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Book Catch-Up 2011 Part 1

A lot of the books I read in 2011 have gone unreviewed. I had grand plans to give each one the proper treatment, but that’s never going to happen. So here’s some brief thoughts on five

Bunheads by Sophie Flack: This is a little reminiscent of the movie Center Stage, but I enjoyed it. Ms. Flack is honest about the life of a dancer: the time devoted to the craft, the toll it takes on the body, the love/hate relationships among competitors, and the passion that keeps dancers going. Having interned at The Juilliard School for a year, I enjoyed recognizing Lincoln Center. A fun book for anyone interested in dance and/or the life of a NYC performer.

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins: LOVE! I have to admit that Lola falls a little short of the glory of Anna and the French Kiss, but it is still fabulous! Lola crosses paths with Anna and St. Clair so you do get an update on those two. Lola is a fun, unique girl. She has two gay dads, and I love that this is not a “thing.” Ms. Perkins writes angst and tummy-flip-flop scenes like no one else.

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin: I picked this up specifically because of the blurb on the cover promoting it to Downton Abbey fans. The time period is similar, but not much else. It reminded me more of Brideshead Revisted then Downton, just because of all the angst and need for appearances while still misbehaving. (This is not destined to be a classic like Brideshead.) The characters aren’t very likable, which is another reason I didn’t see a Downton similarity. The main character, Cora, ends up being pretty sympathetic, if not likable, which was surprising because I expected to find her shallow. The best character is Bertha, Cora’s maid, who moves to England with Cora to continue in her employment. She is African-American and gives a unique perspective on the difference between discrimination in the United States and England. Despite the unlikable characters, I could not put it down; the plot kept me enthralled. The details about daily life in the time period are especially enjoyable.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson: Very fun suspense novel! Rory is an American attending a boarding school in London, and some of the book is devoted to character development and Rory’s adjustment to boarding school.  The mystery builds when Jack the Ripper copycat murders are happening in the city, and Rory could be the only person who has seen the murderer. The details about the real Jack the Ripper mystery make this especially interesting. This is the first in a series – can’t wait to read more!

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: Set in NYC in the late 1930s, it centers on Katey, a young lady in a secretarial pool. She hits the jazz clubs with Eve, her boarding house roommate at night, counting out their nickels and dimes to buy drinks and still have a late night snack on the way home. The two young ladies befriend Tinker, a wealthy young man, one night; the three friends are soon partying with lots of society-types. I really enjoyed this. The time period is an interesting one: the Depression has been around for a while, and the reader knows WWII is coming. NYC is so well-depicted it is a main character. I liked experiencing Katey’s life; she’s ambitious and works hard, but also enjoys a good time. When a wrench is thrown in the works, the escapades of the three friends are not meant to last. I always enjoy a novel that gives insight in to the lives of the early 20th century wealthy: the loyalties, betrayals, scheming, and lush details.


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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. Read in July 2011. Published by Scholastic Press. ARC provided by publisher at ALA Annual 2011.

Wonderstruck begins with two different stories. One, told in the text, is about a Ben, a young man in 1977, whose mother recently passed away, causing him to move in with his aunt and uncle and share a room with his cousin. His mother never told him anything about his father, and when Ben comes across some of his mother’s belongings, he wonders if he can find his dad.

The other story, set 50 years earlier than Ben’s, is told through Mr. Selznick’s illustrations. It follows Rose, a young deaf girl who dreams of New York City from her room across the Hudson river. She also keeps a scrapbook devoted to her favorite silent film actress. When she learns that the actress will be appearing on Broadway, Rose decides she must run away to the city and try to see the actress.

There is a reason these two stories are being told in tandem, but why?

Wonderstruck is delightful! The characters are very well-developed and so likable. Ben is a unique boy who likes to collect special treasures that remind him of moments in his life. He is deaf in one ear, and manages to embrace the benefits of it, such as sleeping on his good ear to block out unwanted noise. He is lonely since the loss of his mom and a bit lost in his aunt’s house. He needs to find someone who can deeply love him now that his mother is gone. Rose is a brave girl and refuses to be held back by her lack of hearing. Her unstable family breaks my heart and I admire how she can rise about it.

I love how the story unfolds and how the connection between Ben and Rose is slowly revealed.

