Monday, December 31, 2007

Skating Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild

One of my all time favorite books that I was recently, and blissfully, reunited with. Thank you, Mom, if you read this.

Noel Streatfeild's books were my constant companions as a girl. That sounds so incredibly drippy and naff but it's the truth. I read them all, and loved them all hugely. Ballet Shoes, Tennis Shoes, Circus Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Theater Shoes, Traveling Shoes, Party Shoes, Margaret Thursday's adventures and Gemma's successes- I couldn't (and can't) get enough.

Skating Shoes is one of my favorites of these, though, because, I think, Skating Shoes dealt with something I knew nothing about (I had more of an idea what the characters were up to in the other books tennis, ballet, music- well, not the circus one or the Margaret Thursdays) but also, because Lalla Moore in Skating Shoes does something so bad it's shocking. Streatfeild's characters are almost all good, very good, and although there is competition in some cases (Nicky and Susan Heath, in Tennis Shoes are competitive, but never directly, and although Pauline in Ballet Shoes often experiences success at Winifred's expense, it is never, ever intentional, and Pauline and her sister Petrova even offer to give up a part in a play that Petrova has already won, so that Winifred might have it.)

Lalla Moore, however, really is willing to tank her friend Harriet's chances of having a career- and it wouldn't even benefit her directly. Interesting stuff, and that Streatfeild was able to bring in that level of complex moral dilemma and have the reader (me!) understand why Lalla did it and why Harriet did what she did- well, I honestly think that it was for me an introduction into reading on a new level.

I know that sometimes I can seem ornery and point to something that looks trivial or seem glib when I say Skating Shoes made me a deeper reader, or that Gossip Girl books are damn good, but I do mean it. I guess that's why it's nice to keep this record, so I have a place to try to make sense of it.

Skating Shoes (good luck if you can get it- the books are (criminally) out of print, and I feel so so thrilled to have a copy) Quality: 10 Popularity: 9 Overall 19 C/YA/All

Once Upon a Quinceanera, by Julia Alvarez

Good book about the tradition. Raised some interesting ideas, must read some of the referenced books, actually. Talks about a book called The Invention of Tradition, by Eric Hobsbawm that sounds good. Brought an interesting perspective to it, but (sorry- I really enjoyed the book, and don't want to harsh it at all) I think I expected a less personal book- I took it out hoping to hear Alvarez's amazing voice, but not so much about Alvarez herself. But still, damn good book. Only thing that bothered me really was that the chapter about posed quinceanera photographs being taken instead of having an actual quinceanera party as a way to save money, especially in Miami, was almost identical to Vendela Vida's section on quinceaneras in her super book : Girls on the Verge: Debutante Dips, Drive-bys, and Other Initiations. I suppose there's only so much one can say on the topic, but it was so uncanny that it bothered me enough to make sure that Vida's book was listed in the suggested reading at the back.
Quality: 9 Popularity: 8 Overall: 15

Carpe Diem by April Cornwell

YA book. Pretty good. Vassar Spore goes traveling around East Asia with her grandmother, it changes her. I like this book a lot more than I think is coming across here.

8 Quality + 8 Popularity = 16 YA

Monday, December 10, 2007

Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Fanstastic action packed dystopian novel. In the future, everything has been privatised- Government, Police, etc. The major corporations are taking their marketing campaigns to deadly extremes- and it's up to heroine Jennifer Government to stop them. Fun, funny book- great map of the world in the future.

The world of Jennifer Government. Red countries are part of the US, blue ones are the affiliated countries, green ones are "socialist" countries and purple ones are fragmented markets.

Anyway, damn good fun book. It felt so so good to read adult fiction again. Yay!
9 Quality + 9 Popularity = 18 Overall

Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids by Murray Milner Jr.

Another book about consumerism and status systems among teens in the US. Much more academic and dry than the others, but interesting for a very formal analysis of group dynamics, status, and identity.

7 Quality + 5 Popularity = 12 Overall

Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Re-read. Bath book. Fun, funny, frothy, consistent in tone, I wish the US version wasn't dumbed down. Do they think we won't recognize Finnish? Jerks.

7 Quality + 8 Popularity = 15 Overall

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins

Re-read. One of my all time favorite books. Very different from the (equally wonderful) Cary Grant /Irene Dunn movie of the same name (based on the book). I love this book beyond words.

10 Quality + 10 Popularity = 20 Overall

Buried by Robin Merrow Macready

What on earth is there to say about this? It was all going along well and interestingly until the very last bit, when it disolved into the most ludicrous sort of soap opera melodrama implausible goofiness. Until that last chapter, it had me. With the last chapter, I was actually laughing and reading out bits aloud to my long suffering husband.
2 Quality + 8 Popularity = 10 Overall YA (popularity points for good cover)

Prom Dates From Hell by Rosemary Clement-Moore

Buffy crossed with Veronica Mars. This one I actually enjoyed, although it felt terribly familiar, what with the wisecraking heroine slaying demons, etc, but well written and cute. Super PG though- for younger teens maybe? 8 Quality + 6 Popularity = 14 Overall YA

Happy Kid by Gail Gauthier

Happy Kid by Gail Gauthier
Fun, sweet and quick read. Definitely middle school, maybe younger. Not sure about the 'power' of the book and all that, but it was cute and harmless. Dreadful cover- I don't know who would pick it up.

7 Quality + 6 Popularity = 13 Overall YA

New Plan for The List

I am no longer going to write a full review for every book I read, it takes a lot of time! Instead, I am going to use this blog to keep track of what I read, and if I feel compelled to comment further, I will!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, by Jeanne Kilbourne


Fun, interesting, infuriating read about advertising. I think that this is one of my favorite books on the topic. This book differs from the others in that is is addressing advertising to adults, and on manufactured desires, but it is one of those books that you just can't put down.
Great use of images in this book too- ads and stills from commercials and movies add a lot to the book rather than distract from it, and that's a hard trick to pull off.
Quality: 10 Popularity: 9 Overall: 19

Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, by Juliet Schor

Fantastic, well written, passionate and detailed book about the ways marketers research and hunt their quarry- children and teens- in order to develop brand relationships that are in many ways as intense as relationships with humans.

