January 18

Tessa Masterson Will Go to the Prom

9780802723598It is amazing how the definition of what is acceptable in YA fiction has changed over the past 20 years. Once upon a time just the mention of a same sex relationship was taboo or the whole source of tension within the novel. But now in YA literature there is a lot more freedom, and the writing is a lot more natural and realistic.

Lucas and Tessa have been friends forever. But now that the end of High School is approaching, Lucas has started to try to picture his life without Tessa, and finds the prospect very uncomfortable. Is this love? Maybe he should find out before it is too late. so he asks Tessa to go to the prom, not subtly, more like a huge road sign. But she says no! She wants to take a girl from work, on a date! You see Lucas is a good friend, but Tessa is simply not interested in him ‘that way’.

Now we all know that American culture is changing. But the small town where they live is proud of it’s fundamentalist Christian heritage. There is no way that a same sex couple is going to be allowed through the door at the prom. In fact the whole community, including the school administration decides to cancel the prom instead of allowing such behaviour. Now Lucas is caught between Tessa and all the rest of his peer group. Talk about pressure.

I love it when I find a book written by co-authors that is seamless. Obviously this is the result of excellent editing. I also approve of the cover. Well done to Bloomsbury/Walker for their high production values.

And the story? I liked the realistic and down to earth storytelling. Even the final solution to the whole mess just feels right. I can highly recommend this.

January 15

In the Wings by Elsbeth Edgar

1370314108387It seems like forever since I have reviewed a book for younger readers. Admittedly they have not been a priority for reading this year, but now suddenly they are back on the list.

Every stage production depends on the unseen workers behind the curtain. Ella suffers badly from stage fright, so her ideal position is stage managing. During the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she branches out into set design, so she is closely involved with the cast from the very first rehearsal. When her crazy grandfather arrives to live with the family, the show becomes her favourite excuse to escape. It is a real shame that that arrogant new boy Sam threatens to ruin all her fun. It seems like life just can’t get any worse when Sam discovers that her grandfather was once an actor, and once played Sam’s role professionally. Now she has no chance to escape.

This is a fun read about families and friends, first impressions and coming to the rescue. Ideal for kids interested in acting and theatre, but highly recommended for any YA with a strong creative flair.

January 11

Waiting for it by Chrissie Keighery

Review #9 – 95 to go

Hardie Grant have created for themselves a wonderful little market. Their Zac Power and Go Girl series are fantastic early chapter books for young readers. Now it looks like they are developing a new market with their ‘Girl V the World’ series about 13 year old girls dealing with ‘normal’ life. These are well written basic school and family life books, short and to the point.

Waiting for it is just exactly that. Tween Hazel feels like she really doesn’t belong anywhere. There is nothing special about her life. She is even in the middle of the boys ‘hot list’. Better than being at the bottom, but still nothing special. She is sick of being stuck in the middle, and it is time for things to change. The question is – Is change always an improvement?

This was a quick, one-sitting read. The characters are well developed for this tiny book, and there aren’t too many to keep track of. Without spoiling, I’ll just say that as you would expect, Hazel discovers that it isn’t so bad being in the middle and she is very special – so a positive outcome.

I have only read one from the series, but I suspect that it will fill a niche market very well.

August 31

The Colour of Trouble by Gerry Bobsien

Interesting cover and new author. It is always fun to try new things, but sometimes you can be disappointed. I know I started Surf Ache, Bobsien’s previous book, but stopped half way and never found an excuse to go back and finish it. However, this book arrived with my regular delivery of 6 of the best – so my self discipline demands that it get read cover to cover.

Maddy is a typical art student. She is always pushing boundaries, trying new things and experimenting with changes to old. For her art project she has a real idea for some original street art, although the owners of the building might call it graffiti. Right now she is living with her Grandparents! because Mum is working half-way across the country. Her best friend is acting strange and he is even dating a girl he used to pretend to dislike. Life is so confusing, but somehow within these 250 pages, Maddy is supposed to work everything out. And fall in love…

There are a lot of things I liked about this book. Maddy is a vibrant character who literally jumps out off the page. Over the years I have met many girls like her. I also loved the chapter titles. Each one worded as an art exam question, but still reveals meaningful information about what is about to happen. Fascinating, original and helpful. What more could one ask.

