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Book Review: Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks

Myracle, Lauren. Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks. New York, NY: Dutton, 2009.

Growing up in a world of wealth and pastel-tinted entitlement, fifteen-year-old Carly has always relied on the constancy–and authenticity–of her sister, Anna. But when fourteen-year-old Anna turns plastic-perfect-pretty over the course of a single summer, everything starts to change. And there are boys involved, complicating things as boys always do.

With warmth, insight, and an unparalleled gift for finding humor even in stormy situations, beloved author Lauren Myracle dives into the tumultuous waters of sisterhood and shows that even very different sisters can learn to help each other stay afloat.

This book is awesome, can I just say that right off the bat? I can relate to main character Carly because I’m also the older sister, and also because after a six week summer program before her Sophomore year in high school, she is a bit of a granola girl. The whole family dynamic is familiar to me, especially the sister-sister relationship. I never knew if Carly was going to be mad at her sister or friends with her, and sometimes it changed on a dime, which is so realistic. Even when she’s pissed at Anna, Carly drops all hostility if Anna is in trouble. No matter what happens, she knows that if her sister needs her, it’s her responsibility to be there.

One of the minor parts of the novel is that Carly and Anna are only one year apart in school, therefore there is some overlap in the kids they know, and the friends they have. Peyton is Carly’s friend at the beginning of the novel, but she’s also friends with Anna. Further on in the story, Peyton starts spending more time with Anna, and Carly spends more time with another classmate, Vonzelle. I could relate to this too, sharing friends and sometimes “losing” them to your sister. Over the years with my own sister, though we are two years apart and not just one, we had similar things happen with our friends, especially in high school when the years don’t matter as much as in elementary school.

And then there’s the boy thing. Liking the wrong guy but not wanting to believe he’s wrong for you? Yes. Having a huge crush from afar and being content to not do anything about it, but being upset when he starts dating another girl? Yes. All your friends telling you one boy is into you, but you just like him as a friend? Yes. These are all things I know very well.

Lauren Myracle has been hailed as this generation’s Judy Blume, and I can see why. At one point, Carly has to explain a few things to her sister, like the terms “muffin top” and “whale tail.” There are a LOT of parts that talk about breasts, particularly Anna’s. I think this is good. Judy Blume is a bit outdated for today’s kids, but it’s important that authors continue writing frankly about things that their parents might not feel comfortable discussing with them.

This YA novel is a great beach read, with short chapters that mean it’s easy to pick up and put down. But I devoured it in less than a week.

This entry was posted on June 13, 2011, in YABook.

Book Review: The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June

Benway, Robin. The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, and June. New York, NY: Razorbill, 2010.

April, the oldest, can see the future. May, the middle sister, can disappear. And June, the youngest, can read minds. At the time of their parents’ divorce, the three sisters recover these strange and magical powers from their childhood, powers that help them cope with the hardest year of their lives. When April gets a vision of disaster, the girls must come together to save the day-and their family. But in the process they learn that there’s one thing stronger than magic: sisterhood.

April, May, and June are sisters and they are all in high school together. When they suddenly “get” magical powers, they seem to recall one day as children when some strange things happened. The powers went into hibernation mode for some reason, but now they are back in a novel that is reminiscent of the TV show Charmed, minus a book of shadows and all the demons and whitelighters. The chapters alternate point of view, with each girl telling equal parts of the story. Sometimes this kind of technique is difficult to follow, but I had no problems with it here.

Each girl’s power is fitting for her personality – and birth order. As the oldest child, April can see the future. Even without powers she would be able to predict things that might happen to her younger sisters, because she’s been there. But now she can literally read the future like a book, and quickly (perhaps a bit too quickly) learns to “scan” the future, like skimming the pages of a book, to see if sometthing will happen. While the future can change, so there is no certainty, I still felt like it was a little bit of a cheat… but in a book for teens, about teens with magical powers, I suppose there has to be a bit of wish-fulfillment.

May, as the middle child, hates feeling like she’s invisible when her older and younger sisters get all the attention. But then… she really does disappear. At first she’s upset that her power makes her even more insignificant. But then she realizes she can eavesdrop on conversations, and leave the house when she’s supposed to be grounded. Maybe being invisible isn’t so bad after all.

June is the youngest, and she desperately wants to be one of the popular girls at school. When she starts reading minds, she knows exactly what to say to fit right in. But what if she can’t get the voices out of her head? I like that she could read minds because the youngest sibling often feels left out when parents or siblings discuss something in private, telling her “we’ll tell you when you’re older.” June is the wish-fulfillment of the youngest-child’s desire to know what everyone else knows.