Shor wrote a seriously good book here, and filled it with stories that outrage. This would be a fantastic book for anyone interested in the ways the experience of childhood has changed since the 1980s and how commodified the experience has become. From immersive marketing to alpha teen representatives, Shor dredges up the ugly in an ugly ugly business as lucidly as Upton Sinclair did with The Jungle.

I guess I'll say it here, I am a big fan of hers for not only this book, but for 2 of her other books I enjoyed immensely - The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need and Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure.

Born to Buy, by Juliet Schor

Quality: 10 Popularity: 9 Overall: 19

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing The Minds of Your Children, by Daniel Acuff and Robert Reiher

This was a pretty unbelievably awful book. Obviously, this is an area that I have read a lot in, and of course, much of it is somewhat repetitive, but I can honestly say that this book was so off point that I don't think it should be shelved near the other books on this seriously important topic- this book was so bad, in fact, that it was utterly original. Juliet Schor, Alissa Quart, Benjamin Barber, Thomas Hine - don't worry- these guys are not at your level of research, writing, or common sense.

With what seemed to me to be a thinly veiled "Christian" agenda, Acuff and Reihert vigoriously decry the overwhelming marketing messages targeted to children, tweens and teens, but despite the book being touted as coming from marketing insiders (and there making it unique in what is quite a crowd of books on the topic) the information in the book is dated and weakly presented.

Some parts were actually laugh-out-loud bad. Each chapter ended with side by side comparisons of the family that was raising "healthy teens" and the family whose kids were "kidnapped" by the consumer society. Let me share with you.

Ages 13 to 15 - Empowering Behavior (The Good Kids )
Sarah loves music and listens to her CDs of pop and soft rock on weekends mostly. She also plays the piano and lends her singing and playing talents both at school and at church. Dennis isn't into music much; he loves sports and spends as many waking hours as possible playing them. They both have approved music stations on in the background sometimes while studying or hanging out in their rooms.

Ages 13 to 15 - Disempowering Behavior (The Bad Kids )
Dennis listens to all sorts of music. His favorites are rap, hip-hop, and a lot of gangsta rap music with lyrical content that is quite violent and filled with sexuality- content way beyond his years. Sarah, along with most of her friends, is infatuated with female and male music stars, and they all try to emulate them in dress and attitude. Sarah's stereo is almost always blasting and the radio is almost always blaring in Dennis's room.

What the heck is this about? First off, Good Sarah, singing away at her church, maybe listening to a little 'soft rock' on the weekends, sounds like a total zombie, not a real teen, and as for the "approved stations" on the radio- well, what, exactly is the approval process? Parents censoring the music their children listen to isn't what I expect to read in any book about raising media aware teenagers. Bad Dennis likes "All sorts of music", especially black music - and this is portrayed as problematic. I believe that Bad Sarah's radio might be blasting all the time, but if Dennis is into music that has "lyrical content that is quite violent and filled with sexuality", it probably isn't making it past the FCC guidelines and therefore isn't on the radio.

Kidnapped: How Irresponsible Marketers Are Stealing The Minds of Your Children

Quality: 5 Popularity: 7 Overall: 12

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes, by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Brown

A good intro to the overwhelming brainwashing that (American) girls are subjected to, with an emphasis on consumerism and on packaged female identity. This book, while very solid, is kind of basic and not as in depth as Alissa Quart's Branded, and at times feels like it is written for people who have never thought about such things, which I suppose it is.

The authors are writing to parents, and for what it is, it is an impassioned and articulate analysis of why 'buying into' princesses and pink can damage girls' future attempts to define themselves, and the sections on children's and YA literature are most interesting to me. Of course Gossip Girl comes in for some hits, but I think it's clear that the authors realize that that series is better written than others, and also, their objections to Gossip Girl are more focused on the materialism than on the issues. The Clique, thankfully, is nailed in this book, but some of the books they recommend seem a little off to me - Ok, Speak, sure, yadda yadda, but putting How I Live Now on a list of books supposedly chosen to reflect strong female characters? Daisy was a neurotic anorexic basketcase who had an underage affair with her cousin- I liked the book, but I wouldn't see that character as a role model. Also, the Magic Schoolbus series drives me crazy. But that might just be me.

Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes

Quality: 9 Popularity: 8 Overall: 17

Branded: The Buying and Selling Of Teenagers, by Alissa Quart

Re-read. This is a fantastic book about marketing to teenagers, and the increasingly insidious ways that advertisers use psychological and childhood development research to manipulate youth into buying to define their identity.

Quart is a great writer, and this book is, to me, a must read when looking at the unholy work that falls under the umbrella of "marketing", along with Naomi Klien's No Logo. Seriously, that is dirty dirty work.

Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers

Quality: 10 Popularity: 8 Overall: 18

Beige, by Cecil Castellucci

Katy has to go stay with ehr estranged father, a 2nd rank punk drummer called The Rat, for a summer while her mother is off in Peru on an archaeological dig. Despite her parents having been huge in the SoCal punk scene, Katy isn't into music of any kind, let alone classic punk. The daughter of another member of her dads band is bribed with guitar store certificates to spend time with Katy, and Lake quickly nicknames Katy "Beige" because she is so bland.

I am a little torn about this book, because while I enjoyed it and it was a quick read, it was very predictable and formulaic. My favorite part was that the chapters were each titled after some great songs I had kind of forgotten about, like California Uber Alles by the Dead Kennedys and the scene in the cd store reminded me of being fourteen.


