Book Review: Beautiful Dead, Book 1—Jonas by Eden Maguire

March 8, 2010

Darina can hardly believe her eyes when she stumbles upon a gathering in an old barn near an abandoned home way out of town. Drawn to the area because of tales around town of strange sightings there, she is shocked to see Phoenix, her recently dead boyfriend, and three other teens from town who have died in the last year, looking very much alive. An older man is with them, and Darina runs when she thinks he’s about to discover her. But the possibility that Phoenix may still alive draws her back to learn the truth—they are all dead and brought back to earth by Hunter, who protects them. They all have unfinished business to set right before they can rest.

Beautiful Dead, Book 1—Jonas is the first in a new series by Eden Maguire. It imagines a realm where the dead can return, commune with the living, and solve a mystery surrounding their deaths. Anyone living who discovers them has his memory of the event wiped away. Except for Darina. Her strong connection with Phoenix, and her promise to help the group find the answers they’re looking for makes her a vital accomplice. She is under a strict vow of silence about what she knows.

Beautiful Dead is full of complex, conflicting relationships. Darina feels ostracized at home because she doesn’t get along with her stepfather. Caught in the middle, Darina’s mother mostly frets about the right thing to do. Darina is befriended by Phoenix’s brother, who has promised to look after her. But many in town question his motives. Darina’s old friends aren’t sure if they can trust her, and some lash out as she pulls away from them to keep her secret.

As the story evolves, we find that Darina must help each of the Beautiful Dead find out the mystery surrounding his or her death. The first is Jonas, who has been dead the longest. While Darina looks deeper into what happened the day he crashed his motorcycle, she must also deal with the grief, anguish and confusion of those closest to Jonas. And the outrage of one who has something to hide.

Beautiful Dead is imaginative and intriguing. Issues to talk about in a book group include personal feelings of spirituality and what happens after death, the bond between dating teens, jealousy, and mother-daughter relationships. While I found the descriptions of the rules that existed for the beautiful dead the least compelling part of the book, I was able to read past those and enjoy the mystery and the story enough to look forward to reading the second in the series.

Read an excerpt from the first chapter and learn more about the author at the Beautiful Dead page at Teen Fire.


Book Review: Lips Touch, Three Times by Laini Taylor and Jim Di Bartolo

February 26, 2010

The kisses in Lips Touch, Three Times are not the absent-minded pecks on the cheek, expressions of friendship kinds of kisses. The kisses in these stories are sometimes shy, but also passionate, desperate, and full of longing and expectation. They celebrate life, and they herald death. They are not for the weak of spirit.

Lips Touch, Three Times is written and illustrated by the husband and wife team, Laini Taylor and Jim Di Bartolo. Each of the three stories creates a rich fantasy world that pulls you in so completely you may have difficulty re-entering reality when you put it down.

The stories build in length and complexity. The first, “Goblin Fruit,” is a short piece about Kizzy, a girl who so longs to be kissed, she becomes prey for the goblins. Can the spirit of her grandmother and stories of girls lost before her save Kizzy from the goblin’s kiss?

“Spicy Little Curses Such as These” takes the reader to India, where Estella, an Englishwoman, enters the realm of the dead every day to bargain with a demon for the souls of dead children. The deals she strikes promises an exchange of one soul of a corrupted adult for each child’s soul returned to the land of the living. When an earthquake claims the lives of many children, Estella is able to strike a deal that brings them all back. The price she must pay is to put a curse on a newborn baby girl named Anamique, a curse that will keep her silent or condemn those around her to death. When Anamique grows up, the love of a soldier tests her ability to maintain her silence and protect the life of her love as well as that of her family.

“Hatchling” is the most elaborate and inventive tale of all, creating a world of immortals, the Druj, who long for something they can almost remember having in their now forgotten past. To while away their time they keep girls as pets, casting them off when they grow to be women. Esme and her mother Mab have escaped from Mab’s cage and lived in hiding for fourteen years when Esme’s brown eye turns blue and their entire world turns upside down. With the help of Mihai, a Druj outcast, they hope to rid themselves of the Druj queen forever.

In each story, Di Bartolo’s color illustrations beautifully enhance Taylor’s evocative words to help the tales come alive. Even non-fantasy lovers should find the stories compelling. Topics to discuss include the nature of longing, maintaining self-respect while falling in love, and having the courage to create the life you want to live. Lips Touch is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature. I highly recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in high school and all readers over 14.


