Review: Picture the Dead

Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin & Lisa Brown. Sourcebooks. 2010. Paperback, 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Jennie Lovell’s loved ones left to fight in the Civil War: her twin brother, Tobias; her fiance and cousin, Will Pritchett; and her other cousin, Quinn, Will’s brother. She knew the moment Toby died: could feel it. She never suspected Will’s death, not until a wounded Quinn came home and told them his brother Will had died. Jennie wishes she could feel Will’s presence the way she does Toby’s

Will’s grieving parents, Jennie’s Aunt and Uncle, seek out a photographer who can capture the images of departed spirits. Jennie begins getting strange messages – is it Will? What is he trying to tell her?

As Jennie struggles with the loss of Toby and Will, she also struggles for her future. Her Aunt and Uncle had never looked kindly or generously on their orphaned niece, and now her position is even more precarious. To make matters even more confusing, Quinn has returned from war a changed man. It’s not just that he’s physically injured: he seems almost a different person. War changes a man, he explains. Would falling in love with Quinn be a betrayal of Will?

The Good: “A ghost will always find his way home.”

So, so good! I love when historical fiction is about something I didn’t know, or is set during a unique time. Picture the Dead is set in Massachusetts during the last days of the Civil War. In addition to taking a look at spiritualism and the use of photography to capture spirit images, it also takes a frank look at the soldiers who fought, revealing details about their lives and survival I’d never heard before.

Jennie’s position in the family is unique: she is the orphaned niece they have to take in, and neither aunt nor uncle is really happy to do so. Aunt Clara is hideous, and at first I thought Uncle Henry’s flaw was weakness that tolerated, thus allowing, his wife’s nastiness. The further I read, the more I realized that Aunt Clara was at least honest in her dislike of her niece.

Gradually, Jennie’s role becomes more and more servant-like. As someone with no education, money, or connections, someone whose only male protectors (Toby and Will) have died, she has few options. “I must find a way to rescue myself,” she realizes early on, but what, exactly, can she do? Is she truly feeling an attraction to Quinn, or is she looking at him for security?

Jennie may hate her situation, but I adored this look at someone who is caught between upstairs and downstairs. Jennie sensed when her brother died; it’s because of this that she is open to the possibility of spiritualism connecting her with Will. She doesn’t understand what she’s being told, but she believes it’s messages from beyond and she’s resolved to follow them. Jennie’s beliefs are wonderfully shown: “For if memory is the wave that buoys our grief, haunting is the undertow that drags us to its troubled source.”

Picture the Dead is told in part scrapbook format; specifically, Jennie’s scrapbook. Lisa Brown’s illustrations show the photographs, drawings, even newspaper clippings that make up Jennie’s scrapbook. I love how Jennie puts together the scrapbook, how she gathers what to put in it.

Picture the Dead is also a mystery. I won’t say, exactly, what the mystery turns out to be, because that is part of the fun of this book — trying to figure out what is going on, what people’s motivations are, and what type of future Jennie can create for herself.

Other reviews: GalleySmith; Librarian By Day; Small Review. Also, check out the ghost stories at the Picture the Dead website.

Review: The Secret Society of the Pink Crystal Ball

The Secret  Society of the Pink Crystal Ball by Risa Green. Sourcebooks. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Erin Channing has the highest GPA in tenth grade. Yes, she’s the smart one. She’s so normal she’s a bit boring and that has her worried. She really wants to go on the AP Art History Trip to Italy. Who wouldn’t? Problem is, only five students are going on the trip and those five will be picked based on their grade in AP Art History (shouldn’t be a problem, Erin does have the highest GPA) and on a personal essay that demonstrates “personalities, outside interests, and strength of character.” Erin imagines that reading books and doing crossword puzzles aren’t the type of “outside interests” that get you on an all expenses paid trip to Italy.

One minute, she’s complaining to her friends Lindsay and Samantha that “I’m boring. I’ve never had anything happen to me.” The next minute, the phone rings. Her Aunt Kate is dead. Kate (also known as Kiki and Kooky) has left Erin a Pink Crystal Ball. Shake it, ask a question, get an answer. Turns out? This Pink Crystal Ball can make wishes come true.