Quality: 7 Popularity: 9 (Great cover!) Overall: 16

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Devilish, by Maureen Johnson

Fun, fun YA book.
Jane lives in Providence (Go Rhody!) and attends St. Theresa's, a Catholic school. A new girl comes to school one day, and turns the whole place upside down.
Jane was a really great protagonist- a math and science geek, a fiercely protective friend, and a brave and resourceful character. I loved the twists, and the suprises in the plot, and don't want to give anything away. This was a fun one. Yay!
Quality: 8 Popularity: 9 Overall: 17 YA

Sunday, November 25, 2007

La Linea, by Ann Jarmillo

YA novel about Miguel Cervantes and his sister, Elena, and their crossing La Linea (the border between Mexico and the US).
This is a tough book to score, because I feel as though I ought to have liked it, but I can't truly say that I did.
The first scenes in San Jacinto seemed grippingly real, but once Miguel and Elena were on the move, it kind of blurred for me and although their journey is fraught with danger and help comes to them from a fellow migrant called Javier, who sacrifices himself to help them, the scenes never felt very clear to me.
The end was so sudden, too- I felt like the most interesting parts of the story were skipped over- I felt, really, as if my copy of the book was missing chapters, which made it an unsatisfying read for me.
Quality: 6 Popularity: 6 Overall: 12

The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink, by Dr. Robert Morris

Interesting book that traced the history on known water-borne disease from John Snow hunting cholera in 19th century England to New Orleans in the post-Katrina era.

The earlier chapters were a bit text-booky, but once we made it to mid-century America, the writing really picked up, and the issues became much clearer. Outbreaks of cryptosporidium in Milwaukie in 1993 and a nightmarish E. Coli epidemic in Ontario in 2000 were written about vividly and without condescending to the reader.

Some really amazing tidbits from this book- in older US cities, workers replacing pipes still regularly find lengths of wooden pipe- over 150 years old. In younger cities, the first cast iron pipes were laid in the early years of the 20th century. These pipes had a design lifespan of 125 years. In 1925, new, thinner pipes began to be used. These had a design lifespan of about 100 years. In 1950, even thinner pipes with a design lifespan of 75 years went in. As the author puts it, "As if part of some grand, unintelligent design, this pattern of manufacturing has synchronized the decay of all three different types of pipe such that they will all reach the end of their useful life at roughly the same time." Yikes! And, sir, well said.

A good meaty book.

The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink

Quality: 8 Popularity: 7 Overall: 15

Friends in High Places, by Marne Davis Kellog

A quick light read, this mystery starring Kick Keswick wasn't really great, but it was exactly what it promised to be- a wildly improbable romp through Provence, London, and the lakes of Northern Italy, in luxury cars and helicopters, with jewel theives, dubious Hungarian royalty, and Scotland Yard.
Fun for what it is. As I read it, I realized I'd read read another book by this author, witht his main character- my main question is, how old is Kick supposed to be? A strapless black lace tea length dress, with a cane? Strapless, really?

Friends in High Places

Quality: 6 Popularity: 7 Overall: 13

Teen Idol, by Meg Cabot

I hardly believe that there is a real Meg Cabot. I think, instead, there might be a factory filled with desperate writers chained to desks churning these puppies out. Maybe the 'real' Meg Cabot walks through every now and then to whip them and to make sure everything is saccharine, light, oh so very 'clean', whiter than wonder bread, and that the heroines (to really stretch a word) are just charmingly awkward enough to be non-threatening.

Seriously. Have you seen pictures of Meg Cabot? I don't want to sound catty, but the woman seems to be experiencing some kind of bizarre prolonged adolescence complete with the kind of fashion faux-pas that made Drew Barrymore's annoying character in Never Been Kissed (a story of a woman who can't let go of high school) so easily mockable. Check this out.

On the left, in the pink, a photo from La Cabot's own web site. Note the tiara, note the fuzzy thing. On the right, please note Ms. Barrymore's similar fuzzy thing. I need say no more.

Anyway, Teen Idol is the story of regular everyday girl Jenny Greenley, who gets along with everyone but who has no boyfriend (awww) who is asked by her principal to help guide an under cover teen movie star through a few weeks of regular high school life as preparation for a movie he is working on. Already we have stretched credibility to the snapping point. The premise is absurd- does Cabot really suggest that readers believe that teen movie stars infiltrate high schools and that no one would notice (unless, of course, at the fundraising car wash, said teen idol takes off his shirt to reveal his distinctive tattoo, blowing his cover?)? Arrrrgh. This kind of makes my head explode.

You can guess the rest. Bleh. I kind of want to wash my brain now. And don't even get me started on The Princess Diaries.

Teen Idol

Quality: 2 Popularity: 6 Overall: 8 YA

We Have Always Lived In The Castle, by Shirley Jackson

This turned out to be a re-read, which says a lot about it. I had totally forgotten I had read it until I got to the little chanting song "Merricat, Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?" and realized I had read it before.

Well, I don't know what to say, really, it is Shirley Jackson doing the gothic horror thing that she does, and although I really enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and of course, her story The Lottery, gothic horror is just not my thing, and this book just strikes me as weird. I kind of wanted to kick all the characters. To say much more m ight give the 'twist' away, so I'll stop here.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle

Quality: 4 Popularity: 6 Overall: 10

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Story for Bear, by Dennis Hasely (Author) and Jim La Marche (Illustrator)

This children's picture book had more wistful longing and love and mystery and sense of place and character than 99% of the fiction I've read all year. It is magical without being cheesy, enchanting without being saccharine, and incredibly moving, for reasons I don't understand.

Bear... oh, see, I can't even write about this book without getting all teary. This is the best love letter I have ever seen to the written word, and every single exquisite illustration only adds to the story.

I can't possibly express how wonderful I found this book to be.

A Story For Bear

Quality: 10 Popularity: 10 Overall: 20

Double Stars, by Padma Venkatraman

I very much wanted to enjoy this.

Venkatraman is an astonishingly accomplished woman, and I can see why she would be drawn to the story of Caroline Herschel, one of the first female astronomers.

I felt like maybe there wasn't enough original material to truly flesh out the story, as so many of the primary source quotes were so very dry, and the photos included in the book seemed arbitrary and were kind of startlingly offputting.

I can see how this story could have made for fantastic historical fiction, but as nonfiction, it read very dry to me. I must say that I can hardly wait to read her novel, Climbing the Stairs, when it comes out.

Double Stars

Quality: 6 Popularity: 3 Overall: 9 YA

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

I did not get this book, let me say that first.

