In 1899 Texas, girls are expected to know how to knit, sew, cook and clean in order to make some lucky man a good wife. But Calpurnia Virginia Tate, the only daughter in a family of six rowdy brothers, couldn’t be less interested in the domestic arts. “I had never classified myself with other girls. I was not of their species; I was different.” Instead of stitching away on samplers for her hope chest, Callie Vee prefers tromping around in the woods and wading in the creek with her blustery grandpa, a Civil War veteran and amateur naturalist. Together they collect various & sundry samples of flora & fauna, even discovering a new species of hairy vetch. As Callie discovers the wonders of the natural world, she begins to consider becoming a scientist, especially after reading Mr. Darwin’s controversial book The Origin of the Species. But is there room in Callie’s proscribed society for that oddest of creatures, a female scholar? Callie begins to notice all the ways in which men are encouraged to dream big while women are expected to limit their hopes to hearth and home. When she asks why her sibs get paid for some chores while her labor comes free, older brother Lamar scoffs, “Girls don’t get paid. Girls can’t even vote. They don’t get paid. Girls stay home.” As the new century looms large, with it’s astonishing new inventions of telephones, automobiles and Coca-Cola, it begins to dawn on Callie that these amazing technological investigations are for men alone. “I was expected to hand over my life to a house, a husband, children…There was a wicked point to all the sewing and cooking they were trying to impress upon me…My life was forfeit. Why hadn’t I seen it? I was trapped.” Can Callie draw inspiration from the intrepid female innovators who came before: Mrs. Curie, Miss Anning, Miss Kovalevsky, Miss Bird? Or is she doomed to a lifetime of darning and dusting? This delightfully detailed read, full of fascinating facts about nature and biology and imbued with all the excitement and optimism people felt as they entered a new age, is far deeper than its sweet and gentle cover implies. Like A Northern Light’s sassy little sister, ECT explores themes of feminism, racism, and gender roles with equal aplomb. And, it’s just a really, really good STORY. Anyone who ever dared to dream beyond their means are bound to get along splendidly with Miss Calpurnia Tate.
In the summer of 1995, D, Neeka and our unnamed narrator (we’ll just call her “Me”) are trying to figure out what it means to be “grown” in their Queens, NY neighborhood while the music of their idol, Tupac Shakur, provides the soundtrack to their unusual friendship. Neeka and Me have lived on the same block forever, but D just appears one day, a foster kid with the wrong kind of shoes and the wrong color eyes. D likes to “roam,” taking the subway and bus to new neighborhoods, meeting people and gathering experiences. Neeka and Me are suspicious of her at first, but soon D’s sweet half smile and easy demeanor win them over. Something clicks between them and before they know it, they are “Three the Hard Way.” D convinces them to venture off the block, slipping out from under the watchful eyes of their mothers and into everyday adventures. They share pizza, secrets, and the pain that comes from worrying about their favorite rapper who seems to understand exactly how they feel yet can’t keep him self out of harm’s way. Ironically, D and Tupac slip out of Neeka and Me’s life around the same time, and the girls realize that while they loved them both, they didn’t really know either of them at all. For D, all that mattered was that Neeka and Me cared about her, and she cared about them. “I came on this street and y’all became my friends…I talked about roaming and y’all listened. I sat down and ate with your mamas and it felt like I was finally belonging somewhere.” When the time comes to say goodbye, they all understand that their lives are better for having known each other. This gentle story about faith, friendship and family being the people you chose will sit quietly in your heart and head long after the last page is turned.