The Good: Does the Pink Crystal Ball make wishes come true? The first “wish” — and remember, like Jeopardy, it has to be phrased like a question — is the silly type of question three half-bored teenagers would ask a child’s toy. “Does [hot senior] Spencer Ridgely think I’m smexy?” The answer is “consider your fate to be sealed.” Shortly after, Spencer Ridgely, who shouldn’t even know Erin exists, calls her “smexy.” Which, by the way, is smart plus sexy.

Lindsay, who deals with being the target of a mean girl by buying voodoo dolls and other items from Ye Olde Metaphysical Shoppe, quickly believes that the Pink Crystal Ball actually works. Erin applies logical thinking (research and controlled experiments) to the question as she tries to figure out what it is and how it works and why Aunt Kiki gave it to her. Erin (sensible, practical, boring) discovers that she believes that wishes come true, just be careful what you wish for. Free will remains, and wishes can be undone. Wishes made for other people have their own danger. The role of magic is so subtle, that readers could argue that their is no magic.

It’s nice to have a book about fairly normal girls in a fairly normal situation. Erin is the smart one. Samantha is the sexy one, sexy enough to attract the attention of the lead singer of a band but still normal enough to have a crush on a boy who doesn’t like her back. Lindsay is the “Nicest Girl Ever” and, as mentioned, deals with being bullied by venting to her friends and seeking “metaphysical” solutions rather than actually doing anything.

Take away the Pink Crystal Ball, and Erin’s story is, well, as normal as she is. She works hard at school to try to go on a trip; she falls in love with a boy; she helps her friends with their problems; she deals with her aunt’s death. Just as Erin shouldn’t equate “normal” with “boring,” so, too, is her story not boring. Take the boy. At first Erin sees Jesse Cooper as a boy who is “going for a spiky punk rock thing that seems thirty years too late and might have been hot once but now is just… confusing.” Erin falls for Jesse (and who wouldn’t, he has the whole artsy guy in cool clothes thing going on) and also falls out of her preconceived notions about him and other people. Falling for a hot guy at a punk rock concert that involves crowd-surfing? Not boring at all. Her work at school involves art history which will lead some readers to wonder, wait, is that painting they are describing real? Where is the art museum closest to my house? And as for her friends’ problems, nothing is ever simple when it comes to boys and bullies.

But if you take away the Pink Crystal Ball, would anything have happened? Would Erin have had the courage to pursue Jesse? Would Samantha — well.  I’m not telling you everything these girls do. But whether you believe in magic or not, the Pink Crystal Ball is the catalyst that makes things happen. Do Erin, Lindsay, and Samantha make their own fate? Does the Pink Crystal Ball and its promise of wish-fulfillment give the owner (and her friends) the confidence to act? Or, as Erin and her friends believe, are the coincidences to much to be anything other than magic? 

I have never met Risa Green in real life (or pretend life, for that matter). I used to be a lawyer (Villanova Law School, corporate & employment law, almost ten years, OK, that answers all the questions that usually brings up) and I have a soft spot for “used to be lawyers,” like Green. In part because when I do meet former lawyers, I never have to explain why I left the law. Anyway, Green is a former lawyer. Which I love. And not even a lawyer-now-writer, but a lawyer-somethingelse-writer. Awesome.

Review: The Aristobrats

The Aristobrats by Jennifer Solow. Sourcebooks. 2010. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Meet Parker Bell, Ikea Bentley, Plum Petrovsky, Kiki Allen — four best friends who are about to start eighth grade at Wallingford Academy. All are “legacies,” also called Aristobrats (but not to their faces). In addition to being second and third generation “Wallys,” they are the four most popular girls at school.