Book Review: Flash Burnout by L. K. Madigan

February 25, 2010

Blake has a pretty good life for a high school sophomore. He’s got a girlfriend who loves him and makes him happy, he’s got good friends, and for the most part he likes his classes in school. And he lives in a loving home with two parents and his older brother Garrett. He doesn’t give his situation much thought until he’s showing a photo assignment to his friend Marissa in class one day. When he uncovers a photo of a homeless woman passed out on the sidewalk, Marissa gasps and says, “That’s my mom.” Suddenly he’s compelled into Marissa’s life in unexpected ways and finding out that not everyone leads mundane, uneventful lives away from school.

As he’s drawn to help Marissa more and more, Blake’s relationship with his girlfriend, Shannon, becomes strained. Can he be the friend Marissa needs and the boyfriend Shannon expects at the same time?

Flash Burnout by L. K. Madigan juxtaposes suburban middle-class life against the lives of the homeless and addicted. It shows the toll addiction and neglect can take not only on family members, but also on friends and others in the community around them. The book covers issues of sexual abstinence, safe sex, underage drinking, using alcohol to escape, honesty in relationships and more. It also introduces complex supporting characters that add interest to the story: Blake’s mother is a hospital chaplain, and his father is a coroner. Garrett interns at the morgue with his dad. (Their work discussions make Blake queasy and may do the same for some readers.) Marissa’s brother Gus is a thrill-seeking bike messenger who takes responsibility for his family.

Madigan lives in Portland, and I really enjoyed picking up on some of the local references in Flash Burnout. I would have liked to know more about Blake’s conflicted thoughts between his feelings for his girlfriend and his friend, particularly after a particular event near the end, and I would have preferred less description of Blake’s ordinary life. Even so, I really liked following his story, and I liked that Flash Burnout doesn’t tidy up all the answers into a nice package at the end; instead it asks the reader to consider what will happen next. I believe the issues and the characters should provide great discussions for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 14 and up. Flash Burnout is Madigan’s debut novel, and I eagerly anticipate her next book.


The Lightning Thief Book vs. Movie—Link to Mother-Son Review

February 23, 2010

Although Percy Jackson and the Olympians—The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan is often billed as a great book for boys (which it is) my daughters have also loved it.  I’ve seen it with both girls (separately since my oldest daughter is now away at college), and they both enjoyed it. Here’s a review from a mom and her son who both read the book and went to see the movie as well. It was featured on 5 Minutes for Books. You’ll also find a great post about it (as noted in the comments here) at Pragmatic Mom.


Book Review and Giveaway: In a Heartbeat by Loretta Ellsworth

February 11, 2010

Today and tomorrow I am offering to give away a copy of a new book just being released from author Loretta Ellsworth. Loretta’s previous books for young adults are The Shrouding Woman and In Search of Mockingbird. Read my review of her new book, In a Heartbeat, then comment here for a chance to win your own copy. The contest is open until midnight (PST), Friday, February 12, and it is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada. Tomorrow, I’ll feature an interview with Loretta, so check back again then for more about this author and her books. (Congratulation to Lissa, the reader who commented and won a copy of In a Heartbeat given away by the author.)

Eagan is a figure skater. She’s athletic and talented and headstrong. Amelia’s world is limited by her failing heart. No longer even able to walk up and down the stairs of her home, she is homeschooled and spends a lot of time in her room drawing horses. In a Heartbeat by Loretta Ellsworth opens with Eagan’s story. We know immediately she dies after hitting her head on a board while making a jump in competition. Amelia is the girl who receives her heart.

The storyline goes back and forth between Eagan, who is caught between life and death, and Amelia who is learning to live and experience new sensations every day because of the strong heart beating in her chest. We learn about Eagan’s life through her memories of the times before her death. Amelia starts to suspect that some of her post-operation dreams and her new interests may be those of the donor.

In addition to the stories of the two girls, In a Hearbeat is also about Eagan’s and Amelia’s relationships with their mothers. Eagan feels her mother is too controlling and too invested in how she performs on the ice. She wants time to skate, but she also wants to pursue interests off the rink. Amelia is totally dependent on her mother, who has gone to great lengths to care for her while she waited for a new heart. Now she wonders how she can start to assert her own independence.

Even if you have not known someone who has donated or received an organ, you will be moved by this story of life for one that is not possible without loss for the other. The book never falls into a preachy tone advocating for organ donation, but instead takes a look at what it means from the human and emotional point of view. And it does a good job of showing the different perspectives that teens and parents may have about life and death.

While the focus is mostly on the girls, since it’s told from their perspective, Ellsworth does a great job of showing the ripples of impact on both families and friends. There are many things for mother-daughter book clubs with girls 13 and up to talk about after reading In a Heartbeat. It should certainly open a dialogue between moms and daughters about organ donation and all it entails for both sides—feelings of hope, grief, guilt, and the possibility of a connection between donor and recipient.  I highly recommend it.


