Sunday, August 23, 2009

Diamond Willow by Helen Frost

Main Character: 12-year-old Willow
Location: Alaska
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Books in Verse

This was a really lovely book about a young girl struggling to grow up, and making mistakes along the way.

Willow lives in a remote part of Alaska and spends most of her time with her dad's sled dog team. She desperately wants her parents to see that she is grown up and responsible enough to drive a small sled with one dog by herself for an overnight trip to her grandparents' home. She is finally allowed to do so, and arrives safely there. In high spirits on her return trip, she allows the dogs to run fast and doesn't see the fallen tree until it is too late. Her beloved Roxy runs into one of the branches and seriously injures her eye. Willow takes care of her as best she can, but is wracked by guilt and the fear that her parents will have Roxy put to sleep.

The story is told in different voices. When Willow is speaking, the text is written in verse that takes a diamond shape. In the center of the diamond are certain words in bold print--a hidden message revealing Willow's deepest thoughts. Other sections are narrated by the various animals who witness the events, and who are actually the spirits of Willow's Athapascan ancestors watching over her.

This is a slender book that doesn't take long to read, but it touched me deeply and at times brought me to tears.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

The following is the review I originally posted on one of my other blogs, What is the Librarian Reading?

Main character: High school freshman Mena Reece
Location: Not defined
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is the first YA novel I've read that deals with the debate between evolution and intelligent design. It is a pleasant enough read, though ultimately disappointing.

Mena Reece is not looking forward to her first day of high school. She has done something which has turned her entire conservative Christian church community against her. Her minister has denounced her from the pulpit, and even her parents are barely speaking to her because their insurance business is so closely tied to the church and they are worried that she will cost them customers. Since she is being shunned by her former friends, she begins to interact with other classmates that she never would have otherwise, including brainy Casey, her science lab partner. Casey introduces her to science fiction and fantasy, which is not as evil as she has been told.

When her science teacher, Ms. Shepherd, begins to teach a unit on evolution, Mena's church organizes a protest and demands that she also teach intelligent design. Ms. Shepherd steadfastly refuses to do so. The classroom becomes a battleground of strong wills, with Ms. Sherherd continuing to teach the unit and the protesting students turning their backs the moment the word evolution is mentioned. Then the unit is over and the class moves on to another subject.

Let me say that I am fully on the evolution side of this debate. But I have to say that this book came off as one-sided. I liked the portrayal of the teacher and her calm but firm way of dealing with the protesters. Mena and Casey are also appealing characers. I like their growing friendship and how Mena's world opens up because of him and his family. But the Christian students are portrayed as horrid, close-minded puppets who just parrot the hateful rantings of their preacher. The only one that that is not a vindictive "mean girl" is the minister's daughter who is so meek and mild that she is totally ineffectual. In the end, Mena and her parents join another church--one which (shock!) the science teacher Ms. Shepherd attends--which is much more accepting of different opinions. (And just where were these people during the rest of the book?)

In the end, I don't think that this book is going to pursuade anyone to change their minds.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature is on the 2009-2010 Lone Star Reading List.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Great Wide Sea by M.H. Herlong

You know how some books have a short one or two sentence summary? You usually see in on the back of the title page, and in library catalogs. The summary for this book says: "Still mourning the death of their mother, three brothers go with their father on an extended sailing trip off the Florida Keys and have a harrowing adventure at sea." While that is factually correct, it does nothing to prepare you for this book. Much better is the paragraph on the second page of the prologue:

"I don't tell about the morning when we woke up and Dad was gone. I don't talk about the storm. Or when we wrecked on the coral reef. I don't talk about--I never will talk about--when I left Gerry alone, standing there on the empty beach of that desert island with Dylan dying at his feet."

With THAT as an introduction, you start off the book with a deep sense of foreboding, alert for the coming disasters.

After their mom dies in a car accident, Dad goes off the deep end. Without telling the boys, he puts the house up for sale and purchases a sailboat which they will pick up down in the Florida Keys and then sail around the Caribbean for a year. He gives a book to Ben on small engine repair because Ben will be the engineer and a book on navigating by the stars to Dylan since he will be the navigator. They have a very short time to pack what they want to keep, but only what will fit in a duffel bag. Ben is especially upset when his dad packs up everything that belonged to his mom; it's as if his dad had already forgotten her and wants to wipe every trace of her away. On board he becomes a tyrant, never discussing things with the boys, only telling them that this is the way things will be done. Every day, Ben's anger grows until he is barely able to speak to his dad.

Harrowing is a good word for what happens to the three boys. After their father disappears, Ben is forced to make decisions that have life or death consequences not only for him, but for his brothers as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Most of the Lone Star Books are now in!

Most of the 2009-2010 Lone Star books are now in and available for checking out from the North Branch Library. I haven't had a chance to read many of them yet, but I'm putting up the pages so you guys can post your comments and questions--just follow the links on the right-hand sidebar. As I get them read, I'll post my own reviews.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The following is the review I originally posted on one of my other blogs, What is the Librarian Reading?

Main Character: 17-year-old Alex Morales
Location: Manhattan, New York City
Time period: Contemporary or slightly in the future
Genre: YA Fiction, Dystopian fiction, Survival, Speculative Fiction
Companion to: Life As We Knew It

The Dead & the Gone is set in the same time and the same situation as Life As We Knew It, but while Life followed a family in a rural area, Dead is set in the inner city.

Alex Morales is a smart high school junior with big dreams and plans for his future. On the night the moon is knocked out of orbit, he is working at the pizza place where the only sign that anything has happened is that the cable suddenly goes out. He gets home to find his sisters in a tizzy. Their mother has been called in to work at her hospital in Queens, their father had gone to Puerto Rico for his mother's funeral, and big brother Carlos is in the Marines and is being deployed. So Alex, Brianna, and Julie are alone for the duration.

At first, I thought that Miranda (from Life) was in a better situation than Alex. She had a mother and an older brother to take most of the burden; Alex suddenly becomes the family caretaker. Miranda's family managed to stockpile a lot of food at the beginning; Alex helps his uncle empty his bodega and receives some food in return, but it's not much.

But while Miranda's mother worked at isolating her family insisting that they take care only of themselves, Alex has a support network. His church relays information about food lines; his school remains open, guaranteeing a hot lunch on weekdays; and some of his classmates, all from wealthier families, offer information, advice, and other small acts of kindness.

That doesn't mean that Alex has it easy. In a truly horrific scene, Alex looks for his mother among the dead laid out at Yankee Stadium. He and his friend Kevin rob the bodies of the dead on the street for items to exchange for black-market food. When the volcanoes erupt and the air is filled with ash, Brianna develops asthma. Hoping against hope that their parents and Carlos are alive and will come back, Alex and the girls stay in their apartment, but Alex eventually realizes that Julie is not safe--especially after the black market dealer offers Alex and Bri a way out of town in exchange for Julie--and he needs to get them out of the city.

Miranda's story was told in first person diary entries, while Alex's story was told in the third person. This gives a bit a distance to the story; though Alex experiences more than his share of tragedy, this book is not as mournful as the first one. I did think the ending was a bit abrupt, and I would like to know what happens next. Are things really any better in the south? Does the new year bring a clearing of the air? Will mankind survive?

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