Parker needs that popularity, that friendship, that acceptance, because her Aristobrat status is a bit of an illusion. Oh, she’s a legacy, all right. The thing is, the family money is gone and her single mother struggles to pay the bills. Looming over Parker is the knowledge that this could be her last year at Wally — it could be her last month. She may not even last the year! So it has to be perfect, perfect, perfect: perfect friendships, perfect boyfriend. She has the EGB (Eighth Grade Boyfriend) all picked out: Tribb. She has her popularity in place, and works on it daily with Facebook and MySpace. Her perfect plans go haywire when she and her friends are assigned to do the very unpopular school webcast. What can she do to save herself and her friends from this horror?

The Good: A perfect middle school read: fun and breezy with depth. The fun comes from the friendship and antics of “Aristobrats” Parker, Ikea, Plum and Kiki. In The Aristobrats, the two girls we learn the most about Parker and Ikea. Parker is likable, but also oddly arrogant — I can see why others would call her an “Aristobrat.” She assumes that Tribb will be her EGB even when they haven’t really spoken for weeks. She prepares her first day of school outfit with a ton of care, and having gone to schools that require uniforms,  yes, it’s not that simple! Anyway, Parker thinks, “Altogether, the look said confident but not stuck up, pretty but not self-obsessed, excited but not super-anxious about it.” She immediately realizes, “although wouldn’t staring at myself in the mirror for twenty minutes technically be considered stuck up or merely a commitment to excellence?” When a new girl starts school, Parker generously tells her that if she Friends her on Facebook, she’ll accept it. Parker considers asking Allegra (an overachiever and so not popular) to sit at the Good Table at lunch, Parker decides that “maybe Allegra doesn’t want to sit here. [It] can be a really intimidating place for most people.” But here’s the thing — Parker and friends are never mean or nasty. They don’t pick on kids or ridicule them.

Parker and the Aristobrats have many rules about what is in and what isn’t acceptable. Friendship rings? In. Macrame bracelets? Out. One of the subtle points about the book is how the girls outside begin to ignore these rules because a new girl in school is slowly rising up the popularity ladder. Parker notices the other girls wearing headbands like the new girl, realizes that Kiki’s latest haircut isn’t being copied by others, sees some girls wearing macrame bracelets, and doesn’t realize that the Aristobrats’s influence isn’t what it used to be. Parker’s expectations about Tribb are also not quite realistic or realized.

Why does Parker like rules? “Making up rules always got her back in a posimood. Rules were like happy pre-lated birthday presents — there was nothing bad about them.” Parker cannot control the absence of a dad, any moment her mother may sell the house, Parker may lose her friends and school — but she can control certain things with “the rules.” What’s great is that Solow never explicitly feeds that connection to the reader.

Ikea (“pronounced I-kay-a, like the exotic African lodge where she was conceived, not I-kee-ya, like the un-exotic Swedish furniture store“), is one of the few children of color at Wallingford and the only African American girl in her class. She’s Miss Preppy and under tremendous pressure from her attorney father to go to Yale, just like he did. When Ikea is introduced, she has glossy straight hair and hazel eyes. She gets annoyed that people think she should date the only African American boy at Wally. A scene midway through the book shows Ikea sitting in the bathroom straightening her hair with a hot comb and putting in contact lenses to hide her brown eyes. The Aristobrats raise questions abouts beauty and the under-representation of children of color at Wallingford, without being a heavy-handed message book.

What else? The romance is cute and light. Yes, some of the girls want EGBs but their dream idea of a boyfriend is someone to talk to in the hallways and at lunch, to go to a dance, and — maybe — kiss. The friendship is also great; the girls agree to do the webcast, which they don’t want to do, because they know it’s important to Ikea. Each Aristobrat is true to herself and they respect their differences. I look forward to more books in the series, to find out more about Plum and her offbeat taste, Kiki and her extravagances, as well as whether Parker will stay in school, whether Ikea keeps her father’s respect (and her brown eyes!), and what happens next with webcasts.

Review: Read, Remember, Recommend for Teens

Read, Remember, Recommend for Teens: A Reading Journal for Young Adult Book Lovers by Rachelle Rogers Knight. Sourcebooks. 2010. Copy from publisher. Also by the author: Read, Remember, Recommend: A Reading Journal for Book Lovers

It’s About: A book journal for teens that includes a substantial amount of reference material on teen reading: awards, lists, additional reading resources, as well as suggestions on how to write about the books read.