Book Review: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

February 10, 2010

A diamond is stolen from the English country estate of Lady Verinder and the renowned Sergeant Cuff is brought in from London to help solve the case. The diamond, said to bring bad luck to its owner because it was stolen from a temple in India, was given to Lady Verinder’s daughter, Rachel, on her 18th birthday. It was bequeathed to Rachel from her uncle (who stole it when he was a young soldier) on his death. The story unfolds through several narrators, all of whom know a piece of what happened. As each of them writes his or her side of the story, the reader gets just a little more information that helps to solve the mystery.

Considered to be the first detective mystery, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins offers a glimpse into the times it was written—the 1860s.  It was published serially, with new pieces of the story unfolding one section at a time for around six months. It reveals the understandings held about English ladies and gentleman, especially the thought that no well brought up young man or woman could ever commit a crime. It touches on a common occurrence at the time, the looting of jewels by English soldiers from temples in India. And, it’s fun to read once you get into the rhythm of Collins’s writing style (writers at the time were paid by the word, so you won’t find sparse descriptions and conversations here).

Each narrator brought a different perspective and style that was refreshing, and each break kept the story moving in unexpected ways. My daughter and I both found it fun to guess what had happened the night of the theft and in the days following it. My guesses were invariably wrong, but that didn’t stop me from developing new theories as the story progressed. My daughter’s guess about the culprit was right, although neither of us anticipated some of the twists and turns The Moonstone took before the mystery was actually resolved.

The Moonstone makes for longer reading in mother-daughter book clubs, but it is easily divided into two separate sections that can be discussed at two different meetings. Groups could read The Loss of the Diamond, then gather to discuss their theories about what happened. They could also write predictions down and compare them to what actually happened during the rest of the book when they meet again. I recommend The Moonstone for reading groups with girls aged 14 and up.


New Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

January 19, 2010

The summer of Calpurnia Virginia Tate’s 11th birthday was a hot one. Everyone in her large family suffered from the heat in their Fentress, Texas home, but as Calpurnia was the only girl in a family of seven children, she also found freedom during afternoon naptime. That’s when she stole away from her room and down to the river, where she floated dreamily in the cool water.

During her outings away from the noise of having six brothers, Calpurnia discovers the natural world and starts making observations about it in her notebook. She also screws up her courage to talk to her grandfather, a shadowy figure who spends most of his time by himself caught up in reading or scientific experiments. But when her grandfather discovers that Calpurnia’s interest is genuine, he begins to include her in his experiments and observations. When they believe they discover a new species of vetch, they send it in to the Smithsonian for judgment.

Calpurnia’s activities with her grandfather brings up a conflict with Calpurnia’s mother, who believes that in the year 1899 girls must prepare to be women who run households, and nothing more. That means cooking, sewing, knitting and tatting, all occupations Calpurnia abhors. As she struggles to follow her heart’s desire, Calpurnia must discover if there are options for women in her time who have interests other than the domestic.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is historical fiction that reveals turn-of-the-last-century times in rural Texas. It was a time not very far removed from the Civil War, and Calpurnia’s grandfather as well as many others in town fought in the war. The Tate family farms cotton, and they are wealthy by the standards of most people in town. They have a housekeeper and a cook as well as regular farm hands, and while the children have daily chores, they don’t have the responsibility of making the farm productive.

This was also a time when Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was making an impact. It had been published for about 50 years, but his conclusions were still hotly debated, and as Calpurnia found out, some libraries refused to carry copies of the book. Each chapter begins with a quote from Darwin that’s applicable to the action to come. As the book progresses, Calpurnia grows in her ability to understand the people and the world around her through observations made with a microscope and her regular vision.

This book is sure to delight mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 12 and up. Discussions can center on the differences between life for girls and women in 1899 versus life now, living up to the expectations of your parents versus following your heart, and scientific experiences. Girls may even find inspiration for a school science project, and groups can even tie in craft or sewing projects. I highly recommend it.


Book Review: Artichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee

January 6, 2010

Rosemary Goode lives in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where her mother owns the busiest beauty shop in town. Her life is pretty routine: she goes to high school, works in her mother’s shop, and spends time on her own, but she doesn’t have friends to hang out with. Rosie is also a binge eater, sometimes eating huge amounts of food. Her crisis comes over Christmas break when she gains quite a bit of weight and can no longer fit in her largest clothes.

Rosie decides something has to be done, and she begins a liquid diet of weight-loss drinks to help her shed some pounds. But real change doesn’t come for Rosie until she starts to see herself as something more than a fat girl, the one the popular girls tease and call artichoke.