The climax of the novel comes when April predicts a disaster, and she and her sisters must come together to try to prevent it from happening. Each girl’s power plays an important role in the plot, and of course there is a happily-ever-after for everyone. (Oh come on, that’s not a spoiler – look at the cover above, and you don’t have to be April to know there’s a happy ending.)

Overall, it’s not one I would read again but I did enjoy it. I recommend it to teen girls who wish their own lives had a bit more magic, or who want to read about sisters.

Author Robin Benway’s blog

This entry was posted on June 6, 2011, in YABook.

Book Review: Fat Cat

Brande, Robin. Fat Cat. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009.

You are what you eat. . . .

Cat smart, sassy, and funny—but thin, she’s not. Until her class science project. That’s when she winds up doing an experiment—on herself. Before she knows it, Cat is living—and eating—like the hominids, our earliest human ancestors. True, no chips or TV is a bummer and no car is a pain, but healthful eating and walking everywhere do have their benefits.

As the pounds drop off, the guys pile on. All this newfound male attention is enough to drive a girl crazy! If only she weren’t too busy hating Matt McKinney to notice. . . .

This funny and thoughtful novel explores how girls feel about their bodies, and the ways they can best take care of their most precious resource: themselves.

This is the first book I read by author Robin Brande, who also wrote Doggirl. The funniest thing about my experience of reading the book is this post from my Facebook page in September:

I can’t say hominids too well. Reading a book that uses that word a lot, and that in-my-head reading voice keeps saying homonyms instead. (This book is making me get better at it- that word is, by necessity, on almost every page. Fat Cat by Robin Brande)

I really enjoyed this book. I love that Cat loses weight not to gain male attention, though that is an unexpected side effect, but because she’s doing a science project where she learns that her eating habits are really not that healthy. I didn’t know much about early man before reading this book, and the facts Cat discovers are really interesting. I was inspired after reading this book to try to change my own eating habits (though in the interest of full disclosure, I must say that without the incentive of a grade that Cat has, my efforts were far less successful, and less permanent).

(Vague potential spoilers ahead) Similar to Doggirl, I found my adult mind read into things differently than Cat did. While she felt Matt was an enemy, who hated her and was always finding ways to talk to her just to annoy her, I could see that she was holding a grudge from long ago that was probably unfounded. In fact, as children often do, Cat made a mountain out of a molehill, and Matt can’t figure out what he did wrong – she made a big deal out of something he doesn’t even remember happening, and now years later there is still fallout from the miscommunication.

What this means, about both of Robin’s books I’ve read, is that the antagonist of the novel is not a bad guy. I love that there is no real villain, just fully rounded characters that are seen as “bad” in the eyes of the protagonist based on past experience, but who turn out to be pretty good in the end. I find that a lot of children’s stories are good vs. evil (fairy tales, for example, usually have characters that are either pure good or pure evil), and it’s important for teens to understand that the real world is full of shades of gray. You should never judge someone’s entire life based on a single incident, which I suppose is why so many people are against the death penalty. YA authors have a responsibility to their audience to reflect these shades of gray, and Robin certainly fulfills this responsibility.

The only thing I can think of that would have made the book “better” (and I’m hesitant to use that word because really I don’t think of myself highly enough to think I could do better) would be to include some recipes in the back of the book. Cat creates healthy vegan meals for herself and her family, and ends up being hired by a local vegan coffee shop as a cook. With so many people going vegan these days, especially teens, I think a small cookbook would be great as an addition to a future edition of the book, or as a companion book.

Love love love this book, and this author. Highly recommended.

Book Review: A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend

Horner, Emily. A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend. New York, NY: Dial Books, 2010.

For months, Cass Meyer has heard her best friend, Julia, whispering about a top-secret project. Then Julia is killed in a car accident, and her drama friends make it their mission to bring the project – a musical entitled Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad – to fruition.
But Cass isn’t a drama person. She can’t take a summer of painting sets, and she won’t spend long hours with Heather, the girl who rudely questioned Cass’s sexuality all through middle school and has somehow landed the leading role. So she takes off. In alternating chapters, Cass spends the first part of the summer on a cross-country bike trip and the rest swallowing her pride, making props, and – of all things – falling for Heather.
This novel is a tale about friendship. About love. About traveling a thousand miles just to find yourself. And it’s a story about the craziest high school musical one quiet suburb has ever seen.