It is endless, and for every page of whispery thin text, there are about 5 or so pages of drawings of wide eyed French youth in the 1930's, running around train stations fixing clocks and making small automata out of toy store gears, and everyone is a theif, and it all turns out to be about movies.

It was, for me, a ghastly experience.

I do not like graphic novels.

How the heck do you translate this nonsense into Braille?

And what a waste of time it felt like.

I don't understand the huge, high praise for this publication, why it won awards, why its Amazon rating is 4 1/2 stars after 95 reviews. I don't understand it at all.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Quality: 3 Popularity: 7 Overall: 10 YA

The Off Season, by Catherine Murdock

This sequel to Dairy Queen was a great surprise to me. I remember how long it took me to warm up to the character of DJ in that book- well, once I did, I loved her, and I loved this entire book right from the start.

Her playing football has led to more complications than she could have known, and she finds out by overhearing, in a heartbreaking scene, that the family farm is losing money year after year. DJ has to make a painful decision about whether she can in good conscience play football when it is girl's basketball that offers good scholarships to college. Life is further complicated when big brother Win, playing college football on scholarship, sustains a massive spinal cord injury.

DJ is a fantastic protagonist. Her courage and straightforward goodness seem so rare in books now, and especially in this book, her story is one to relish. This book could totally stand alone, too.

The Off Season

Quality: 9 Popularity: 8 Overall: 17 YA

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Anahita's Woven Riddle, by Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Anahita, at 15, is to be married, once she completes weaving her wedding carpet, and the local khan himself has expressed interest in her.

Anahita, however, wants to become a master dyemaker, and wants nothing to do with the khan, a creepy man much older than her, who has had 4 previous wives die, and convinces her father and the village mullah to let her weave a riddle into her bridal carpet, and to let suitors compete to solve it, with the winner becoming her hsuband.

This book was lovely in parts, but it really dragged in others. I loved all the bits about the dye and the weaving, but all the riddles got to me after a while, and once you meet the main suitor characters, well, you won't be surprised at the end.

It felt a little predictable, as a love story, but the glimpses of life as a nomadic Iranian in the early 20th c were very cool, and Anahita, despite being something of a selfish dolt, was a very interesting protagonist, and this book had nice flavor to it, especially after so many US suburban sex dramas (Harmless, Story of a Girl, Twisted, etc etc ad infinitum).

Anahita's Woven Riddle

Quality: 8 Popularity: 8 Overall: 16 YA

Runaway, by Wendelin Van Draanen

Well written but implausible book about a 12 year old girl named Holly who runs away from an abusive foster home. I didn't know until after I finished that this book is a companion to a book called Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy, which I haven't read, so maybe if you read that one first, it will have more meaning to you, or maybe, if you read this book after this one, you really like this writer and will therefore like this book too.
I feel kind of ambivalent towards this book. I wouldn't have read it if I hadn't had a good reason to read it, but having read it, there were some very good things about it.
I liked it very much that the vocabulary was at an interesting level. Holly's poetry (and especially the variety of named forms that she experimented) was cool to see in a YA book. I could totally see a teen reader trying out some cinquains and sonnets after reading this book, which is awesome.
Flaws? Well, as I said, I felt it to be implausible, that Holly could survive that long on her own without being attacked. Now that I think about it, that is kind of sad is that that is the part of the book that I thought was implausible, not the abuse she suffered or her mother's slow dive into addiction, leading to her death. It is Holly's very survival that felt fake to me, and the happily-ever-after ending really added to my false-vibe. But it was still pretty darn good, and one of the better YA books I've read lately.
Quality: 7 Popularity: 8 Overall: 15 YA

Nanny State, by David Harsanyi

The full (and rather over-wordy) title is

Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children

but that is much too long to have as a title for a mere blog post.

Oh, heck. I wanted to love this book, but I did not. I think maybe this is one of those books where you're in the choir if you're reading it at all, so it has to be a fun read too- no one likes a boring preacher, right?

And it wasn't so much that it was boring at all- if he hadn't been talking about things that just seemed so common knowledge, I could have worked up my fervor for the same topic, and settled in to a great shouting about something I believe.

We are losing our civil rights, and our rights to be uncivil. We are, in many ways, treated like children by the very groups adults choose to represent us as a nation. We are denied the freedom to choose to be "fat, stupid and drunk", to quote Animal House.

But I knew that already.

Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children

Quality: 6 Popularity: 7 Overall: 13

A Year Without "Made In China", by Sara Bongiorni

Oooooh this was good. This book combined just about all my favorite nonfiction topics into one book- American consumer society, social responsibility vs. day to day compromise, the decline in American manufacturing, shopping, and the rapidly tipping balance of the global economy. You wedge all that into one book, and I am sold, baby.

Sara Bongiorni wrote a great, fun, dazzling read, which was lighthearted yet poignant, and effortlessly informative.

After reading an article about a woman who spent a year buying American, Bongiorni decided to try what she imagined would be an easier task- avoid "Made in China" for a year. This wasn't out of xenophobia or Freedom-Fries style goofiness, it was out of a genuine curiousity to see how hard it could be.

The result is a fantastic, fantastic book. I could go on in raptures about her tone, and how well and easily she narrates rather awkward things, like long phone calls with customer service representatives, and turns what could have so easily been a grumpy polemic into a great story from someone you want as a friend.

I want to try it. What more can I say? Well, I can say a little more- this is a book I think I will own, when it comes out in paperback. Out of all the library books I've read since I've started this blog, this is the first one that has to come live with me. (Rosemary's Baby, that rotten Bobbsey Twin book, all the Gossip Girls, and High Tide are mine- everything else has been borrowed)

A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy

Quality: 10 Popularity: 9 Overall: 19

Boot Camp, by Todd Strasser

A wretched, expoitative, voyeuristic and violent YA book.

Garrett is sent to Lake Harmony, a private juvenile delinquent camp, where he endures many violent humiliations and brainwashing etc etc.