 

July 11

The Scholarship Kid by Leeanne Vernon

This is a little book with the right publication date. Focussed on two girls talented in various track events, it is bound to be popular over the next few weeks. The short book with large print will be attractive to those sporty girls who hate to read. This author was also responsible for the Netball Dreamz series, that suited the same niche market so well.

Mia is well set up at her exclusive private school. She regularly wins the athletics competitions and tops most of her classes. But somehow whatever she does isn’t quite good enough to earn her mother’s praise. Then a new girl arrives in the school, on a scholarship! She doesn’t have the right shoes or the right address, but she challenges Mia’s position in sport and in class. This is surely a plot setup for a real girls fight. But instead Mia discovers that she likes Carli! She loves her friendly family and homemade food. Carli is simply grateful to have a friend.

This is a very thought provoking book. In it’s few pages it raises a few issues that kids commonly face – the importance of truth, generosity and accepting those who are different. These big questions are handled well.

I suspect Vernon is onto another winning series, in more ways than one.

April 12

Loving Richard Feynman by Penny Tangey

9780702237256For once this year I need to read every single one of the CBC shortlist for 2009. So I guess I can look forward to reading some really good stuff for teenagers. Certainly this little book is delightful.

Catherine is a 15 year old maths/science nerd. The family motto is ‘question everything’, and she does. That process certainly puts her outside the ‘in’ group at school. In fact she is regarded as something of a freak. And then she finds out about Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize winning physicist who also seemed not to care about what others thought. He becomes her hero and she devours everything she can find out about him.

At the same time Catherine is ‘in training’ for a statewide maths competition. When a new boy to the school is added to the team, Catherine is very put out because she no longer appears to be ‘the best’. Life is really falling apart. But then somehow it all goes back together again.

I really liked this book. Certainly as a science teacher I was always going to be prejudiced in its favour. But I can still remember what it was like at high school when I was good at maths and science. Catherine’s voice seemed very strong and very real.

I also liked the subtlety in the text. It is written as a series of letters to Feynman, and therefore short ‘chapters’ each moving the plot forward. For a long time I was jumping all the introductory bits and leaping into the story, but gradually I worked out the those introductory bits were important and had to go back. At it is rare for a young adult novel to stand up to the scrutiny of re-reading.

I also had some difficulty deciding what age level to recommend for this. The general rule of thumb says two years younger than the main character, and there is certainly nothing unsuitable for lower secondary. But somehow I think the themes will be more important to middle secondary.

Will it win the CBC prize? Of course, I haven’t read any of the others yet, so I could easily be wrong, but I don’t think it provides a challenge to convention that can be found in so many award winning books.

March 8

Chosen by PC and Kristen Cast

9781905654338Certainly today I have been highly critical of some of the vampire romances on the shelves today. But I am going to finish with one of my favourites, the House of Night series.

Book 3 opens almost immediately after the finish of book 2. Zoey is still leading the Dark Daughters and finding that leadership is very difficult. Stevie Rae is still gone, and somehow Zoey finds it hard to confide in her other friends. The one person who understands what she is going through is Aphrodite. And then there is the poet who always seems to be around when Zoey needs help. Before long, Zoey is worrying about keeping the three men in her life apart, and not paying attention to her responsibilities.

As before, one of the reasons I like this series so much is the real humanity of the vampire cast. And since Stevie Rae did come back, I am ready to continue on with the series.

However, I was very uncomfortable with the whole illicit sex scene. Yes, I know that it was important to the plot, and it did emphasize Zoey’s immaturity, but really wasn’t there another way?

January 6

Marked by PC and Kristin Cast

9781905654314Finally, after months of inactivity, I have a chance to review some of the dozens of books I have read in the last few months. Anyway, since October I have been absolutely immersed in the various YA supernatural romances that are around. Some are good and some are embarrassing and some are simply not worth the paper they are printed on – or a hard drive space on my ebook. In particular I am enjoying the two series, House of Night and Vampire Academy. Although neither of them have the huge following of Ms Meyer, in many ways I think they are far better written with stronger female characters and more original plots.

