off to formerly unknown relative's house where she meets kind-hearted, attractive neighbor with angry, abusive father). Just saying.

With that criticism aside, "Lock and Key" is lovely, heartwarming, touching, and wholly believable. In other words, it's a Sarah Dessen novel, and her audience of high school girls will adore it. The basic plot outline here has high school senior Ruby being placed by child services in her estranged older sister's care after mom up and leaves one day. To survive life with a chaotic, unstable, alcoholic mom, Ruby has put up tons of walls around herself, none of which she'll let down easily. She blames her long missing sister, Cora, for abandoning her as a young girl, and she views all her new classmates at private school as one-dimensional, boring rich kids.

Over the course of the year, we see Ruby grow and begin to accept her new family, new friends, and herself. It's all so gradual, with many missteps and bruised feelings along the way, that you will absolutely accept Ruby's personal transformation. As I mentioned above, there's also a super-cute neighbor, Nate, whom Ruby immediately dismisses as a rich brat. Not true! Nate, like Ruby, is a believably complex, hurting, but still hopeful character. In other words, you'll love him, and you'll root for Ruby letting him into her life … and vice versa. The direction of Ruby and Nate's relationship actually surprised me a bit, although I guess I should've seen that Nate might need some saving as well.

With winning characters, gentle symbolism, an inspiring story arc, and beautiful writing, I have no hesitation recommending "Lock and Key" to girls in grades 8 and up. Younger girls will also likely enjoy the story, but they should be warned that, although handled with subtlety, there are several adult scenes in the novel.


Posted by on April 22, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Hurricane” by Terry Trueman


Author Terry Trueman is well known in summer reading circles for "Stuck in Neutral," his gripping tale of a boy in a vegetative state. In "Hurricane," he explores the devastation wrought by 1998's Hurricane Mitch by focusing on one 13 year old boy in one tiny pueblo (or town) in Honduras. When we first encounter Jose, he is helping his older brother Victor tear down an outdoor barbecue. Jose, as a typical young teen, soon abandons the hard work to play soccer in the main road with his friends, while the good-natured Victor completes the task. It's a lovely opening scene, as we readily discover that Jose has a normal life with friends, caring neighbors, loving family, and even a loyal dog. This is important because (a) it helps us immediately identify with Jose, and (b) since the novel is set in Honduras, a country possibly unknown to younger readers, it instantly makes the story seem connected to our own lives.

Flash forward six months, and Category Five storm Hurricane Mitch is bearing down on Jose's pueblo of La Rupa. While the rain is pounding and the winds are battering his small house, Jose, his mom, and three siblings huddle together under tarps. Even as the storm slowly passes, they become increasingly worried by the absence of Jose's dad and two older siblings (including Victor), who were traveling when the storm hit. Jose is also upset because his beloved dog, Berti, has gone missing. Just as the storm seems to have subsided, Jose hears a violent, ear-shattering roar, which turns out to be a mudslide. As the pueblo endures a torrent of mud from a nearby deforested mountainside, most of La Rupa's houses are destroyed. Worse, many residents are instantly killed and what little remains of the town lies completely buried in mud. By sheer luck, Jose's house is spared, and it soon becomes a makeshift shelter for his few surviving neighbors.

In the days that follow, Jose, scared yet determined, has to grow up quickly and assume the responsibilities of his father and older brother. This means rescuing trapped people; unearthing dead neighbors; literally scraping through mud for stores of food; searching for medical care for his desperately ill little brother, Juan; and, finally, making a lonely, dangerous trip along mud-buried roads to locate his missing family members. Throughout his journey, Jose is believably brave and frightened at the same time, as any young boy would be.

In typical Trueman style, the impact of this novel far outweighs its slim size. While it's a quick read, "Hurricane" is the type of story that will linger with you long afterward. I'll add that it's also great to find a novel set outside the United States that is still so accessible for young American teens. Indeed, I'm sure most middle school readers will easily identify with Jose and his struggle to protect his family in the face of devastating conditions. "Hurricane" is a powerful and inspiring story, and I recommend it for all middle school readers.

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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Burned” by Ellen Hopkins


Ellen Hopkins is the bestselling author of such novels in verse as "Crank" and "Glass." If you're confused by the term "novel in verse," think of it as a story written as a series of poems. Probably my favorite teen verse novel is Virginia Euwer Wolff's brilliant "Make Lemonade," but there are literally tons of other choices, including "Hard Hit" (baseball and grief), "Shark Girl" (a surfer girl's survival after amputation), and "Sold" (a Nepalese girl sold into sexual slavery in India, reviewed here).

"Burned" is the first Ellen Hopkins novel I've read, and I have to admit to being pretty disappointed. While her talent in constructing and crafting the individual poems is breathtaking — truly, some of these poems are works of art — the overall story is unconvincing and, I hate to say it, melodramatic.

As the story begins, high school junior Pattyn is living in a fundamentalist Mormon household with her abusive, alcoholic father, a lazy, beaten-down mom, and six younger sisters. Pattyn is burdened with the responsibilities of her church and family, so she's as startled as anyone when she starts dreaming and fantasizing about a hot classmate, Justin. Quicker than you can blink, our girl — originally portrayed as a free thinker, but one who is shy and bookish — is swilling tequila in the desert, fooling around with Justin's friend Derek, and getting violent at school. After her half-crazed father learns of Pattyn's antics, he ships her off to rural eastern Nevada to spend a summer with his estranged sister Jeanette.

