Monday, May 29, 2006

Al Capone Does My Shirts

After looking at my list of recent posts (or more accurately, the dates attached), I realized it wasn't fair to blog so irregularly. From now on, I'll try to post every Monday(ish). Of course, more often if I get great new books. In the meantime, cross your fingers for me; I may have a line on a librarian job.

Book: Al Capone Does My Shirts
Author: Gennifer Choldenko
Published: 2004

Twelve-year-old Moose’s family moved for his dad’s job. Pretty run-of-the-mill, right? You read this story every day. Well, considering that his dad’s new job is on Alcatraz . . . not so much.

It’s 1935, and the country is hip-deep in the Great Depression. Meanwhile, Alcatraz is full to the gills with the very best celebrity criminals, but none is more famous than Al Capone. Moose would be more excited, if it weren’t for the crazy schemes of the warden’s manipulative daughter, fitting in at a new school, and most of all, taking care of his fifteen-year-old sister.

The family also moved so that Natalie can go to a special school, where she might actually be “cured” of the mysterious condition that manifests itself in obsessive-compulsive behaviors and an inability to connect to others. Moose has seen it all before, though, and he holds little hope that Nat will ever be normal. But when the school rejects her on the grounds that she is too old, Moose cooks up the craziest scheme of them all, just in case.

Choldenko’s writing evokes both the odd world of an everyday kid living on Alcatraz and the experience of a family so focused on one child that the other often falls by the wayside. The part of Moose, and this book, that I loved best was the realistic mix of feelings he has for Natalie. He loves her and is as ferociously protective as either of his parents, but tangled up with that is frustration that he has to sign away so much of his life to her needs, anger that she can’t just be like other girls, and a kind of helpless acceptance that she will never get better, no matter what his mother wants to think. Choldenko notes in an afterword that these days, Natalie would be diagnosed as autistic, a disorder unknown in the 30’s. Pick up this book and hand it to your favorite fan of historical fiction.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bad Girls in Love

So I guess after that orgy of book posting last week, I got distracted again. I get distracted easi--ooh, shiny thing! Anyway, here's the tale of a chica with the focus of a buzzsaw.

Book: Bad Girls in Love
Author: Cynthia Voigt
Published: 2002

Best friends Mikey and Margalo are Bad Girls, and proud of it. Oh, they don’t drink, smoke, or engage in juvenile delinquency. God, no, that’s so predictable. No, they’re Bad Girls because they act, think, and dress exactly as they please, without bowing to the opinions or preferences of teachers, parents, or classmates.

But now there’s one person whose opinion matters very much to Mikey. That’s gorgeous Shawn Macavity, the communal eighth-grade crush. Margalo knows a bad idea when she sees it, but she also knows Mikey. She can either get in the way and be mown down, or stand back and pick up the pieces. Because there’s one thing that the Big L can’t do, and that’s make a Good Girl out of a Bad one.

Much like her characters, Voigt flatly refuses to bow to the cliches of your traditional middle-school first-crush book. Mikey remains fundamentally herself even when she’s chasing after Shawn. She goes at love the same way she attacks life--damn the torpedos and full speed ahead. No matter how many times the stunningly self-involved Shawn brushes her off, she’s ready to try again. Though Margalo doesn’t have much to do in this book except color commentating, Voight tells most of the story through her eyes. Without sentiment or sensation, Voight skillfully evokes the rarified world of middle school, with all its unwritten rules, and the experience of two highly singular girls in luuuuuuuurve.

Also definitely check out the rest of the Bad Girls series: Bad Girls; Bad, Badder, Baddest; and It's Not Easy Being Bad.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Lisa Yee Doubleheader

I wavered between the two of these for awhile. Which one, which one, should I blog? I loved them both, for different reasons. Then . . . DUH . . . I realized I could blog them both! So here goes.

Book: Millicent Min, Girl Genius
Author: Lisa Yee
Published: 2003

High-schooler Millicent Min has never been off the honor roll. She’s been on Leno and Jeopardy. She knows Latin.

And, oh yeah. She’s eleven years old.

Millie’s looking forward to a great summer (even if only one person signed her yearbook), filled with the literature class she’s taking at the nearby university and hanging out with her fabulous grandma, Mimi. But then her evil parents sign her up for volleyball (eek!) and offer her as a tutor to annoying family friend Stanford Wong (ugh!). Millie’s sure this summer is going to suck. Then she meets Emily. Emily thinks she’s funny. Emily thinks she’s cool. And most of all, Emily thinks she’s a normal girl. And Millie will do anything to let her keep on thinking that.

I loved Millie from the first page. She’s utterly brilliant and charmingly clueless. Her literal-mindedness and sheer bafflement when confronted with unwritten rules remind me very much of Owl, the main character of Patrice Kindl’s Owl in Love. While the comedy is very broad in the first part, mostly pitting Millie against interpersonal subtleties that she doesn’t understand, she rounds out nicely when she meets Emily and ventures into the new discipline of getting, keeping, and being a friend.

