Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Teaser: Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins
September 2009; Scholastic; 978-0-439-02349-8 (hardcover)
ARC lent by Liz of Tea Cozy

Since Catching Fire won't come out for nearly two months, and since Scholastic has asked people not to give away any major details of the story, I won't taunt you.

What I will say is that Catching Fire improves and expand upon the world created in The Hunger Games, something I was really struck by since I re-read the first book in the trilogy prior to reading the middle volume. And if you thought the cliffhanger at the end of The Hunger Games was bad? Be prepared for the end of Catching Fire.

Aside: I thought this on a subconscious level when I originally read The Hunger Games, but re-reading it confirmed it: is there anyone out there who thinks Gale is the right person for Katniss? He just seems so . . . undefined to me. It seems his only concern is feeding his family. Which is admirable and important, but otherwise, what does he like? What are his dreams? Compared to Peeta, Gale just feels like a mystery to me. And this impression didn't change after reading Catching Fire.

Yet that's a minor quibble at this point. Suzanne Collins continues to hook readers with a thrill-a-minute story, full of twists and action. There's also quiet moments, where you can sense the weight of everything that's happened pressing down on Katniss. For this series is really about Katniss: her choices, her life. Readers will be happy to enter the arena of Catching Fire, and be left waiting eagerly for book 3.

For anyone going to ALA Annual, if you spy anyone wearing a t-shirt that looks like this one, it just might be me. Come and say hi!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: Jane in Bloom

Jane in Bloom
Deborah Lytton
2009; Penguin; 978-0-525-42078-1 (hardcover)

Summary: In the Holden family, Lizzie was a star. Beautiful, smart, popular--Lizzie seemed perfect to everyone. The only person who didn't see it was Lizzie. When Lizzie's eating disorder spirals out of control, her accidental death wrecks her family. For Lizzie's younger sister Jane, it's hard to accept the loss of her sister and the way her life has changed. She always thought her parents loved Lizzie more, and now they're stuck with plain Jane. But slowly, Jane begins to recover from her grief, thanks in part to a puppy, an older woman's wisdom, and a camera.

A sensitive, quiet study of grieving, Jane in Bloom shows the impact of loss on a family. Jane's story and emotions are the main focus, but we also see change in both of her parents as they grieve Lizzie. In addition, there are memorable characters, both human (Ethel, the woman who helps care for Jane) and canine (Kona, Jane's new puppy). These individuals help Jane start to grow stronger, enabling her to start using a camera to work through her grief and discover all the beauty there is in the world, even though Lizzie is gone. Sad but hopeful, this debut novel by Deborah Lytton will appeal to readers who have enjoyed Lurlene McDaniel's novels.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: If the Witness Lied

If the Witness Lied
Caroline B. Cooney
2009; Delacorte Books; 978-0-385-73448-6 (hardcover)

Summary: The Fountain children have no desire to be on television ever again. They've been caught by cameras too many times. It started when their mother chose her unborn baby over chemotherapy to treat her cancer. Then there was her funeral. The worst of all was their father's funeral two years later, after he died in an accident: an accident thought caused by their little brother. Ever since then, Jack has tried to protect his little brother Tris, to let him be a normal boy. His sisters Madison and Smithy might have deserted him, leaving the brothers with their stepaunt Cheryl, but Jack will be a good brother. So when he finds out that Cheryl wants to create a television show around Tris, Jack refuses to let that happen. Suddenly, questions about the day their father die start occurring to the siblings. What if the death wasn't an accident? What if Tris is blameless? What if Cheryl, the only witness, lied?

Four Things to Know About If the Witness Lied

#1: We see what we want to see.

Many of the adults who knew the Fountain children let themselves be persuaded by Cheryl's deceptions. The family minister, old friends, even the children's grandparents--they all accept what Cheryl tells them. Many of these people are too ready to see Cheryl as a deliverance: she will take care of the chidlren, manage things so that the four children can stay together in the same house. No one wants to look too closely at a family dealing with grief, because it's too personal, too intimate a sight. Whatever small misgivings these adults had, they thought the family should handle the situation in their own way. We all feel a need not to intrude, especially during great tragedy. That reticence nearly risked the wellbeing of Tris and his siblings. Fortunately, in the nick fo time, the Fountain grandparents are alerted and can save the day.

#2: Any family has a chance for reunion.