Mr. Selznick’s illustrations are gorgeous. He manages to convey so many emotions in his pencil drawings. Much of the story is character driven and the illustrations allow the author to show, not tell, much of what the characters feel. The book opens with a drawing of two wolves and I fell in love with it. In particular, the second shot of the wolves where the viewer starts to be drawn closer to one is really lovely; I wish I could frame it. Some of settings include museums and those are so well done. Mr. Selznick manages to bring you into each space and allows you to explore the details without ever feeling like you might be lost in a scene from Where’s Waldo?

The research involved in creating this book is evident and much appreciated. I enjoyed getting a bit of a history lesson while bringing details to the story. Mr. Selznick also mentions in his notes at the end that the similarity to From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is intentional and that the book is filled with references. I missed most of them and look forward to hearing from those who can point them out.

All in all, Wonderstruck is a delightful book! I’m excited to share my copy with some younger readers I know, and will gladly order it for my high school library. I think it will be easiest for an older elementary student to follow the two different plots, but I think all ages can enjoy the illustrations and the mastery of storytelling displayed in Wonderstruck.

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Forbidden by Tabitha Sazuma

Forbidden by Tabitha Sazuma. Published by Simon Pulse in May, 2011. Read in July, 2011. Copy purchased for my personal library.

I tried to write my own description of Forbidden, but I’ve given up and am going with the GoodReads description:

Seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya have always felt more like friends than siblings. Together they have stepped in for their alcoholic, wayward mother to take care of their three younger siblings. As defacto parents to the little ones, Lochan and Maya have had to grow up fast. And the stress of their lives—and the way they understand each other so completely—has also also brought them closer than two siblings would ordinarily be. So close, in fact, that they have fallen in love. Their clandestine romance quickly blooms into deep, desperate love. They know their relationship is wrong and cannot possibly continue. And yet, they cannot stop what feels so incredibly right. As the novel careens toward an explosive and shocking finale, only one thing is certain: a love this devastating has no happy ending.

Sibling incest always makes me think of  Flowers in the Attic, and I don’t think I can be blamed for that. But the comparison between the two books stops there. Forbidden is gripping and really well written. The situation Lochan and Maya are in will make you angry: dad is long gone in another country, and mom is more concerned about maintaining her buzz and trying to make her boyfriend see her as young and fun, not a mother of five. She is never home unless she’s recovering from a hangover. Lochan and Maya know that if they don’t parent their siblings, they will be split up and sent to foster care. So the two oldest make sure to keep everyone fed, dressed, and in school daily in order to fly under the radar. They keep this a secret from everyone outside of the family, so they can only trust and confide in each other.

Lochan is riddled with crippling anxiety. It is painful to watch him try to hide it, especially when you realize how smart the guy is, yet he bottles that brilliance up. This young man is so obviously damaged long before the taboo relationship starts, and as someone who works with teens, it breaks my heart to know that there are real kids out there this damaged who don’t get noticed because they stay quiet.

Maya is more of a normal teen girl, but she is fiercely loyal to Lochan. Their middle brother, Kit, is a rebellious, angry adolescent, and neither of them can control him. Maya is able to calm him down sometimes, but Kit and Lochan are an explosion waiting to happen. The other two children, Tiffan and Willa, are young children; a handful but just wanting to be loved.

The pressure of juggling all of this, and trying to get money out of their mom in order to survive is too much for teens this age to bear, and Lochan and Maya have no one to turn to but each other. As their relationship becomes physical, I read it with mixed emotions. What happens between the two is so wrong, but I also wish I could see Lochan and Maya survive this mess and be happy. As things progress in the book, I became more sad because I knew this could not end well.

Forbidden looks like a long book but is such a fast read. By the end, I was so involved in the lives of Lochan and Maya, I didn’t want it to end and cried through the last couple chapters. It hurt. A lot. I felt a bit dazed after I was done, emotionally wrung out. It can grow a bit melodramatic at times; I think a reader’s tolerance for the drama will heavily affect their response to the book.

Forbidden is graphic when it comes to descriptions of the physical relationship. I know there are readers in my school who would devour this book, but I have a lot of reservations about putting it in my school library. I will pass it on as a public library recommendation to the teens I know can handle it.