Not my cup of tea in the least. And, if I must say so, kind of ludicrous. Before anyone wants to jump down my throat and point me to the reference and resource list at the end of the book, yeah, I know these things do happen. I just thought this was a rotten book, and it read as implausible, which is my least favorite thing of all in what purports to be 'realistic fiction'.

Boot Camp

Quality: 3 Popularity: 6 Overall: 9

Rosemary's Baby, by Ira Levin

Re-read. Bath book.

Coincidentally, I read this about 2 days before Ira Levin died, and when I heard of his death, Rosemary's Baby was still floating around on the top of the book piles in the house.

Does it really get any better than this for horror? No gore, no eyeballs, just sweet, human (and inhuman) evil. His details, his dialogue.

What a master he was. From Rosemary's Baby to The Boys from Brazil, Deathtrap to Sliver to The Stepford Wives, never a wrong step, never an unbelievable twist, no matter how twisted the story (and boy are they twisted!), never a flaw. We will not speak of Rosemary's Son. I think aliens took over his typewriter for that one, and all his others were brilliant, so there.

One of the best of the best. Thank you Ira Levin.

Rosemary's Baby

Quality: 9 Popularity: 9 Overall: 18

Alligators, Old Mink, and New Money by Allison and Melissa Houette

This was a delight. Utterly un-self-conscious writing, fun, a book that celebrated it's authors' love of vintage clothing while making it clear that it wasn't life or death, just fun and lovely.

Allison Houette claims that she inherited her sense of style from her mother and grandmother, and that their care for and appreciation of clothing led her to love the clothes they carefully saved from earlier eras.

After she left home to try her luck as a model, she found herself in Paris (I know! It does sound as if it would be eye-rollingly nauseating, but it isn't at all- not one bit) and unable to afford new fancy clothes, a mentor taught her how to find hidden gems in flea markets and thrift shops.

After her modeling career slowed down a bit, she opened her own vintage clothing shop in Brooklyn (Seriously, this was a charming book. I usually balk like a stubborn mule when I hear/see anything about Park Slope, etc), called her shop Hooti Couture (after how people mispronounced her French last name in Florida where she grew up) and, well, sells clothes.

It is a mystery how such a slight story made for such a frothy and delicious read, but it really was like having a great latte after finding a fantastic handbag. Really. That might be the only time I ever say anything like that, so you know it's true!

Alligators, Old Mink & New Money: One Woman's Adventures in Vintage Clothing

Quality: 8 Popularity: 8 Overall: 16

Bitter is the New Black, by Jen Lancaster

I don't know why I keep picking these up. I think I miss Bridget Jones.

Well, this one is at least non-fiction (ish). It tells the story of an uber-bitch power-hungry corporate vp from a, who gets, well, blown off when the bubble bursts. She carries her Prada bag to the unemployment office, and then carries on stridently about how they won't take her seriously.

It went on and on, and of course, by being unemployed and having to sell all her handbags, and having to move to (gasp) a worse part of town, and even (double-gasp) having to dye her own hair instead of having a salon charge her $300, she finds inner peace and enlightenment. I am just not buying it.

Anyway, it was quick and breezy, and pretty well written. I am just so tired of these "poverty makes people real" books- Jen Lancaster (post short-skirt-and-long-jacket career girl phase) could probably kick back and keep it real with those "poor girls" the Nan Bobbsey so admired.

Bitter is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass,Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office

Quality: 4 Popularity: 7 Overall: 11

(Yeah, I totally took off points for the title. Nice cover though!)

Luxury Fever, by Robert H. Frank

Another book by Robert Frank, author of Richistan, which I loved earlier this fall.
Older (well, 1999, but feels like in a different financial era altogether) but very interesting look at some common human ideas about relative income, and why it damages our society for individuals to indulge themselves at the expense of collective gains.
Economist Frank somehow makes some pretty intricate arguments seem fun and lively, and the book definitely gives you some great party-arguing hooks - Would you rather make $100k in a world were everyone else made $90k, or make $110k in a world where everyone else made $200k? Why?
Would you rather live in a 4,000 sq. ft. house with an hour drive to work, or in a 3,000 sq. ft. house with a 15 minute rapid transit commute? And so on.
Mixed in with these fun questions are a lot of staggaring (and honestly revolting) factoids about what the truly wealthy spend (some) of their money on- from Bill Gates' $115 million dollar house (the pool alone cost $6 million) to the disgusting whale foreskin barstools on Aristotle Onassis's yacht Christina.
More importantly, and interestingly, Frank's book from 1999 details what he forsaw as fallout from the ludicrous and selfish excesses of the bubble days- he specifially addresses redshirting, the ( almost entirely) socioeconomically determined decision some wealthy parents make to keep their child out of kindergarten for a year to make them more competitive against their classmates, a problem which many states now are attempting to address with legislation.
He also talks about how individual indulgences (such as driving alone to work) create a massive loss of value (when the air is polluted, etc) without sounding in the least bit preachy.
In another section, he talks about what at least he could see coming- the current disaster with consumer debt and bubbly mortgages, the crisis of school-teacher pay falling relative to other fields, food inspection, and decaying municipal water systems.
Most impressively to me, he talks at length about how deferred bridge and highway maintenance increases costs immensely, and how pressure to balance state and federal budgets lead to decision making that is flawed, at best, and criminally negligent, at worst. After what we saw this year with America's bridges, Frank looks a little like a wordy, number-crunching prophet.
A thoroughly enjoyable book.
Quality: 9 Popularity: 6 Overall: 15
(The popularity thing pains me, but this might not be everyone's favorite book, and the chapter on compound interest almost put me to sleep, until I tried to actually follow the math and woke up!)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore, by Laura Lee Hope

The cover, obviously, was the best thing about this. Great cover.

Where to start... I think reading this reminded me why despite an entirely unnatural childhood urge to read children's books published a good 25 years before I was born, I never rocked the Bobbsey Twins.

Sacharine, trite, twee, and painful.

Disgusting little scenes and lines like this (I can hardly type it without retching)

"Queer," remarked Nan as they hurried on. "The two girls I thought the most of in Meadow Brook were poor: Nettie Prentice and Nellie the little cash girl at the fresh air camp. Somehow, poor girls seem so real and they talk to you so close - I mean they seem to just speak right out of their eyes and hearts."

