Monthly Archives: February 2010

“Front and Center” by Catherine Gilbert Murdock


"Front and Center" is the third and final book in Catherine Gilbert Murdock's "Dairy Queen" trilogy. While I absolutely loved the first book, in which high school junior D.J. Schwenk tried out for the boys' football team, I wasn't as enamored with book number two. "The Off Season" basically scrapped the entire (rocking!) football premise and placed D.J. at her ailing brother's bedside, where she realized her heart belonged only to basketball. Okay. "Front and Center" is a decent, mostly refreshing return to form, although it seems that in every book D.J. has to overcome the same near-crippling lack of faith in herself. Believe me, as charming as this book can be, a narrative consisting of almost constant self doubt quickly becomes tedious.

In "Front and Center," D.J. has just returned to school from injured brother Win's rehabilitation hospital. She's about to embark on her season as the star player for the Red Bend, Wisconsin girls' basketball team. Although D.J. is by far the team's best player, she still lacks the confidence to assume true point guard responsibilities, like calling plays and assigning coverage. Off the court, D.J.'s awkwardness and shyness persist, as if all the progress she made in the first two books has completely evaporated. She goes along with dating funny pal Beaner instead of true love Brian (the rival quarterback from "Dairy Queen"). There's just too much risk for pain in giving the much matured Brian another shot at her heart. Eh. Even worse, D.J. has caught the eye of two Division I women's basketball programs, yet she'd rather settle for a small, quiet Division III school where she'll never be pressured. She can't bear the thought of letting so many people down with a bad shot or game; instead, she'd rather avoid the whole potentially messy situation. And so it goes.

Like I said, 200 pages of self doubt, no matter how winningly conveyed by the open hearted, genuinely good, incredibly modest D.J., can be tough to get through. Thank heavens she's such a likable character, even with all her fears.

My other problem? I wasn't crazy about how so much of the action was filtered through D.J. — that is, described — rather than actually presented to the reader. D.J. essentially summarizes a karaoke party at Beaner's house, the Christmas holiday with her family, a trip to the University of Minnesota campus, etc., without letting the reader experience any of the nuances for herself. This tends to keep D.J. and her world a bit removed from the reader, which is a shame because, as I mentioned, she is such a sweet character.

The good news is that there is still plenty of sports action (here, basketball); some genuinely touching moments involving D.J. and Brian; and a long overdue message about believing in yourself and doing hard things, no matter how scary they may seem. Plus, the rural Wisconsin setting remains wholly authentic — and unusual! — as it's a nice change of pace from the glut of cosmopolitan teen novels out there. "Front and Center" is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, and fans of the first two books will be delighted to find out how well things eventually turn out for D.J. If the road there is a little difficult at times, it's worth sticking around for the quietly emotional finale.

One final note: "Front and Center" is extremely clean, language, drug, alcohol, and sex-wise. In other words, even though D.J. is a teenager, it's suitable for much younger girls.

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Posted by on February 21, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“Change-Up: Mystery at the World Series” by John Feinstein


"Change-Up" is the latest sports mystery from author / journalist John Feinstein. Like its predecessors, which include "Cover-Up" and "Vanishing Act," this novel features teen journalists Stevie Thomas and Susan Carol Anderson, a huge sporting event (this time, the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and … get this! … the Washington Nationals), and a big-time mystery uncovered by the sleuthing kids.

As in the other novels in this series, "Change-Up" features lots of play-by-play sports action, cameos by real-life famous folks (here, FOX announcer and former catcher Tim McCarver and MLB commissioner Bud Selig both make memorable appearances), and plenty of "backstage" access to locker rooms and press conferences. Sports fans will be thrilled to get an insider's view into the world of professional baseball, complete with opportunities to interview superstars like David Ortiz and Jason Bay. Plus, the whiz-bang baseball action on the field — this is, after all, the World Series! — makes you feel like you're watching an actual game. Truly, the action leaps right off the page, which should help keep even the most reluctant readers enthralled.