For the first time Rosie has a friend, Kay-Kay who is pretty and slim and athletic, and she hopes to have a boyfriend, cute Kyle Cox who is a super athlete. Slowly she begins to change her relationship with food, and all the other relationships in her life begin to change as well.

Artichoke’s Heart by Suzanne Supplee is about more than a high school girl trying to lose weight. The beauty shop scenes are reminiscent of Steel Magnolias, where everyone’s problems can be solved while they get their hair and nails done. There’s also an interesting mother-daughter dynamic. Rosie’s mother got pregnant in high school, and she raised her daughter on her own. Rose Warren (Rosie’s mother) has always had to be so strong, that she often forgot to let her daughter see any weakness. When she’s diagnosed with lymphoma and starts to undergo treatment, she finds she must let her daughter into her inner life more than before.

I recommend Artichoke’s Heart for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in high school. Issues to talk about include eating disorders, self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, family dynamics, and dating. The book provides no easy answers, which is why it should be able to generate great discussions.


Book Review: A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck

December 29, 2009

Grandma Dowdel’s back, only this time she’s known as Mrs. Dowdel to the Methodist preacher’s family that just moved in next door. The family, which includes three children, has been relocated from Terre Haute, Indiana to take over what is to be a new Methodist church but what is now a run-down building with no windows, a deteriorating roof and no congregation in a small Illinois town.

As family members work to adjust to a new life, gruff old Mrs. Dowdel next door seems to know exactly what each needs. Bob, who tells the story, is the middle child on the verge of puberty. He’s the easy target of bullies and in need of confidence as well as friends. Phyllis, fourteen going on twenty, is appalled at having to start high school in a place where she knows no one. Her obsession with everything Elvis leads her to take up with an unsavory character and start lying to her parents about where she’s going and what she’s doing. Six-year-old Ruth Ann is starting first grade, and she’s searching for someone to look up to. The dad, of course, needs a congregation, and the mom needs help keeping them all functioning well.

Fans of A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder will be happy to read more about Grandmas Dowdel’s schemes to influence her small town and the family next door for the better. She’s just a gruff as ever, but older now. The gifts she bestows are not the kind you can wrap and put under a Christmas tree, but they are the kind no receiver would seek to return. Peck is a master of subtle storytelling, letting the reader reach conclusions about the characters along the way. He’s also superb at bringing bygone times to life, and in A Season of Gifts he deftly captures life in a small town during the late 1950s.

I read this book aloud to the whole family, which includes my husband and two teen daughters. We all loved it, something rare for the four of us with our different tastes in books. I highly recommend it for family reading as well as for children aged nine and up. Buy this book now, even though Christmas has just passed. Then pack it away with your Christmas decorations and be pleasantly surprised when you pull it out next year.


Book Review: According to Kit by Eugenie Doyle

December 15, 2009

Kit can’t believe her mother would force her to stay home and be homeschooled just because a classmate at her high school pulled a knife on another student. She doesn’t want to stay home and spend even more time helping take care of the dairy farm she lives on with her mother, father and grandfather. And when homeschooling turns out to be not much schooling, since no one actually has time to spare to work with Kit on lessons, she ends up on her own a lot of the time.

But at least Kit can lose herself in her ballet lessons she takes at the local college…that is until her beloved teacher Ursula becomes sick and can no longer teach. Graduate students pick up the slack, but it’s not nearly as fulfilling for Kit as Ursula’s classes were. When Luis arrives with his wife and baby to take over the class, Kit is enthralled by his attention to her. Luis sees her potential and encourages her to audition for a prestigious art school in Montreal, Canada, a long drive and a world away from her Vermont farm.

Predictably, Kit’s mother says no, but Kit is full of newfound confidence and a desire to dance. Plus, she wants to live up to Luis’s expectations, and she can’t let no be the answer.

According to Kit by Eugenie Doyle highlights the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship. How much does a mother open up to reveal herself to her daughter? What dreams for her future does a daughter share with her mother? When the two have different visions for the daughter’s life, how can they reconcile their conflicting desires for what’s best?

According to Kit also juxtaposes two very different pursuits—farming and ballet—and manages to show the rewards and challenges of both. It shows Kit’s longing for a mother who will talk to her and share her emotions, not hold everything inside as she carries with her a long-ago personal tragedy. There’s lots to discuss here for mother and daughters. Despite one scene near the end of the book where Luis aggressively comes onto Kit sexually, a scene that seems out of place and under-addressed for its impact, I recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls 14 and up.