BLECH! If you read the mother's reply to this, you might have the kind of swearing fit I did (scared the heck out of my cats!) so I will not trouble you so, but the book was just chock full of such loathsomeness.

I know it was published in 1952, but there is no excuse for this kind of dreck.

Of course, too, Nettie Prentice's missing father returns with a shipload of mahogany and a fortune- I wonder if Nettie stops being "so real" now that she's Bobbsey-rich?

The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore Out of print, yay.

Quality: 2 Popularity: 2 Overall: 4

(Popularity score obviously weighted to be era-appropriate- I know this was huge back in the day)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

I hated the start of this book. I've been indulging myself a bit, reading things I wanted to read, so this was a bit of a shock to force myself to pick up and finish one of the RITBA nominee books again, but I'm glad that I did.

Arnold/Junior is growing up on a reservation, with more problems than you could shake a stick at. As a baby, he was hydrocephalic, and as a teen, he is still taunted and picked on and beaten up on a regular basis. His family is saddled with poverty, lost dreams, and alcoholism, and his best friend is increasingly violent and drunk.

After his first day in Geometry class, when the textbook he recieves turns out to have been his mother's, all those years ago, Arnold gets furious at the system which denies him a decent, up to date education, and transfers into a nearby white farm-town highschool. His Indian tribemates resent him for that, and his new classmates treat him horribly, initially, with some painful racist scenes.

I don't want to spoil the book for anyone who might read it, but it ended up being tearjerkingly good. For all that, though, I have to say it felt like a tearjerker from page one. Now, from my posts about the Gilbreth books, one might assume I love a book that makes me cry, but this is not the case. I love a book that makes me cry incidentally, a book that moves me so much by its own weight or character that I find myself weeping despite myself. When I call a book a tearjerker, I mean that I find myself weeping when I am supposed to. Big difference, there.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Quality: 9 Popularity: 8 Overall: 16

The Luxe, by Anna Godberson

Well, I was so excited to read this, and thanks to a friend (Hi Robin!) I was able to get a hold of an advance reader copy- yay! I felt so, well, fancy. After hearing (ok, reading) some buzzy stuff about the book, I was convinced this would be huge. Maybe it will be- I mean, how many YA books get namechecked on Gawker???


I am so sorry to report that in this reader's eyes, the book didn't really work.

Too many affairs, too implausible- it reached a kind of Harlequin-level silliness. Which can be magnificent- if it works, but I don't think it did, and I am kind of crushed.

Good girl Elizabeth is from an old society family, and her marriage to Henry is all settled- or is it? It turns out that Elizabeth has a tendresse for the stable boy, and her scheming maid... oh, heck. You can fill in the blanks, I'm sure.

I was so tantalized by the initial sell - Gossip Girl crossed with Edith Wharton - that I still have to kind of love it, just for the idea, but the actualization really didn't work for me. Bummer.

The Luxe (coming out in hardcover next month)

Quality: 6 Popularity: 9 Overall: 15

(Popularity points coming from fantastic cover and pre-release buzz)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Microtrends:The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes, by Mark Penn

Interesting book, detailing our increasingly niche-market oriented society. Penn (known as the guy who defined "Soccer Moms" as a key voting block for Clinton) covers 75 "microtrends" (1,000,000 people being enought to pop up on his radar) that he feels will have a big impact on America today.

His methodology seems sound, and many of the trends he points out are interesting and quirky, but the book (2007) already seems a little dated- it's like FutureShock or Faith Popcorn or something- when you try to write about the next big thing tomorrow, you might be better off writing for magazines, because by the time your book is published, you might already be behind the times. In one major misstep, Penn points to Zunes as the big MP3 player- a glaring, jarring error in a book that claims to be on top of such things. Zunes were made to try to enter the Ipod dominated MP3 player market, and never caught on at all, and it just seems like a weird mistake.

One of the most alarming statistics was out of California, where 1% of teens polled expressed a desire to be "military snipers". 1%. Scary stuff.

MicroTrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes

Quality: 8 Popularity: 9 Overall: 17

Time Out For Happiness, by Frank Gilbereth Jr.

Another fascinating book about the Gilbreth family, but this one a little more serious than Cheaper by the Dozen or Belles on Their Toes.

In this book, Frank Jr. writes more seriously about the theories of scientific management that his parents developed, and even more seriously about how hard Lillian Gilbreth had to work in order to be taken seriously as an expert in the field in her own right.

In one painful story, she had been asked to address the Association of Mechanical Engineers, as a keynote speaker- a great honor- but was not allowed to enter the building - the society had failed to check if the club where the meeting was held allowed women inside. It did not, and despite her being the keynote speaker, she was denied entrance.

Many anecdotes were recycled from the previous books, but this one had a more reflective tone, and allows that for all the fun, that the 11 surviving Gilbreths might have been a little busy and crowded!

And once again, I ended this book with tears streaming down my face. Sometimes genuine warmth can just knock you off your feet.

Time Out For Happiness (Out of print, used copies available)

Quality: 9 Popularity: 6 Overall: 15

Monday, November 5, 2007

Fame Junkies, by Jake Halpern

Finally something I really had fun reading! I loved Braving Home by Halpern- that was a fantastic book, and I was thrilled to see another by him.

This time he takes a look at celebrity culture in America, from a few different angles. He attends a talent expo in NYC, following teens from Buffalo whose parents have invested thousands of dollars in acting and modeling classes, in hopes that their child will 'make it'. He interviews celebrity assistants, who devote their lives to making sure that their celebrity gets everything they want exactly when they want it. He interviews fan-club presidents, in one of the saddest sections in the book, and he interviews academics who have based their careers on studying fame, and who seem to teeter narrowly on an ethical edge- between studying monkeys who will give up Juicy Juice to look at dominant males and female hindquarters, one professor guages his success by his appearances on the Today show and Good Morning America.