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The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle

The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle. To be published by Harper Teen in September, 2011. Read in August, 2011. ARC provided by publisher at ALA Annual.

Laurel is sixteen years old when her parents and younger brother are killed in a car accident, along with the mother of a classmate – David. David’s father was driving when the accident happened and is in a coma, leaving some questions about what caused the accident. Laurel and David were not in the car and are left to pick up the pieces of life that happens after. Laurel’s grandmother comes to stay with her and provides Laurel with a support system that David lacks. Laurel is drawn to David and can relate to his pain, but he is the son of the man who killed her family. Meanwhile, her best friend is growing distant, and she doesn’t know if a boy at school is only interested in dating her out of pity.

While I didn’t shed any tears over this one, it is an absorbing read. I liked Laurel and felt for what she goes through. It is comforting how much her grandmother loves her; the reader gets little glimpses into Nana’s life and what she is sacrificing to move into Laurel’s house with her since Nana lives out-of-town.

Laurel takes a job at a local veterinarian’s office; it is a fairly close drive but far enough away that her co-workers don’t know her as the girl-whose-family-died. It gives her a safe place where no one stares and whispers, and she finds healing in the work she does with the animals. She even volunteer’s to take in David’s dog, Masher, when David can’t take care of him. I looooooved Masher. He’s adorable!

But, there were times I felt like the way Laurel and her grieving are written are a little light. I was also bothered by how easily Laurel and her best friend grow distant. Overall, I enjoyed the book, but it just didn’t feel like an honest story about loss, death, sadness, grief, love, friendship, and moving on.

SPOILER: While it might frustrate some readers, I like that we never learn the definitive cause of the accident. Sometimes, horrible things happen and there is nothing to blame it on.

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Blood Wounds by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Blood Wounds by Susan Beth Pfeffer. To be published by Harcourt Children’s Books in September, 2011. Read in August, 2011. ARC provided by publisher at ALA Annual.

Description from GoodReads:

Willa is lucky: She has a loving blended family that gets along. Not all families are so fortunate. But when a bloody crime takes place hundreds of miles away, it has an explosive effect on Willa’s peaceful life. The estranged father she hardly remembers has murdered his new wife and children, and is headed east toward Willa and her mother.
Under police protection, Willa discovers that her mother has harbored secrets that are threatening to boil over. Has everything Willa believed about herself been a lie? As Willa sets out to untangle the mysteries of her past, she keeps her own secret—one that has the potential to tear her family apart.

I was excited to read Blood Wounds as I am such a fan of Pfeffer’s “Moon” books. I found the set-up of Blood Wounds unique: dealing with a murder that impacts a character’s life even though said character does not know the victims. There is a lot going on in this book, though, and I don’t think that is good. Willa’s unknown past, fear of the murderous father, death, long-lost family, blended family balance issues, financial strain, divorce, cutting…all brought up and resolved in 248 large print, wide-spaced pages. (In the ARC, of course; the published version could change.) All the different plot points come fast as a rolling boil, yet never blend together to form a solid story. And like a rolling boil, the heat is quickly turned off and things are resolved in a way that feels too sudden.

Because there are so many issues, the characters suffer and are rendered weak with little dimension. For example, I never was able to nail down the individuality of Willa’s two step sisters. When Willa decides she must visit her birthplace – the town where her father committed the murders – I had a very hard time believing that a mother would let her teenage daughter travel to the site of the crime so soon after their lives were at risk. It was all too convenient.

I think some readers will enjoy the book, especially because it is fast-paced and a quick read. I can see the possibility of using it to engage reluctant readers because there is so much going on, and will buy it for my school library. I think readers who appreciate a book with depth and three-dimensional characters will be left unsatisfied.

I see on Susan Beth Pfeffer’s blog that she is contemplating a 4th Moon book, and I do look forward to returning to that world.

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My Beating Teenage Heart by C. K. Kelly Martin

My Beating Teenage Heart by C. K. Kelly Martin. To be published by Random House in September, 2011. Read in August, 2011. ARC provided by publisher at ALA Annual.