I started reading the House of Night Series when it became the second favourite book with the ‘tween’ girls, but when asked about why they liked the book so much, giggles erupted. And when 13 year olds start giggling, there is probably something inside the books that they don’t want their teachers to read. That immediately raises the book to the top of  the reading list.

Zoe Redbird is a young girl who appears to have a normal life. Her mother and step-father have ‘found religion’ so she is subjected to a lot more rules that make her comfortable, but then she is ‘marked’. A tattoo appears on her forehead that indicates that she has commenced the perfectly natural biological process of becoming a vampire. As a result she is required to attend a special school for young fledgling vampires. From there this book almost becomes a classic ‘boarding school’ novel with bitchy girls and BFFs, and the inevitable love interest. But the supernatural nature of the story makes it possible for the Casts to make the adolescent power struggle magical in nature. Zoe has been blessed by Nyx, the vampire’s Goddess, with special powers and as these are revealed the social structure at the school is overturned.

In many ways this book has much more in common with Harry Potter than Bella and Edward. The theme that solid friendships are the most important path through adolescents is common to both. The real source of strength, magical and personal, is in your relationships with others. Zoe’s grandmother provides the adult voice in her life, much like Dumbledore and Hagrid help Harry. But this is no children’s story.

In all of these vampire novels, it is very important that the author is able to create a believable world where good vampires can exist. The Casts do this by creating Nyx and the religion associated with them. In many ways this reflects a traditional pagan religion, linked into the religious practices of the North American Indians. By modeling an imaginary religion on a traditional belief system, it certainly added credibility to the whole idea.

And fear not – there is the traditional love triangle. Zoe’s one true love from her childhood years, Heath, does not want to  lose her, even if he has to provide her with blood. And as always in these romantic fantasy novels there is the new love interest, in this case Eric an incredibly talented fledgling soon to ‘graduate’.

This is the first book in the series, and as such, it is inevitably a slow read in places. Characters must be introduced, the scene set and the whole culture revealed. Fantasy novels are like that. But the Casts manage to hold the reader’s interest through all this with just the right mix of romance, suspense and bitch busting.

May 2

The Rage of Sheep by Michelle Cooper

Set in recent history, 1984, this coming-of-age story is far more complex than many in the genre. There are serious issues here, but they are handled gently and with a strong dash of humour,

Hester Jones is 15. Her best friend forever has just moved away and at least for now she has been included in the ‘in’ group. But her family threatens this secure position. She has the most embarrassing dad in the world and he is never going to let her grow up. Her Indian heritage makes her the focus of racist comments, even from her ‘friends’. Gradually Hester discovers her own path and moves forward in her life with confidence.

The blurb calls this book hilarious. I don’t think so. Perhaps the writing raised a few smiles as I proceeded through, but certainly no laughs. This is probably because the issues addressed are far too serious for laughter. Racism, religious fundamentalism, homosexual relationships and even child abuse are part of Hester’s year of growth. Personally I don’t find much of that a laughing matter.
Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed reading this book. I finished it with a lovely warm glow, and any book that provides that is a good read. Hester is a very credible character. And the period of time is portrayed very effectively. Dealing with recent history is often very difficult.

May 2

Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs by Michael Gerard Bauer

I remember that I loved my first introduction to Ishmael. I read aloud the opening introduction to the character in Bauer’s first book to my middle school classes regularly. So I was very interested in starting the further adventures of Ishmael Laseur.

The summer holidays are over, and book two follows Ishmael and his friends through their second year of high school. He still has a crush on Kelly; Barry Bagsley is still a bully; and Razza is still Razza. But this year his father’s band is reforming and the English teacher is introducing love poetry. Can life get any worse?

Once again this book is genuinely funny. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a few bittersweet smiles for the reader to enjoy. In fact, enjoyment is what this book is all about. It is a real feel-good read, and there are not enough of these books for young adult readers.

Thank you Bauer for this entertaining read.