The Good: I track my reading using journals. A variety of blank books; I started doing this before I began blogging. I continue to do it because I don’t blog about every book I read and I like having someplace to jot notes, thoughts, names, quotes.

I first saw the Read Remember Recommend books while searching on Amazon for whether anyone had cited my blog. Mere amateurs have Google Alerts for themselves; to take the level of navel gazing even further, also search for yourself on Google Book and Amazon! So, the combination of loving journals and me, me, me led me to say “yes” when I was offered a review copy of Read Remember Recommend for Teens. And I think that’s enough disclaimer to make the FTC and you, the reader, happy.

The introduction for Read Remember Recommend for Teens lists two objectives: a resource for young adults and their parents; and to encourage parents to read with their teens. This works two ways; the teen who picks this up on their own or gets it as a present will, of course, ignore whatever is written to their parents. As they should. The parent who picks it up for their teen may read it and be inspired to read some great YA books.

The first half of the book is awards and lists. Beautiful, gorgeous, oh my goodness lists. And Knight knows her audience — it’s not just lists, but lists with space to check off whether you “own,” “recommend,” “to read” or “want.” As someone who usually marks up books with lists, it was refreshing to have the room (and permission!) to mark up written right into the book. C’mon, I’m not the only one who has to mark up any list of books they stumble upon, right? I’m not the only one who spends hours doing that, right?

The lists and awards are primarily from the US and Canada, with some from the UK; they include every state list (most states have some type of “teen readers choice” list) as well as some thematic read alike lists. The lists are diverse; for example, included are the Amelia Bloomer Project lists, the Rainbow Project lists, and Urban Lit. Remember that note up front to parents? Knight tells the parents it’s their job as parents to determine what is or isn’t appropriate for their teens. So, she addresses the concerns of those parents who may be concerned, yet also includes all titles for all teens. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too — well played!

Oh, and another disclaimer. Read Remember Recommend includes three awards and lists I’ve personally been involved with: Printz Award (I was on the Jellicoe Road committee), the Schneider Family Book Award Committee (I was on the most recent committee, so that title is not listed in this book, but Knight left “fill in the blank” room to do so), and I participate in selecting books for the New Jersey Library Association Young Adult Services Garden State Teen Book Award List.

The second half of the book is an actual journal. Knight has structured it for books read and “to be read” lists. For books read, Knight provides suggestions on what to record about the book. For example, what was the reason for reading? Who recommended it? What are your thoughts? There is a separate section for Recommendations as well as a Loaner List, for books lent.

I’ll be honest — when I use book journals, I ignore the “how to fill in the blanks” directions and just write what I want. I’m such a rebel, coloring outside the lines! However, I also know from my own process of how I write and think about books that doing so in an articulate way doesn’t “just happen.” How I write about books is largely self taught: trial and error, reading reviews, reading professional resources. Knight provides excellent tools for anyone who wants to be more focused, who wants to put their emotional reaction to a book into words. While I don’t need that type of guidance now, it would have been helpful when I started.

If I were giving this as a gift, I’d give this book along with a blank journal. Read Remember Recommend Teens is a great starting off point and a great reference for awards and lists; then, once the reader gets comfortable with their own book journaling style, the blank journal could use be used to continue writing about books.

The last part of the book is resources for readers, including teen library sites, teen reading sites, blogs (including me!) and author blogs.

This spiral bound journal isn’t the type of book libraries buy, because anything that says “write in me” is not a good investment. However, teen librarians and educators may want to invest in a copy. The lists and award sections — yes, you can find any individually online or in books just about those lists or awards, but it’s terrific to have them all in one place. Plus, because of the thematic lists, it can be used as inspiration for book displays. Because of the structure Knight has given to writing about the books read, this is also a good resource for any type of “how to write book reviews” workshop.

Links: There was a Traveling to Teens Blog Tour this past April.