Sunday, December 28, 2008

I'd Tell You I Love You, but Then I'd Have to Kill You, by Ally Carter: Alias awesome

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You. Ally Carter(2006).
NY: Hyperion. ISBN: 1423100034

Cammie Morgan, is just your average 16 year old girl who attends Gallagher Academy, an all-girls boarding school where her mom is the headmistress. Or is she? And is the Gallagher Academy just your average boarding school? As it turns out, no! Cammie, alias "the Chameleon," like all her classmates, is actually a super-genius attending a top secret boarding school for future mistresses of espionage. Here, the girls speak 14 different languages, hack the NSA, take notes on paper that evaporates to destroy the evidence, and take a class called Covert Operations. It is a Cov-Ops field trip into town that leads trouble for Cammie, when she bumps into and attracts the attention of a cute boy named Josh. But the townies have some preconceived notions about Gallagher girls, chiefly that they are little rich bitches who can be filed under the not to like category…So Cammie tells Josh she's a home schooler who has spent time in many foreign lands. Soon, she's sneaking out using the secret tunnels to rendezvous with Josh, and her roommates Becca, Liz and new bad girl transfer Macy are spying on him for extra credit. But can the spy games last? Will the teachers catch on? Would Josh still like Cammie if he knew the truth about where she went to school? Or what her school really is? And will she pass her Cov-Ops midterm?!?
I enjoy Alias, so it's no big shocker I found this book to be a super fun YA chick-lit romantic read about girl spies (I am a run-on champ). If only Francie had been as smart as Becca or Liz…le sigh. I found the spy gadgets cool, the plot well fleshed out and compelling, and the characters vibrant. Cammie and co may have spy skills and genius IQ's, but they still have adolescent problems like homework, self-confidence problems, compelling family drama, and trouble figuring boys out. I also really enjoyed that the ending isn't entirely foreseeable, and the action keeps the plot pace quick. I highly recommend this book, especially because it is the first in a series (the second one is even better!), and it gives a new twist to a tried and true YA romance genre staple.

Best for: Due to the girl heavy cast of characters and elements of romance, this is a book which will most likely only titillate girls ages 12 to 16. Sorry, gentlemen. Stick to Alex Rider, equal gender employer/hero to the younger YA masses.

Book Talk Hook: Do a lead-in asking questions about the things you can learn in spy school (i.e. "Who here can speak 14 languages?" "Who here knows how to kill a man using only spaghetti?" etc.), and then give a brief summary of the plot.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Messenger, by Lois Lowry: when bad books happen to good authors

Messenger. Lois Lowry (2004).
NY: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 0618404414

I can't believe a maven of children's literature is responsible for this book. Or, as I like to call it, this half-baked, over-aiming, under-performing, schizophrenic waste of a few good trees. In short, I less than enjoyed it. That's not to say the book doesn't have promise and is a stinker throughout; in fact, the first 7/8th's of the book are readable, developed, and pleasant enough. It's just that the ending of the story is so bad, so abrupt, so undercooked that it cheapens and pollutes the entire story. Sure, one can argue that Lowry does build the story towards the end; plot devices like Gifts (magical powers), the danger presented by Forest, and the Village-inspired love for others undeniably push Matty's self-sacrifice. But it is done in such an abrupt, disinterested way, barely dealt with after, leaving far, far to many questions left unanswered (The villagers recover from selling their souls, but do they learn their lesson? Do they feel remorse? Is Forest still dangerous? Are newcomers going to be allowed into Village?) and hardly acknowledging what a huge sacrifice this is. It almost seems like Lowry ran out of paper and had to rush to wrap everything up and squeeze it into the allotted space. I half expected Matty to recover, until the one line about keening, which we know from the beginning of the book is how the villagers mourn a death.

This waste of paper is allegedly the sequel to Gathering Blue and the Giver, two of Lowry's award winning books. Because of this, I'm going to go out on a limb, giving her the benefit of the doubt, and assume that a publisher demanded this. Matty, whom I presume makes an appearance in the other books (I haven't read Gathering Blue), has been living in Village with Seer, a blind man, since first taking refuge here as a young boy. Village is a special place deep in Forrest. While most of the towns surrounding Village are hard knock kind of places, Village is peaceful and utopian, populated by other refugees like Matty who have escaped hardships in the surrounding towns. Matty is a messenger, meaning he delivers messages in the village and often travels through Forest (and that's another thing, why can't Lowry call it THE village, or THE forest? WHY?) to deliver messages from the Villagers to family and friends outside Forest's boundaries. Matty, whose chief desire is to be given Messenger as his true name, is lucky, since Forrest seems to have an evil mind of its own. Sure, it'll let you creep through seeking sanctuary in Village, but forget going back; Forest tends to kill those who try to travel back or through it after having been through once, but is kind enough to give you a warning "tread my paths and I'll squish you with my vines" gouge to let you know though! However, things are going a bit wonky in Village; people seem to be changing, becoming cynical and meaner. They even want to shut Villages' boundaries and stop welcoming newcomers, and it may have something to do with Trademart, when the Villagers trade (their souls) for things they want. Way to be blatant, Lowry.