Robot Girl meets Ghost Boy. Robot Girl falls for Ghost boy (sort of). Ghost Boy holds Robot Girl at arm’s length due to emotional trauma suffered since childhood. Robot Girl understands until she doesn’t. How long before Ghost Boy disappears or Robot Girl has had enough? In this unconventional love story, Cindy Sherman wanna-be Beatrice (aka Robot Girl) finds herself drawn to caustic, pale-to-the-point-of Albino Jonah (aka Ghost Boy), an angry loner at her new Baltimore school. Bea, forced to move her senior year because of her dad’s job, is wondering if she’s becoming a robot because she feels nothing as she observes the disintegration of her parents’ marriage. Jonah, withdrawn to the point of hermit-ism since the death of his twin brother, refuses to have anything to do with the classmates who dubbed him Ghost Boy, because of his tendency to, well, haunt the halls without ever interacting with anyone. These two oddballs end up bonding over their shared love of a melancholy late night radio show called Night Lights where a group of lonely callers phone in their secret hopes, fears and insecurities. Not only have Bea and Jonah found each other, but they have found a tribe in the Night Lights and for the first time they both feel as though they finally belong. All is well until other boys at school start paying more attention to Bea, and Jonah discovers a horrifying secret about the death of his brother. Both of these things begin to wear on the fragile cloth of their unique relationship. Can a Robot Girl find true love with a Ghost Boy? Or is her heart too hard and his too insubstantial? I know I am in true love with this idiosyncratic little book and do not hesitate to dub it one of the best YA debuts of the year. It is moving and funny with whip smart dialogue and reminds me in the best possible way of the most under appreciated of John Hughes’s movies, Some Kind of Wonderful. Bea and Jonah were just so INTERESTING, with their meaningful conversations about everything from John Waters films to the mental state of Icelandic hairdressers, that when I finished the book I was just SICK about the fact that they weren’t real. Everyone, everyone, EVERYONE should read it because, like it or not, we all have a little Robot Girl or Ghost Boy deep down inside. Check out this Entertainment Weekly article about more “Quirky Love” on film, and this awesome video of author Natalie Standiford on the guitar with fellow YA rockstars Libba Bray, Daniel Ehrenhaft and Barnabas Miller in their cover band Tiger Beat.
NYC teens Claire, Jasper and Peter find their lives intersecting in unexpected, meaningful ways after the tragedy of September 11 brings them together. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, Claire is starting her day at school, Peter is skipping homeroom in favor of snagging the new Bob Dylan album, and Jasper is sound asleep. After the attack, Claire is sleepless and anxious, Peter searches for meaning in music, and Jasper shuts down. Peter and Claire know each other from school, and each make a connection with college freshman Jasper after 9/11—Peter asks Jasper out, while Claire runs into him when they are both wandering around Ground Zero, trying to comprehend what has happened to their city, their country and their lives. Slowly, as the three of them muddle through their complicated feelings, they each come to a place of healing that they never would have made it to without each other. And that’s about it. This quiet meditation about the effects of 9/11 on three different individuals isn’t so much about what happened as it is about what happened next. It’s about how we got through and how we continue to get through, and it is full of David Levithan’s trademark thoughtful observations about human nature that always get me right HERE. Like this one attributed to Claire: “If only I still had my faith in old books and reruns. They are among the things I feel have been taken from me, along with humor and hope and the ability to savor.” Or Peter’s thought about the power of music post 9/11: “We all understand that this is just music. We all understand that these songs were written Before—there is no way the band could have known how we would hear them After. But the songs ring true.” As a New Yorker who was working downtown on 9/11, I kept reading this book and saying to myself, “Yes, I remember feeling that way.” But you don’t have to have been in New York on that day to understand the feelings Levithan writes so eloquently about, because in many ways I think we all continue to share the pain and the hope that was generated world wide by the events of September 11.
Set in an alternate-history America right after the Civil War, Patricia Wrede’s frontier fantasy details an Old West where magicians expediate westward expansion by maintaining a great spell wall that keeps the giant woolly mammoths and steam dragons at bay. Everyone learns basic spell casting in school, with the exception of the Rationalists, a group that is philosophically opposed to using magical means to make life easier. Born into a large magically inclined family, Eff is child number thirteen, generally considered not only unlucky but downright evil. Eff is neither, though she fears every moment that she is destined to “go bad.” Opposite in reputation is her twin brother Lan, born the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore destined to develop into a naturally powerful magician. When their father, a professor of magic, is given the opportunity to teach in a borderland school, he moves the whole family west where Eff and Lan both face situations that test their mettle. Soon Eff has to decide whether to embrace her questionable power or deny her magical heritage altogether. This leisurely paced fantasy has all the hallmarks of an authentic frontier journal. Like a real pioneer would, Eff mostly relates the events of her unusual family’s life with little fanfare, only wavering occasionally when confessing her insecurities about being a thirteenth child. Whole seasons pass in a few sentences if there’s nothing important to impart. Eff assumes any reader of her journal would know all about the casually mentioned steam dragons and different magical traditions, so she doesn’t go into a lot of description. This is both interesting and frustrating, as I wanted to know more so I kept reading to see if there was more! Alas, there was not. Wrede challenges you to make your own pictures of her whimsical Western world with just enough details to jump start your imagination. In addition, Wrede draws neat parallels between ideas prevalent in our Old West and her fantasy version, including the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, the concept of the American melting pot, and the age old battle between book learnin’ and common sense. This odd little tome won’t be for everyone, but having said that, if you enjoyed how Wrede and her co-author Caroline Stevermer recreated Regency England with evil wizards in the charming Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, then you will most definitely want to hit the trail with Eff and Lan. And for more alternative history fun, be sure to check out Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan.