I started off unsure about if I wanted to read about a girl getting over her best friend’s death. But I couldn’t resist reading about the making of a musical called Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad. It sounds like something my brother would have enjoyed, if it was a real play put on when he was in high school. And it is made clear early in the book that it’s a bunch of high school drama club members who are putting together the play by themselves, no teachers or adults involved – and even though it’s not being done in 13 days, the concept still has a lot in common with my recent love Doggirl by Robin Brande.

The story is told simultaneously of two times, “Now” and “Then.” At first it was a little confusing, as anything told with parallel stories is bound to be. But then something happened and it was not so crazy, like when Gwyneth Paltrow cuts and colors her hair in one storyline but not in the other in the movie Sliding Doors and it’s suddenly very easy to understand which scene goes with which storyline. (Maybe I’m the only one in the world, but that movie is one of my all-time favorites.) In this case, the something that happened was that Cass set out on her bicycle road trip “Then,” over the summer, and in the “Now” storyline school starts up again when summer ends.

I really like this book. After Julia’s death, Cass is a bit lost. She struggles with her friends, who really just let her hang out because they were Julia’s friends, but she feels like an outsider without Julia as a buffer. She can’t even read the script of the musical because it has inside jokes the two girls shared, and the memories hurt too much. Cass is suddenly confronted with mortality, which happens to everyone at some point in their lives. Death is something apart from life, something that it can seem will never happen to you (even though you know intellectually that it will). But when death touches you, when the person who died is someone you knew intimately, someone who was a big part of your life and now there’s a hole left behind, death becomes something inevitable. And that’s terrifying.

Cass and Julia had planned to drive out from Chicago to Santa Monica, California over the summer. Now that Julia is gone and Cass doesn’t drive, she decides it is something she must do alone now, on her bike. And after talking to her parents and Julia’s mother, she packs some food and clothes and Julia’s ashes, and sets out on the journey of over 2400 miles to find herself.

Later, back home, she is working on props and such for the play, forced to be civil with mean girl Heather. But Heather reveals a secret about why she was so mean to Cass in middle school, and why she left Catholic school after three years to do Senior Year with her old classmates, and things start to change between them. They begin a tentative friendship, which evolves into something that could be more if they are both willing.

Cass and Heather are fully-developed characters. Julia and Ollie and Jon are pretty round. But most of the other characters fall flat. Lissa and Amy (whose name I just had to look up because I didn’t even remember) are supposed to be core members of the group of friends, but they are no more than names on a page to me- hardly supporting characters. There are a few people Cass meets on the road, also not very dimensional. But at its core, this is a book about Cass, and she is a teenager, and her friend just died, and so it makes a lot of sense that the story, told from her point of view, is limited in this way. Although I would have preferred if at least some of the other characters got more fleshed out as the story went on and Cass started opening up to Heather and the rest of the world.

Overall, I would recommend this book to teens who can relate to Cass in her quest for identity and sexual orientation. On the road she kisses a boy, and later kisses a girl. She feels differently about these kisses, and the experiences help shape her and prepare her for a return to high school. On the road she acquires a new confidence that she doesn’t even see in herself until Heather points it out, and that night she looks in a mirror and sees herself in a new light.

Okay, so the real reason I read beyond the first few pages? I really like the following quote. It’s the way I feel about my 120 Books project*, and being far behind where I “should” be and trying to decide if I should keep going because it’s possible, or give it up because it’s not and I’m insane.

Seventy-nine days between today and the last day of August, when I’d better get on a bus back home before school starts. Divide it out, you get a little more than thirty miles a day, and there’s something reassuring about the calculations. Like how we always did it when one of us was freaking out that we would never have time to write that fifteen-page paper, or never be able to save up enough for decent seats at the theater. It makes it look possible. It makes me forget that I can’t do this and I don’t expect to. (page 2)

Calculations are reassuring. If I say I have to read a book every 2.7 days it somehow seems less possible than if I say I have to read three books a week. And both are more crazy than saying I have read 20 books when I should have read over 40 by now. One day at a time, one book at a time, and I can do it. Just like Cass figures out every night how many miles a day she has to average to get to California in the time she has available before school starts. There are a lot of points in the book where she talks about pushing through, little by little, and how you can accomplish anything like this. Like I do in November during NaNoWriMo. Like the E.L. Doctorow quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That’s one of those lessons I need to re-learn over and over again, and I think it’s perfect as a theme for this book.