The events of If the Witness Lied begin to unspool as a result of each teenage Fountain remembering their father's birthday. It's the first birthday since his dead, and it serves as a wake-up call for the Fountain sisters: running from their brothers, from each other, from the only family they have left, is wrong. Both Madison and Smithy return home, arriving precisely when Jack and Tris need them. During the course of the novel, there isn't enough time to heal all the cracks in their relationship. But by coming together to protect Tris, the Fountains are able to reform themselves into a new family unit. What's more, they are able to expand family to mean anyone who cares for them, anyone who wants to protect Tris. So both existing family members, like their grandparents, and family friends like neighbor Diana, are drawn into the Fountain family.

#3: A mystery is solved by the most insignificant of details.

Everyone thought that Mr. Fountain's death was a horrible accident: he left his car running with the parking brake set, while he got out of the car and went underneath it. Then, Tris climbed out of his car seat, into the front seat, and knocked off the parking brake. This story starts to unravel when Madison realizes that she can barely release the parking brake on the same kind of car that her father had. And if she couldn't do it, how could a toddler like Tris? At first, Madison thinks she's clutching at straws, doing a bit of wishful thinking. Yet it's enough to get her really thinking. The only word they have for the sequence of events is Cheryl's. And there's just something about Cheryl--something that has made all the Fountains subconciously distrust her since she arrived after their mother's death. Slowly, bit by bit, the Foutnains start to figure out what really happened. And it's both too horrible for words . . . and makes perfect sense.

#4: Grief and faith go hand in hand.

The Fountains had been a religious, church-going family before the death of their mother. Afterwards, especially after the death of their father, the Foutnains drifted away from religion. Smithy hated the God that took her mother but allowed Cheryl to live. Madision couldn't remain the laughing, popular leader of her church youth group, pulling away from her friends and the Church. And Jack focused himself on school and Tris. But when the three siblings start to realize what Cheryl did and how they ran from their grief, they all find that their faith gives them strength and hope. By speaking to God again, praying and asking for help, the Fountains were able to find that help from several sources in their lives. Perhaps that explains the cover illustration: faith is like a candle in the darkness.

A gripping page-turner, If the Witness Lied is a perfect example of a YA thriller. From the slowly unfolding solution to the final confrontation, the reader is not given a chance to breath. What's more, the teenage characters act like teens, making mistakes and trying to act rationally as best they can. Adding richness to the story is the different ways Jack, Madison and Smithy dealt with and still deal with the death of their parents. Caroline B. Cooney crafts a thrill ride of a book and a sensitive study of loss and recovery, all in the same novel. Pass this one to teens who are fans of sad stories or families in peril.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Review: Surface Tension

Surface Tension: A Novel in Four Summers
Brent Runyon
2009; Knopf; 978-0-375-84446-1 (hardcover)

Summary: Every summer, Luke's family spends two weeks at their lake cottage. Over the course of four summers, from thirteen to sixteen, Luke hunts for luckystones, talks to neighbors, and discovers the appeal of girls in bikinis. So many things change from year to year. The only thing that doesn't is the lake itself. And that's just how Luke likes it.

In a character study of a novel, we see a boy begin to grow into a man. Every summer, Luke gets wrapped up in neighborhood discussions and small squabbles, causing small ripples in his life. But at the end of the two weeks he leaves, knowing that he'll be back next summer and the lack will be there. Brent Runyon perfectly captures the teenager's contradictory desires: for constancy and for change. Portraying a typical boy's development, Surface Tension would be appreciated by serious-minded readers who liked Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie or Be More Chill.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Photo Story Booktalk: Geektastic

Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd
Edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci
August 2009; Little, Brown; 978-0-316-00809-9 (hardcover)

Geektastic won't be published until August 2009, and the ARC I received at ALA Midwinter is sadly lacking quite a lot of material. So instead of doing a review, I thought I'd offer up a Photo Story booktalk for the book. Hope you enjoy this--and based on what I've read so far, Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci have served up an intriguing short story collection, one that will entice any geek reader.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Review: The September Sisters

The September Sisters
Jillian Cantor
2009; HarperTeen; 978-0-06-168648-1
Copy provided by Blue Slip Media

Summary: Abby and Becky were both born in the same month, two years and a day apart. Their mom calls them the September sisters and thinks they should be best friends. But in reality, Abby and Becky fight all the time over anything and everything. To Abby, the idea that she'll be friends with her sister seems impossible. And then, Becky disappears from their house. As her family falls apart, Abby tries to keep them together--as well as herself.