The numbers Halpern tosses around are familiar- the terrifying expectations of teens today that they will be famous, the percentage of teens who think that they are uniquely talented and deserving of fame, the sad but true fact that lonely people are more likely to want fame, but he is such a good writer that none of it seems repetitive.

His obvious empathy for his subjects is clear here, and although in Braving Home, his writing was tinged with a little bit of awe for those wacky people living in a lava ruined town or on top of a coal fire, in this book there might be a tinge of sorrow. Ludicrous dedication to the idea of home, I think he kind of admired, but ludicrous dedication to Rod Steward, I think made him sad, as it did me.

Fun, quick, interesting read. Can't wait to read his next book. If I was a writer, I would want to be able to write like Halpern. Can't say anything better than that.

Quality: 9 Popularity: 9 Overall: 18

Fame Junkies

Craftivity, by Tsia Carson

I came across this one while looking for crafty fun YA books, and had to have a read of it. Great cover.

The projects were ok- definitely aimed at 'hipsters' what with painting Leonard Cohen's face on your dining room wall, or making crocheted skulls, etc etc. All very clever.

Actually, there wasn't a single project I would make or that inspired me. I don't know why I feel compelled to be so nice when I write these. It felt all very last year Brooklyn.


Quality: 3 Popularity: 8 Overall: 11

Damsels in Distress, by Joan Hess

Another Claire Malloy mystery from Joan Hess. Yes, I know- it's not YA. But hey, that's ok. Anyway, I remember distinctly that when I was a teenager, I read books that were not specifically targeted to me. Anyway, Claire's daughter Caron and her friend Inez are teenagers, so close enough.

To be fair, I read this because I was still feeling desperate to read something adult-ish, and I usually enjoy Joan Hess. I like the Maggody books a lot more than the Claire Malloys, and this was no exception. I read it, I like it, it was fine, but really wish she'd write another Arly Hanks in Maggody book.

This one was set in Farberville, of course, where a group sounding suspiciously like S.C.A. (Society of Creative Anachronists) but in the book was called A.R.S.E. (which, eh) was holding a festival, quirky characters, elaborate costumes, swordfighting, ballads, and murder. I kind of enjoyed it. It felt very familiar.

Damsels in Distress

Quality: 5 Popularity: 7 Overall: 12

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Belles on Their Toes, by Ernestine and Frank Gilbreth

Oh, what a treat. This was a re-read, and I loved it. When I was 12 or so I think I read Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes over and over and over. About a year ago I found a yard sald copy of Cheaper By The Dozen (with awful movie-tie-in cover- Hillary Duff- spare me) and it went into serious bath-reading rotation, so I was really pleased to get ahold of Belles On Their Toes, the sequel.

After Frank Gilbreth dies, his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth steps into his shoes running their motion-study business, and their 11 children (Anne, at 18, is the eldest) have to run the household while she tours Europe giving speeches trying to convince the world that a woman can run an engineering consulting firm in the 1920s.

I love these books, the detail and the sense of time and place- the slang, the wet smacks and ukeleles, the flappers, and Martha's big scene at the beach where she refuses to wear a 2 piece bathing dress anymore- I love the way the boys coach Jane into being a bobby-soxer rather than a vamp, I love the warmth of these stories. I cried like a baby at the end- literally sitting there howling. It is so lovely to read something that was clearly written to tell people a good story- a real, loving story- rather than all these freaking message-y youth in crisis stuff I've been reading.

Belles on Their Toes

Quality: 10 Popularity: 8 Overall: 18

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Epic, by Conor Kostick

Cool book, set in a dystopian future where all conflict is solved through fights in games, and the whole world plays this game called Epic. One's wins and losses within that game translate into real-life status and possessions, and a small group of teens from a remote island shake up the balance of power by becoming dragon-slayers.

Interesting story, good premise, a little predictable, but fun. This book seems to be getting a lot of buzz but I'm not convinced that this is the best YA book I've read this year.

If you're not into gaming, you'll be pretty damn lost reading it- I have played my share of kobold killing druids, etc, so it wasn't complete babble to me- I think my problem with the book was that even though there have been days when I sat in a seriously messy room, having my sim clean up their considerably cleaner home, in order to max out my room score, I just can't buy that an entire world would let that happen and that a power structure - the Casiocracy- could be born of gaming.


Quality: 8 Popularity: 8 Overall: 16

Not Buying It, by Judith Levine

Lackluster book, I thought. I really wanted to love it (and I felt like I was cheating reading it- I've been choking down as much YA as I possibly can, and just felt desperate to read a book written for adults, but honestly, this was so entirely predictable that I could have written it for her.

The earnest debates over whether extra virgin olive oil is necessary, the longing to buy those interesting kevlar clothes in Brooklyn, how after a few months of not shopping, she started to feel serene....

It was dreadful and disgustingly bobo. I feel I should match the time I spent reading it doing some kind of penance.

Not Buying It

Quality: 4 Popularity: 6 Overall: 10

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Masquerade, by Melissa de la Cruz

Masquerade is a tight, well-written sequel to Blue Bloods, de la Cruz's first book about the vampire elite, and the plot thickens in this follow-up.

Schuyler van Alen and Oliver Hazard-Perry travel to Venice to seek out Schuyler's grandfather, and he comes out of voluntary exile to return to New York to watch over her and to train her in the vampire arts. Her mixed blood is causing problems, though, and it is decided that she should take a human familiar to feed from even though she is only 16 (the age of consent is 18).

Texan Bliss and New York It girl Mimi continue to enjoy their new powers, but Mimi's obsession with Jack leads her to experiment witht he dark arts, and the book wraps up with an exciting dramatic scene.

While the first novel was such a delightful surprise, as I hadn't expected such intricate, complex characters and plotting from de la Cruz, (her Au Pair series isn't nearly as good as these), the sequel makes me feel that Blue Bloods wasn't a fluke- this is good stuff. Can't wait for the next one!

Quality: 9 Popularity: 9 Overall: 18


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

A little light reading!