The plot of My Beating Teenage Heart is hard to describe without giving too much away. It is told in first person through the eyes of two different characters. In the beginning, they are both unnamed, so I am going to leave them this way. A girl is floating among the stars, unsure of where she is or why she is there. She begins to fall until she stops in a bedroom where she sees a teenage boy on his bed. He is not aware of her presence, and all she can figure out is that he is wracked with emotional pain. Going forward, the reader learns more, along with the girl, about these two characters. The chapters are told from both character’s perspectives.

I loved this book. LOVED it. Even when I thought I knew where Ms. Martin was taking me, she surprised at every turn. The characters sucked me in and I needed to see them through to the end. One of my favorite things about it was the healthy relationship the male character has with both his girlfriend and his best friend. He forgets their love at times, but they love him in a way that is real and true. I enjoyed reading a book where the people closest to a main character aren’t quick to betray or otherwise hurt their friend.

If there is another female author who writes male characters better than C. K. Kelly Martin, I haven’t read said author. I admit that I have only read two of her four novels (bad YA librarian!) but in the two I have read now, I Know It’s Over and My Beating Teenage Heart, Ms. Martin’s teen male characters are deep, emotional, thoughtful, honest, and could step off the page fully formed.

The last two chapters in particular will make you want to keep the tissues close at hand. Not a fluffy read; it will take you on an emotional journey and leave you feeling wrung out yet satisfied and hopeful. Will definitely be a 2011 favorite of mine, and I can’t wait to add it to my high school’s collection.

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fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse

fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse. Published by Crown Publishing. Read in July, 2011. Advanced copy received through GoodReads Giveaways.

Lucia Greenhouse’s memoir is an engaging story about coming to terms with one’s parents when one does not share said parents’ integral belief system. Lucia was born to parents who became members of the Christian Science faith as adults; most of her extended family are not members of this faith, Christian Science is not to be mistaken for Scientology, which happens sometimes due to the shared “science.” It is a denomination of Christianity founded by Mary Baker Eddy. In addition to The Bible, members of this church also follow Ms. Eddy’s teachings, which she published in Science & Health With Key to the Scriptures.  In short (from someone who has never experienced Christian Science), members of this faith believe that physical ailments are a symptom of a person’s lack of faith. Illnesses should not be treated with medicine; instead, one should be able to pray and receive healing. This goes for everything from a headache to cancer.

The first part of Lucia Greenhouse’s memoir details her childhood with the usual experiences: chicken pox, church services, camp, school friends of other faiths. Then things change. Her parents decide to leave Minnesota and move to London, where there are Christian Science boarding schools Lucia and her siblings can attend while her parents work on growing as Christian Science practitioners (sort of a faith healer). As Lucia grows up, she starts to question Christian Science. She experiences death of loved ones, which shakes her. Lucia’s parents are unhappy when she gets glasses to remedy her poor eyesight. Her faith in the founding ideas of Christian Science is on shaky ground.

The book moves forward in time. The reader finds Lucia out of college and working in New York City. She is called home to learn that her mother is ill. The rest of the memoir focuses on her mother’s illness and how is affects the family. Mother and father insist that she is getting better every day, despite the growing frailty. Her mother eventually goes to stay at a Christian Science care facility and Lucia is asked not to contact her mother for fear of impeding her improvement. Eventually, Lucia and her siblings intervene and call an ambulance to take their mother to the hospital. The conflict in the family grows as other family members come in to town and are horrified to see how sick Lucia’s mother was allowed to get.

Lucia struggles with guilt and blame, torn between the knowledge that her parents are adults who made their own choices and the idea that as a daughter, she is responsible for the love and care of her parents as they grow older. She questions the role her siblings and extended family played – or should have played – as time went on. All family members are forever changed, and some relationships are broken beyond repair by the end of the memoir.

Ms. Greenhouse has written a book that grabs your attention. It gets in your head and one cannot help but question where religious freedom and responsibility to the ones you love intersect and separate. Every few years, a story in the news surfaces about parents who “let” their child die as they practiced the Christian Science faith rather than visit a doctor, and this memoir gives the reader a window into one person’s experience in that situation. When, if ever, is it okay to ignore the advancements of modern medicine because it goes against faith? How does it affect relationships when you disagree with loved ones on such an important life issue?

I will definitely add this book to my high school’s collection. It is published as adult lit. I think this is a book that high school students in particular can relate to as they are figuring out who they are, separating their identity from their parents, and testing beliefs and boundaries.

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