Book: Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time
Author: Lisa Yee
Published: 2005

Stanford Wong has just committed The Cardinal Sin in the Wong family. He’s flunked English. His perfectionist dad doesn’t care that Stanford’s the star of the basketball team and one of the most popular guys in school. All he can see is that big red “F” on his son’s report card.

Before you can say “free throw contest,” Stanford’s out of basketball camp and into (ack!!) summer school. As if that weren’t bad enough, he’s getting tutored by that annoying Millicent Min, one of those Chinese geniuses who ruins everything for normal guys like him. He’s got to get to September without killing Millie, without letting any of the guys know that he flunked, and somehow getting the attention of Millie’s cute friend Emily. Good luck!

Stanford’s story is a little more serious than Millie’s, involving as it does subplots about his troubled relationship with his dad and the removal of his beloved grandma to a nursing home. To me, this was unexpected because Stanford comes across as the King of the Clueless Doofuses (Doofi?) in Millie’s book, but not unwelcome. This isn’t a sequel, at least not chronologically speaking, since it takes place in the same time frame as Millicent Min, Girl Genius.

NOTE: Fans of these two books will be delighted to know that Yee is writing a book about Emily, So Totally Emily Ebers. No news on whether it will take place during the same summer as Millie and Stanford’s books, or sometime afterward. Here’s hoping it’s the former, because I feel like there’s a story in Emily’s summer.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Ooo . . . pretty colors . . .

If you're looking at this online and not on an aggregator, you may have noticed that the background is less . . . how can I say this? Dull. I kind of liked the tranquil look before, but this whole dot thing seems funner, especially for a kidlit blog. And yes, I do have a degree in English, thank you very much. Hmf.

My fave links (plus new ones!) will probably be back tomorrow, when I'm not so tired. Also probably soon, more books!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Dorp Dead

I have lots of books to blog! So here's one more.

Book: Dorp Dead
Author: Julia Cunningham
Published: 1965

Eleven-year-old Gilly Ground hates the orphanage. He hates the loud gongs, he hates the food, and he hates being surrounded by other people all the time. So when he gets apprenticed to a ladder-maker, Gilly thinks he's got it made. In this new place, everything is quiet, peaceful, and in its place. A little too much in its place. Soon, Gilly discovers that Mr. Kobalt is so fixated on order that he will do anything--anything--to ensure that order. And the only way Gilly can free himself and Mr. Kobalt's oppressed dog, Mash, from this cage is by using his not-inconsiderable wits.

I gotta say it; this is a weird book. I don't normally pick up creepy novels, but this one grabbed me. (Okay, not literally.) It's a quick read (I probably finished it in an hour), but don't be fooled into thinking it's easy. Like the best of Alfred Hitchcock, Cunningham relies mainly on psychological horror instead of gore and violence. Even more, Gilly's tale forces you to think about the uses and abuses of order and stucture, and the nature of cages, both literal and self-imposed.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Keys to the Kingdom

I liiiiiiiiiiive!

On Saturday, I get my MLS (if all goes according to plan) and will sally forth into the world of unemployment and job hunting. However, from now on I will hopefully have more time to blog.

Series: The Keys to the Kingdom
Author: Garth Nix
Published: starting 2003

Arthur Penhaligon is having a really long week.

On Monday, he nearly died. On Tuesday, he became a slave. On Wednesday, he almost drowned. And now, on Thursday, he's been plunged into a war with the demonic Nithlings for dominion of the House.

Most of the Keys to the Kingdom series takes place in the intricately realized world of the House, a super-universe in which our universe exists. There's trouble in the House. Long ago, the Architect of the House made a Will so that everyone would know what to do with Her House. But the Will's been split up, and nothing can be done until it's whole. The seven Guardians have a vested interest in making sure that the Will stays split . . . but the Will itself has an even more vested interest in becoming whole again.

So it finds Arthur . . . and thus start his adventures, fighting the seven Guardians, hunting down the missing pieces of the Will, and figuring out what's really going on around here.

Yep, it's a long damn week. And it ain't over yet.

I don't normally go in for high fantasy, with the fate of the world in balance and stuff. Thinking about it, I'm not completely sure why I like these books. But The Keys to the Kingdom series is addictive. The world of the House is intricately realized, peopled with fascinating characters. Nix layers his story with symbolism, but lightly enough so it's more of an "oooo!" moment when you figure out the symbols than a "shoot, what is going on around here?" when you haven't.

Most of all, Arthur himself is a draw for me. Scrawny, asthmatic, and unassuming, he's the opposite of your traditional hero. He's just doing what he's gotta do, but somehow this make him completely heroic to me.

The books are all titled after the particular Guardian that Arthur faces in each, and so far they go: Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, and Sir Thursday, with more to come. Word of advice: don't start this series in the middle. You'll only wind up confused and wishing that you'd just read Mister Monday first, like I told you to.