Everything in fifteen-year-old Rowan’s life has felt broken since the death of her older brother Jack two years ago. After Jack’s fatal accident, her father left, her mother sank into a sleeping pill stupor and her little sister Stroma came to depend on Rowan utterly. Now Rowan’s days are an endless round of school, caring for Stroma and pretending that she’s got everything under control. Then gentle drifter Harper comes into her life. Touring around Europe in an old ambulance-turned-RV, Harper meets Rowan when he hands her a photo negative he says she dropped outside a grocery in her London suburb. Rowan’s never seen the negative before, but it seems easier to accept it than argue with a stranger. Then Bee, a pretty, friendly girl a few years ahead of Rowan in school, offers to develop the film–which astonishingly turns out to be a picture of Jack. Grieving Rowan is shocked and confused. Where did the negative come from? And if she didn’t drop it, then who did? Rowan needs answers, and the logical person to ask is Harper. Though he isn’t much help with the photo, their chance encounter begins to blossom into a romance. Meanwhile, Rowan has found a soul mate in Bee, who also has a younger sib and helps Rowan take care of Stroma. Still, the mystery of the photo nags at Rowan and as her new relationships deepen, she uncovers a hidden interconnectedness between herself, Harper, Bee and Jack that gives her hope—just as her life takes another unexpected turn. I love everything about this little gem of a book, from the evocative title and the articulate writing, to the air of romantic mystery and the riveting and incredibly satisfying conclusion. Some of Valentine’s statements about grieving just floored me with their brutal honesty. Like this one about Rowan’s parents: “After Jack died, they protected themselves by refusing to love us, the kids who still had dying to do.” Ouch! And whoa! For as quiet as this book is sometimes, Valentine knows how to get and keep your attention with sentences like that, and with the slow revealing of clues about Jack’s photo that keep you guessing. If you liked Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer or Marthe Jocelyn’s Would You, you’re gonna want to serve yourself an extra big helping of Jenny Valentine’s delicious, devastating Broken Soup. (1 weepie)
Fifteen-year-old Isabel, aka “Belly” has spent almost every summer of her life with her mom, her older brother Steven, her mom’s best friend Susannah, and Susannah’s two sons Conrad and Jeremiah. Susannah has always been like a second mom to Belly, and Conrad and Jeremiah like another set of brothers. Belly loves the weathered old beach house, all the silly traditions she and the boys have maintained over the years, and the fact that nothing ever changes. Until this summer. This is the summer when things get confusing. This is the summer when divorce, sickness, and hurt feelings turn sunny days dark. This is the summer of first loves, second kisses and Belly finally admitting to herself which boy she loves more than just as a family friend. Because this is the summer Belly turns pretty and the whole world turns upside down. “Every summer up to this one, I believed it’d be different. Life would be different. And that summer, it finally was. I was.” It’s good to know I still retain my tender teenage heart, which ached terribly upon finishing Belly’s story, a bittersweetly familiar one for any girl who ever fell in love between June, July or August. More than just a cute candy beach book (although Han’s prose is as compulsively readable as the bag of Skittles one of her characters can’t stop popping), it has more in common with the multifaceted brand of chick lit penned by authors like Sarah Dessen, Justina Chen Headley and up and comer Sarah Ockler.