Three Things to Know About The September Sisters

#1: There's no relationship like the one between sisters.

No matter how much sisters fight, there's still a bond that exists between them. Abby and Becky have a history together, but at the ages of 12 and 10, the tensions of oncoming puberty probably ramped up their conflicts. It's likely that as they grew older, their childhood disagreements would mellow, allowing them to become the friends that their mother believes they are. With Becky's disappearance, though, she is crystallized as a bratty ten-year-old showoff for Abby. Abby can grow and change; Becky can't. But that doesn't mean Abby won't be able to have a relationship with Becky, as she discovers at the end of the novel.

#2: Tragedy affects people in different ways.

The disappearance of one family member has a profound affect on the rest of the family. In this case, the family falls apart and then reforms in a new way. The frailties in Abby's mother become even more evident, as she sinks into a deep depression and then falls into a relationship with a man who had lost his daughter as well. Her father becomes fixated on getting results in the search for Becky, all the while trying to stay strong for Abby. And as far as Abby goes, she buries herself in books and slowly finds a new place for herself, a place where she's not "the girl whose sister got kidnapped."

#3: Young love isn't a cure-all.

Not long after Becky disappears, a new boy named Tommy moves in next door. Thrown together, Tommy and Abby slowly grow closer than friends. They explore first love together, but even more important, Tommy acts as the support that Abby needs. Tommy is truly a perfect first boyfriend, but even more, he's her friend. He helps Abby deal with the time she spends adjusting to the absence of Becky. As Abby gets stronger, Tommy drifts away and eventually moves back to Florida, severing their relationship. But by that time, Abby has become strong enough to handle the discovery of Becky's fate.

An intense novel, The September Sisters lets readers follow Abby's recovery from her sister's disappearance. Part of a recent spate of abducted girl novels, such as and The Missing GirlLiving Dead Girl, this novel is different from those by its focus on those left behind. Abby's family won't ever be what it was before Becky's abduction,. But we feel that Abby has discovered that she is grateful for her sister, even if her sister's not really there. The September Sisters is an honest, intimate novel of one girl's development amidst a series of upheavals and heartbreaks. Pass this one along to those who want a sad novel with a hopeful ending.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Review: Written in Bone

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland
Sally M. Walker
2009; Carolrhoda Books; 978-0-8225-7135-3 (hardcover)

Summary: When there's no books, no written records of a place or time, how do we learn about the people that lived then? During the earliest history of America, we don't always have the information we need to answer our questions about that time. But thanks to the graves that are left behind, modern scientists and historians can form a picture of the past.

In an immensely readable book, Sally M. Walker explores how remains tell us about colonial lives. Mixing modern scientific techniques with historical knowledge, forensic anthropologists are able to determine many facts from graves and their contents. Colorful pictures and flowing prose explains the process of excavating and studying a grave site, and explains how the details observed and analyzed tells us about life in colonial Virginia and Maryland. Walker, a Sibert winner for Secrets of a Civil War Submarine: Solving the Mysteries of the H.L. Hunley, has crafted a compelling narrative in this nonfiction book. Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland will appeal to both historical fiction readers and to CSI fans.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Review: Funny How Things Change

Funny How Things Change
Melissa Wyatt
2009; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 978-0-374-30233-7 (hardcover)
ARC provided by author

Summary: The West Virginia mountains are a part of Remy. His town might be dying as the coal runs out, but Remy knows everyone and is related to most of the town. And the most important person in town is his girlfriend Lisa. She's smart, beautiful, and just as crazy about Remy as he is about her. In fact, she doesn't want to leave Remy behind when she goes to college. Lisa wants Remy to come with her to Pennsylvania. He says yes, but that doesn't mean his mind is made up. Money, his father, the mountains, and a girl named Dana will all play a role in leading Remy to his final decision.

A love letter to a vanishing, unique place, Funny How Things Change honestly shows a young man grappling with a major life choice. While most people see leaving as the right choice, Remy struggles against this choice even as he makes plans to leave. Gradually, he comes to see that he should pick the option that's right for him and him alone, one that values the things that are important to him. Thanks to memorable characters, authentic voices, and vivid descriptions, Melissa Wyatt tells her story in a compelling, thoughtful manner. A novel that values setting as much as character and plot, Funny How Things Change is bound to be popular with any reader who's pondered their future and wanted to go against the seemingly right choice.