What's worse is that Forest seems to be getting meaner too, thickening and getting more dangerous. Meanwhile, Matty has discovered he has magical healing powers, and is promptly sent on a mission to post closing notices on all the paths and bring back Seer's daughter Kira before the bad Villagers finish constructing their Berlin Wall. However, Leader, Villages leader (go figure), cautions Matty not to use his magical powers too soon. But Forest is a nasty piece of work, and Matty and Kira find themselves subject to it's maniacal vices as they struggle to get back to Village before it is too late or they die. Since I already kind of spilled the beans above, and you obviously aren't going to read this stinker now (right?), I don't feel too bad about spoiling the ending. Matty dies, using up all his healing power to heal all of Forrest, Village, and the villagers, a cheap and easy out I wouldn't predict Lowry would go for. The end. Seriously, that's pretty much how it goes in the book too. Oh right, Leader posthumously gives Matty his true name: Healer. Can't a dead boy catch a break?

Best for: Grades 4-7, reading level wise.

Book talk hook: Yeah. RIGHT. I think I hated all over this book above sufficiently enough to not explain myself here. I also recommend it to no one, regardless of the easier reading level.

Monday, December 15, 2008

White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean: Imaginary Friends

White Darkness, Geraldine McCaughrean (2007).
NY: Harper Tempest. ISBN: 0060890355
Prinz Winner, 2008

What do you get when you mix a crazy man, Antarctica, imaginary friends, and a teenage girl? Oh, you get an award winning coming of age story about surviving the unsurvivable for YA's, that's what you get. Sym, short of Symmone, is a partially deaf, precocious 14 year old English school girl. Her late father's business partner, Uncle Victor, has up and spirited her away on her dream vacation: a no-holds barred trip to Antarctica. Sym, you see, has a slight, no, make that major life-long obsession with "The Ice," as those cool enough to hang out there call it (teehee! Inadvertant pun). She is so obsessed with The Ice that her imaginary friend manifests as Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, one of the ill fated members of Scott's death march on The Ice. Yes, you read that correctly, Sym is 14, not 4, and has an imaginary-dead-guy-bff. And yeah, she's totally 14 because she has a pseudo-crush on said imaginary-dead-guy-bff. But bear with, all two of you reading this, and/or White Darkness, because despite sounding totally bizzare, this is actually a great book.

Sym is not just super excited about her trip, she is super naïve, and while she thinks about how it's probably shady her Uncle Victor hasn't allowed contact with her mom, or how it's not the greatest idea to miss a month of school, she doesn't dwell too much on this. She is less than impressed by her fellow travelers, barring a cute Norwegian boy named Sigurd, who is accompanying his famous movie director father on a scouting trip. Though lame they may be, in the company of rational and sane adults Uncle Victor's halo starts to tarnish. Sym is forced to begin admitting to herself that Uncle Victor might be a tad off, perhaps a tad insane, especially after he claims to be on The Ice to discover Symm's Hole, the purported gaping hole that leads to another world housed inside this one, matrushka doll styles. Of course, this relevation doesn't dawn fully on Sym until after Uncle Victor dopes the whole camp and sets off with Sym, Sigurd, and Sigurd's dad in a stolen Antarctica Hummer. Also, Titus, except he's imaginary; also, dead. Sym is forced into the fight for her life, stuck between wanting to believe her beloved Uncle Victor and knowing, as one obsessed with The Ice does, that this is a death march he's dragged them onto, much like the one Scott dragged Titus on.

While White Darkness takes a bit of getting used to, I enjoyed it, finding myself hooked by adrenaline driven plot, revealed character motivations, and my desire to simultantaneously shake some sense into and cheer Sym on. Sym narrates, but often alternates between narrating, having conversations with her imaginary friend Titus (denoted with italics), and having flashbacks. At certain points, the narrative styles meld, blending the line between reality, imagination, and hallucination, which lends an air of tense credibility to this survival of the fittest tale. Moreover, the changes in voice help the reader (via Sym) become less trusting and more cynical, savvy, and finally, driven to survive at all costs. Lastly, props to McCaughrean for including a synopsis of the Scott expedition in the back of the book. It gives credence to this tale by validating Titus' story and helping the reader see the parallels between his story and Sym's.