Catherine Locke is determined to crush the competition in Mr. Fizer’s torturous A.P. Special Topics in Research Sciences class, especially smug Matt McKinney, her ex-best friend and science fair rival since 6th grade. Each student must randomly choose a picture from Fizer’s dreaded Stack of science photos and devise a secret year long research project around it, culminating in a science fair presentation that could make or break their college apps. When Cat pulls a picture of naked Neanderthals from the Stack, at first her mind draws a blank. Cave people couldn’t be further from her previous studies of insect evolution. Then it dawns on her: Cat, overweight since she gave up swimming for Snickers, will study the eating habits of ancient hominids, with herself as the test subject! By dropping all “processed, manufactured, chemically altered, or preserved” foods from her menu, she hopes to prove that conforming to a “Cave Girl Café” diet will help return the body to it’s original, pre-junk-food-and-artificial-sweetner state. Cat’s prepared for how physically difficult it’s going to be giving up her six-pack-a-day Diet Coke habit and beloved candy bars. But what she never saw coming was how boys would react to her newly svelte bod, now shed of it’s protective layers. Suddenly Cat’s drawing appreciative stares and longing glances from all sorts of male hominids—except smug Matt McKinney, of course. Good thing she isn’t secretly in love with him or she just might care! This funny take on love, food, biology and gender differences is one of the freshest chick lit. titles I’ve read in awhile. Like another recent favorite of mine, Brande weaves lots of interesting scientific facts into a story that is both about our societal battle with food and the battle between the sexes. Cat and Matt’s stormy relationship humorously illustrates how girls and boys are wired differently when it comes to dealing with emotions and handling competition. Clearly influenced by food origin books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fat Cat is a happy meld of romaine and romance, tofu and tenacity, that will appeal to even the most picky of eaters and readers. Oh, and one last thing: If Brande sounds familiar, it’s because she is the author of RR 2007 Top Ten Title, Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature.
Three very different girls + three contrasting points of view = one compelling day-in-the-life novel. Leticia is the kind of girl who doesn’t mind doing just enough work to get by and wants nothing more than to keep her “silk-wrapped, hand-painted, custom-designed, three-quarter-inch, square-cut nails with the sparkling faux diamonds” intact. Dominique is a serious, hard-driving basketball player who maintains her grades only to avoid being benched. Trina is a gifted painter and a fashionista who may shake her booty at the boys passing by but has big plans when it comes to pursuing her artistic dreams. One morning at school, Trina accidentally brushes too close to Dominique, who’s just found out she’s been benched due to a low grade in Mr. Hershheiser’s class. Wild with misdirected rage, Dominique swears to her girls that she will beat the unsuspecting Trina to a bloody pulp after school, even as Trina, who barely knows Dominique and has no idea what she’s done, sashays innocently on down the hall. Gossip girl Leticia views the whole thing from a safe corner and can’t wait to spread the word to everyone (except Trina) about the girl fight that’s gonna go down at 2:45 today. Tensions build as the school day progresses. Will Leticia tell Trina and risk being branded a snitch? Will Dominique cool down before the after school showdown? Will Trina catch wind of the fight and high tail it her Juicy pink booty out of there? Only time will tell and the minutes are ticking away…this slim novella packs more lyrical language and edge-of-your-seat suspense in its 170 pages than most books do in twice that page count. RW-G is a poet of the real, and she manages to be both wonderfully expressive and deeply street smart using an economy of words. I particularly dug Leticia’s sarcastic analysis of A Separate Peace: “I see how it all relates to my life because every other day I’m up a tree pushing some loser to his eventual death, then breaking out into a soliloquy about it. Don’t you just love the classics?” A tiny, terrifically written tome whose outcome is both disturbing and disturbingly real.
Sixteen-year-old Maybelline Chestnut has a big problem (bigger than the fact that she’s been named after a brand of mascara) and that problem is spelled M-O-M. “You’ve heard of serial murderers? My mother’s a serial marryer. It’s a disease. The husbands get blinded by the big blonde hair and the big boobs and big personality. There’s so much big stuff that they never notice the little cracks in the marriage until it’s too late.” Maybe’s former pageant-winning mother has been married six times, and when lucky #7 tries to give Maybe a grope, she knows it’s time to strike out on her own. She takes off to Los Angeles to find her biological father, her only clue a blurry photograph scammed from one of her mother’s dusty hatboxes. Accompanied by her best friends Ted (a short statured baby-mogul-in-training) and Hollywood (a tall, gangly aspiring filmmaker), Maybe at first finds California as intoxicating as she imagined it being back in boring old Florida. But as her money runs out and her friends establish lives of their own, L.A. seems meaner and colder, and Maybe despairs of ever completing her DNA mission. She is granted a reprieve from sleeping in the back of Hollywood’s car when she scores a job on taco truck and is supplied with a bed and three squares a day by an unlikely guardian angel. However, her bio-dad is still at large, and an inevitable confrontation with her confused and angry mom looms large. Will Maybe solve the mystery of where she comes from? Or will she be forced to return to Kissimmee broke and unsatisfied? This fast, fun read reminded me of Sonya Sones’ One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies,another Hollywood-themed family drama that is also shot through with laughter and tears. Pair them together for an inexpensive trip to La La Land, courtesy of your imagination!