Now, if you're like me, you might wonder why Pattyn's dad would set her loose with his unconventional, independent sister — a sister he disowned years before — just as Pattyn is questioning church doctrine and acting out in increasingly destructive ways. Yeah, doesn't make much sense, right? Hrm. Next thing you know, Pattyn meets another hottie — college sophomore and cowboy Ethan — and they soon fall crazy in love, complete with naked swims and passion and the whole deal. Because this story is exactly as cheesy as you might suspect, Pattyn gets pregnant (because a college veterinary student has never heard of the morning-after pill? shame!), returns home to Carson City, and then desperately tries to run off with Ethan, all with disastrous consequences. Be thankful I haven't mentioned Aunt Jeanette's background or the wholly improbable turn her life takes.

I won't give much else away, but if you've seen even one single episode of "General Hospital" or "Days of Our Lives," you'll be able to predict every single plot turn in this ill-conceived story. Too many of the characters are cardboard cutouts, including Pattyn's horrifically evil dad and the super-sweet and caring Ethan, that you may want to cringe. I hate to give a book a bad review, particularly when, as I mentioned, the craft of the poems is extraordinary. Plus, the book reads quickly and Pattyn, at least, is a compelling, complex character. But I think "Burned" is just so messy, ridiculous, and ultimately irresponsible that I cannot recommend it. If you feel otherwise, please let us know.

PS – If you decide to read "Burned," please know that it is most definitely a high school book, with lots of drinking and sexual situations.


Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“13” by Jason Robert Brown and Dan Elish


It looks like "13" which the HarperCollins folks were kind enough to send to me (thanks!), is the novelization of a musical. Wow, a musical about a soon-to-be 13 year old who, mere months before his bar mitzvah, moves from bustling New York City to sleepy Appleton, Indiana? Sounds different, right? I checked out the entry on the wikipedia site, and it seems that the musical will be hitting Chester, CT soon. Cool.

In the meantime, "13" — the book, that is — is a sweet, silly, campy story that should be well received by all you middle school folks. We meet Evan Goldman just as he and his mom are driving off to Appleton, following the breakup of his parents' marriage. As you might imagine, Evan is not so keen on leaving all his friends in New York City for some unknown hick town in the midwest.

While he's lucky to make a fast friend in the quirky, bookish Patrice, Evan soon learns that if he wants to be cool in Appleton — and, just as importantly, if he wants anyone to attend his bar mitzvah out there — he'd better get in tight with football hero Brett Connelly. Luckily, Brett quickly pulls Evan (inexplicably relabeled "Brain") into the popular crew, and everything seems great. Except … not so fast. Turns out God-like Brett and most of his pals are thoroughly obnoxious kids, the kind who make fun of classmates, dole out wedgies, and pressure each other into doing stupid things. While Evan is smart enough to see the truth, he can't help but keep his mouth shut. Yes, on the one hand, they're jerks. But they're popular jerks, and Evan needs bar mitzvah guests! Evan figures that if being popular means turning his back on Patrice and selling out his smart, creepy, but probably harmless neighbor Archie, then so be it. At least his bar mitzvah will be well attended.

Although you can probably see where this is going — raise a hand if you think Evan might end up with no friends at all — I liked that "13" never takes itself too seriously. It's definitely not one of those hyper realistic, "boy stands up to bullies" books, which is a relief. Sometimes you just want to read something fun. "13" fits that description perfectly, as it's light and breezy with lots of over-the-top scenes. Need examples? Ok. How about when physically disabled Archie decks himself out in a shiny purple suit for the gore flick Bloodmaster, determined to kiss head cheerleader Kendra. Or, my personal favorite, when a lovestruck Brett loses focus during a football game and is saved only when the crowd picks up on his "tongue" (as in kissing!) chant. I thought all this silliness worked very well in keeping the story zipping along and, in all likelihood, in maintaining the interest of its younger target audience. I'd recommend this clean, goofy and ultimately winning story to boys and girls in 5th grade and up. Look for it in July, and happy reading!

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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Uncategorized


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“Godless” by Pete Hautman


It's rare to find a teen novel that raises serious questions about religion while still managing to wring a few well-earned chuckles from the reader along the way. Well done, Pete Hautman!

"Godless," as the title may indicate, gives us the story of Jason Bock, a 16 year old who is questioning not just his parents' faith but the very idea of religion. After a run-in at the local water tower with the scrawny bully Henry Stagg, Jason has a revelation — what would happen if he began worshipping the water tower? Could the "Church of the Ten-Legged One" (CTO) catch on as something more than a joke? Even if it doesn't, is there merit to Jason's argument that he doesn't have to be a believer to be serious about his religion?

The CTO thus begins as both a prank, and, on another level, as a means of challenging what Jason perceives as the unthinking faith of others. His snail-loving, bookish best friend, Shin, quickly latches onto the new religion, and soon goes from writing the sacred text to channeling voices and acting in an increasingly disturbed fashion. New CTO converts also include Dan, an authority-loving follower; Magda, a reckless waitress who may or may not have feelings for Jason; and, of all people, Henry Stagg.

I won't reveal any other plot points here, although you folks out there should know that there is indeed plenty of action for a book about profound life questions. Even better, as I mentioned above, there's plenty of humor, too. Jason, who is a huge, sweaty, self-depricating guy, can be hysterical at times, particularly when he is reimagining himself as a stealthy ninja or a tortured prisoner. He usually has a witty quip, or at least a silly joke, at the tip of his tongue, making it easy for the reader to like and identify with him. I enjoyed how the humor added considerable levity to what otherwise might have been a weighty, abstract novel.

There's a minor bit of foul language here, but otherwise "Godless" seems like a good middle school read, especially for boys. If you're looking for a short book that will make you laugh and perhaps ask yourself some hard questions about faith and religion, then "Godless" is for you.

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Posted by on April 7, 2008 in Uncategorized


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