No, this was fantastic- and anxiety-feeding! At first, 16 year old Miranda's diary entries hardly mention the collision. Sure, astronomers are warning that a comet will hit the moon, and some are saying that it could bring severe disruptions to life on earth, but most people aren't panicking.

The collision knocks the moon off its orbit, causing horrible tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanos, etc. on Earth. Now, I love a natural disaster movie, so this scenario was right up my alley, but the way Pfeiffer turned a huge-scale end-of -the-world story into a tight, claustrophobic, hopeful family story was amazing. That's a good trick, right there.

Very well written, plausible, realistic, and somehow elegiacal and offering hope all at once, this was a solid, good book.

Life as we knew it

Quality: 9 Popularity: 7 Overall: 16

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

New York anorexic Daisy is sent to England to stay with her Aunt Penn and her cousins. Shortly after her arrival, an (ominous but unspecified) act of international terrorism makes it neccessary for Aunt Penn (a vague but unspecified politican /advisor /academic?) to go to Oslo. After she leaves, WWIII breaks out, serious asymmetrical warfare, and in the ensuing chaos, Daisy and her cousins are left alone at their farm for a time.

Their struggle to survive without adults is interesting, but the most interesting part of the book was their struggle to get news- the (vague and unspecified) terrorists have (maybe) destroyed the telecommunications infrastructure, and news is just gossip. The government is planting stories (the smallpox) and no one can trust any information.

Daisy and her cousin Edmond fall in love, and begin a passionate romance before they are separated by the soldiers who eventualy commandeer the farm, and all in all it is a confusing, disturbing, wild ride of a book.

The vagueness was frustrating for me, although I can see that stylistically, it added to the anxiety of the book- the swirling rumors and the hinted terrorism gave an almost sickening feeling to the book. Strong book.

How I Live Now

Quality: 8 Popularity:7 Overall: 15

First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover, by Mitali Perkins

Good book! I've been reading some good stuff lately. A lucky run.

Sameera, nicknamed Sparrow, was adopted as a Pakistani infant by an American diplomat and his wife. Fast forward, and he's a Republican candidate for President. Sparrow leaves her European boarding school and her friends to come 'home' to be a part of his campaign. Sparrow is promptly thrust into the political spotlight, with ugly headlines appearing above photos of her and her father like "Is Righton soft on Muslims?"

A campaign aide steps in, offering assistance- an American makeover, starting with her name. Anxious to assist, Sparrow becomes Sammy, a designer-wearing perky girl, with a fake blog written by staffers. In a satisfying twist that leant depth to what could have been a cardboard baddie, the aide who orchestrates the makeover had been a political daughter herself who had been crucified in the press (think Chelsea Clinton).

Sparrow's conflicts are well presented- she wants her father to succeed, and as much as she wants her mother to go back to looking like the fair-trade policy wonk that she is, she understands that appearances count in a modern election, and that Mom will probably stay blond and exfoliated if she becomes First Lady. Sparrow wants to do her part, but to have a life at the same time.

Exerpts from Sparrow's own real blog, and the comments her friends leave are a great counterpoint to the fake Sammy's blog, and when Sparrow begins to wear salwar kameez to preserve her anonymity in DC, the casual racism she encounters is enraging. It was such a well written book, and this character was a delight- thoughtful, interesting, and interested in the world around her.

The only thing that seemed implausable was that her parents were Republicans. I mean, really?

Quality: 10 Popularity: 7 Overall: 17
First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover

The Girls, by Amy Goodman Koss

Girls' senseless cruelty is nicely drawn here.

5 girls, a clique of friends. Maya, Brianna, Renee, Darcy, and Candace. One morning, Candace decides Maya is out.

The narraration shifts from girl to girl, from Maya's lonely agony and bewilderment to Brianna's consciousness of her own weakness and Renee's social insecurity, Darcy's sick and submissive relationship with Candace, and Candace's own unhappiness and need to prove her power. Each girl's voice was unique, and each was very believable.

This book perfectly captured the almost desperate need to belong in middle school, and the pain of social ostracism.

I think the best evidence I can find of why I feel the voices are so authentic is to point to "A Kid's Review" on Amazon

"This is one of the most best book I have ever read. It is about 5 girls named Maya, Ren'ee, Darcey, Brianna, and Candance. Candance is the main member of the group and Darcey is her best friend and the other girl are the more less important one,s. Candace starts to kik out Maya for no reason. Then she kiks out Brianna too! Ren'ee starts to get comfused because they did not do anything. She trys to think what to do but what could she do? If you would like to find out what she does and what happens read the book and it will give you the answer. "
I think that a book making a child want to try "to think what to do" means that that child believed in the authenticity of those voices. I thought it was a very good book(and at a very low-level reading level, which seems hard to pull off.

The Girls

Quality: 9 Popularity: 8 Overall: 17

Blue Bloods, by Melissa de la Cruz

Fantastic YA book!
I thought it had great writing, well developed characters, a great sense of place and history (set among old New York city families - old as in Dutch- but set in the present), and a kind of style and verve that reads (to me) as a kind of cross between the goth-y vampire glamour and shadows of Twilight and the glitzy clubbing richkids scene of Gossip Girl. I thought it was a delicious book in every way.
From ancient Egypt to modern day Manhattan, the Blue Bloods have always ruled. I thought the book was surprisingly readable on a political level, too, with the Blue Bloods (the vampires) aided by the sycophantic upper middle class ( the Conduits) to live off the blood of the poor.
Schuyler is a great heroine, and the spattering of colonial American history (Roanoke colony, the history society, etc) was fun. I appreciate that de la Cruz didn't condescend to her readers- she left enough information that it would be tempting to find out more about 'what really happened' and it would be easy to find. Also, the characters showed familiarity with the world, appreciation for the arts, and a sophisticated worldview (well, they're ancient vampires, after all!) but that is refreshing after YA book after YA book that writes about teenagers as if they live on some desert island with only pop or punk (that depends on how 'deep' the book is) music, a tv, a cell phone, and some annoying/distressing parents and siblings. I love a book that mentions opera and exhibits at the Met.
Quality: 10 Popularity: 9 Overall: 19