I particularly liked two aspects of "Change-Up," which I think help set it apart from the other books in the series:

(1) Stevie — and to a lesser extent Susan Carol — does a lot of old fashioned "shoe leather" investigating, visiting Lynchburg, Virginia several times to chase down leads and interview adults, ranging from police officers to restaurant owners. Stevie is believably nervous about traveling, gaining access to public records, and dealing with some less than friendly adults. Stevie has to muster the courage to challenge folks he suspects are lying and to ask questions he recognizes as potentially hurtful and deeply personal. For me, Stevie's struggles added depth to a character we readers have known for a few years now.

(2) The mystery here isn't as clear cut as in past books, which is wonderful. In fact, the mystery revolves around a journeyman pitcher and a fatal accident that killed his wife years earlier. So much of the investigation, which Susan Carol eventually joins, involves questions of ethics and privacy. I LOVED how, in the end, the kids debated the merits of even reporting a story that could ruin so many lives. Their debate — which touches on fairness, the public's right to know the truth, the sometimes blurred line between good and evil, and the impact of a story on innocent bystanders — felt wholly authentic to me. I think it will give young readers some compelling issues to think about.

My one and only complaint is the use of a vulgarity late in the book, which literally jarred the book from my hands. John Feinstein's books are staples of middle school reading lists, and I've always loved how Feinstein captures the authenticity of a sport without resorting to foul language or locker room antics. I hope one potentially offensive word does not keep this fun, fast-paced, and surprisingly deep sports mystery from its intended audience. With that one caveat in mind, I'd absolutely recommend "Change-Up" to middle school readers, both boys and girls alike, who are interested in sports and/or mysteries. If you've missed the previous books in this series, feel free to jump right in here, as Feinstein's mysteries stand on their own beautifully. Happy reading!

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Posted by on February 14, 2010 in Uncategorized


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“The Oracle of Dating” by Allison van Diepen


I'm telling you, Net Galley is the bomb! Just this morning, I downloaded a copy of "The Oracle of Dating," which is a paperback from the Harlequin Teen folks that's due out in May. I blew threw this book in a few hours, and I have to say, I kinda loved it. It's like "Sex in the City" for high schoolers … only it's not in any way smutty. I know, a clean romance that's entertaining, sarcastic, and has actual personality. I was losing faith that such a thing existed in YA lit!

"The Oracle of Dating" isn't "War and Peace," so I don't feel the need to go into a heavy discussion of the characterization and themes and whatnot. And you know what? That's perfectly fine. There's a real need out there for engaging, witty, yet breezy books for teens that aren't filled with shallow references and anonymous sex, but that also aren't unrealistically chaste and artificial. I found "The Oracle of Dating" to strike the perfect balance between these two extremes. This is the kind of book that will be read by one girl and then passed along to her sister, best friend, cousin, etc., because it's FUN. Note to YA editors: Not every book has to be a depressing, hyperrealistic tome. Fun is always good!

So quick plot overview, just to entice you further. Kayla narrates the story, and she's the Oracle of the title. She runs a website and blog through which, for five bucks paid via Pay Pal, she gives relationship advice. The fact that Kayla's had two brief relationships in her sixteen years is irrelevant; she knows her stuff. Kayla is smart, cute, resourceful, and neurotic enough to seem real without being annoying. She's a clever girl who can arrange speed dating as a charity project but is still lame enough to be stuck ringing items at the world's sorriest grocery. She's got a cool, supportive crew of friends — who actually talk like teenagers! — and a crush on her art class partner, snarky new guy Jared. Kayla can't figure out if Jared is interested, uninterested, or, gah!, only wants to be friends, and her confusion is only heightened when he starts dating the most shallow girl in school. Yes, even the Oracle of Dating can find love difficult at times.

I absolutely ate up this light, amusing tale of romance and friendship. It's marginally set in Brooklyn, but the setting isn't much of a factor. Read it for a positive spin on girl friendship, for the spunky narrator, for some smoking sexual tension (hey, this is Harlequin, after all!) that doesn't cross the line, and, of course, for a tale of first love. If you get caught up in the story like I did, the "Oracle of Dating" is the first in a paperback series, with the sequel currently slated for November. Something else to look forward to! Until then, keep an eye out for "The Oracle of Dating" in May. Happy reading!

PS – Harlequin: I'm so not crazy about the cover, which seems to convey that this is some silly middle school novel. I know you can do better! 🙂

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Posted by on February 1, 2010 in Uncategorized


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