Best for: Because the narrative style is quite different, I recommend this book for grades 9 and up. While I'd recommend this book to boys and girls above the ninth grade, something about the cover screams girl. It's too bad, because this is a great survival story that has the appeal to attract boys as well.

Book talk hook: I'd sell this as a straight adventure story. I'd perhaps have kids raise their hands to see who had been in the coldest atmosphere (Obviously I'd win. Thanks, Canada), and then describe the conditions on The Ice. I'd then go on to ask how many of them would go on an all expenses paid trip to Antarctica, followed by who would go if their "Uncle" hadn't told their mother? How about if you knew he'd stolen her passport so she couldn't go? Etc. etc, leading to a brief synopsis with the point being "Well, Sym did this. Does she survive?"

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz: Baby Bond

Anthony Horowitz (2001).
NY: Philomel. ISBN: 0-399-23620-1
Well hello, Alex “Baby Bond” Rider. I’ve heard about you for years, mostly from the mouths of young boys who regularly wouldn’t be caught dead in the library, but were caught jonesing for a fix of your spy trickery. I see what the fuss is all about; you have super cool spy gadgets, super stealth intuition, acrobatic skillz, and a knack for finding yourself in sticky situations. You’re also kind of a badass. What’s not to love, if you are a 12 year old boy? Stormbreaker, and I assume the rest of the Alex Rider series, since I stopped here, is a kids eye view of/homage to the campiest of old school James Bond flicks, prior to Daniel Craig broodingly sexpotting it up (mmmmmm).
You're welcome.

I’ve got a theory that Alex is actually going to grow up to beco
me 007, but hasn’t quite hit puberty yet, so out go the Bond girls and in come gadgets like zit cream that can burn through metal, and a Gameboy that also functions as a fax machine/x-ray machine/bomb. Horowitz tells Baby Bond’s story in an engaging and high adrenaline way, weaving in cheeky nods to the 007 villain mill by dubbing a mute butler with mouth scars Mr. Grin, throwing in a Russian minx, and including a giant Portuguese Man-o-War in an even more giant tank in the big bad villains office. The chapters are short and sweet, often ending in a cliff hanger, which makes it hard to put this book down. Moreover, Alex is crafty and clever, and he usually chooses to truck on instead of bemoaning his sad sad life, making him a-okay in my book, since so much of YA fiction seems to revel in angst and tragedy.

Stormbreaker begins with an ominous knock on the Rider residence door; as with most midnight knocks, this does not bode well for young Baby Bond. His uncle and sole guardian, Ian Rider, has been killed in a tragic car accident, allegedly because he was not wearing a seatbelt. Baby Bond is instantly suspicious; Uncle Ian was a seatbelt wearing fiend! He does some investigative journalism, only to discover that all is not as it seems: Uncle Ian was straight up murdered, and what’s more, a super secret spy for Her Majesty (not Madonna, the Queen, foo), in MI-6. It turns out that he was killed on a mission, trying to find out what the deal is with the new super computers (the Stormbreaker) that Harry Sayle, crazy Egyptian-English billionare, is donating to schools across the UK. Baby Bond is more or less conscripted into service as MI-6’s new super secret teen spy weapon by his late uncle’s handlers, having to survive boot camp before he is shipped off to finish up where his uncle left off. He assumes the identity of the kid who won the Stormbreaker essay contest and travels to Sayles’ complex to test out the game. Things start out okay, but sooner than later things take a turn for the dangerous, and Baby Bond is fighting to survive AND find out what is up with these super cool Stormbreaker computers. It goes without saying that Baby Bond will have to ATV, scuba dive, scamper, hide, and skydive his way to saving his butt and find out the truth, leaving the reader with well nibbled nails and jonesing for another fix of Alex Rider.

Best for: This series is probably best suited for younger YA readers (Grades 5-8), but definitely could cross over into the Children’s category because there aren’t too many big words, there are short chapters, and the narrative is simple and appealing. An easy sell to reluctant reader boys or girls, for the action and viscereal drama.

The hook: I assume most kids have heard of this because of the movie, but I know from experience there are a good many who have not. And then there are those like me...aka those who just don't make the connection. Good thing we're so good looking. I’d begin by asking some spy related questions, give a brief plot summary, and then read the scene where Alex is trapped his Uncle Ian’s bullet-ridden car in the junkyard car crusher. And there I catch them, hook, line, little stinkers. Or mabye I should just hold up a picture of Daniel Craig. I'd let him convince me, if you know what I mean.
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