And have I mentioned the ending? The last 50 pages, wow. First the “Then” storyline has a big climax, then the “Now” storyline has a big climax, then the “Then” storyline ties up, then the “Now” storyline ties up… Talk about a roller coaster, this ending is awesome! I can’t say more without ruining it, but… wow!

*I read this book during the year I set the lofty goal of reading 120 books… I ended up falling short, but that’s okay.

This entry was posted on May 27, 2011, in YABook.

Book Review: Doggirl

Brande, Robin. Doggirl. Ryer Publishing, 2011.

Riley Case has always been an expert with dogs–it’s people she doesn’t understand. But when the chance comes to use her talents as a dog trainer to help her high school drama department compete in a national contest, Riley has to set aside her shyness and fears, and finally let the world see what she can do. It’s THE DOG WHISPERER meets GLEE as Riley and her dogs help put on a show no one will forget.

When Riley sees an announcement advertising the need for a dog trainer, she knows that she is not just the perfect girl for the job, but the only girl for the job. She’s so sure of it that she rips the notice off the bulletin board. She wants to be a professional animal trainer on Hollywood movie sets, and she has been practicing with her dog Fig for years. It turns out the drama department is entering a nationwide contest called the Thirteen Day Theater Thrash, which entails writing a play and putting it all together, from scenery to costumes to props, and performing it to be filmed in one take… in thirteen days. And Danny, the director, thinks adding a trained dog to the cast will push his team over the top into the winning spot. After Fig impresses the team with several tricks, Riley stuns them by telling Danny she has two more dogs, and that Jack and Heidi can do tricks too.

Danny decides to put the dogs in every scene, thus Riley is swept up in a frantic new schedule of rehearsals every free hour of the day, helping Beverly with the costumes, and letting Nate the camera guy film her training her dogs for his behind-the-scenes documentary of the whole Theater Thrash experience. Riley usually prefers to fade into the background, but she can’t pass up this opportunity to add some real experience to her resume. Plus it will be great practice for the dogs.

Riley left her old school in Pennsylvania due to something very bad that happened. Riley reveals this gradually, as if she is waiting until she can trust the reader. I love that! Riley is the same way with people, reluctant to trust after what happened in middle school. She questions her new friends, not even sure if they are indeed her friends until she finally gets the courage to ask, and wonders if they call her Doggirl with affection or because they are making fun of her.

The cast of characters in this book are amazingly realistic. Each one reminded me of kids I went to high school with in some way, and the dogs also had very distinctive personalities. Riley is uncertain how to maneuver in the human world, and often starts a chapter talking about dog behavior, and then relating that in some way to the people. I learned a lot about dogs, but it’s more important because it shows Riley trying to understand people better in the only way she knows how.

Doggirl is a complex story because Riley starts off very reserved, and the reader gets to watch her evolve as she opens up and lets people in, getting hurt and hurting others in the process. There is always a risk when you let people in, and the reader is compelled to root for Riley, despite her insisting that after Theater Thrash she will again disappear into the background. I kept reading because I loved the plot, but I was equally curious as to whether Riley would ever learn to trust Beverly and Nate and the others.

Without giving too much away, I do want to say a note about the ending. There is a moment at the end of a really good book when things are drawing to a conclusion, and you don’t want it to end but you have to know what happens, and your hopes are very high. You loved the rest of the book, but the ending can make or break it. Mentally, you are almost begging the author to give you that sign that this main character isn’t doomed. Even if you’re concerned about her right up to the penultimate sentence, the final sentence has to give you that sigh of relief that you have nothing to worry about after the story ends. She’s gonna be okay. And for Riley, the last action of the book gave me that “she’s gonna be okay” feeling.

I promised Robin Brande gushing, so in case I haven’t fulfilled my promise, let me just say right now… Gush, gush, gush! I love this book to pieces. I really do. I want to start reading it all over again just so I don’t have to say goodbye to the  characters. I know this whole post is a lot more summary than review, but it only goes to show how much I enjoyed the book – I want you to know so much about it that you can’t help but read it for yourself. I was excited since I first heard about this book, since I read Robin’s book Fat Cat in the Fall and thoroughly enjoyed that one too. (Review to come shortly.)

Disclosure: As a librarian, I requested this book from the author through her website and received a free e-book version. If I hadn’t gotten it free I would have gladly paid for it anyway.