Mo Wren has everything she needs, right on Fox Street, where she lives with her father, her little sister, and the memory of her mother. Except girls to play with; during the school year, Fox Street has decidedly few girls. Luckily, it’s summer, and that means Mercedes is back, staying with her grandmother. This summer, though, something is different. After a year living with her mother’s new, well-to-do husband, Mercedes now notices the shabbiness of Fox Street, its chipping paint and litter. And the lady with the roses, who terrifies all the kids, is being unexpectedly nice to Mercedes, and that after a lifetime of snubbing Mercedes’s grandmother because she’s black. And then there are the strange letters from a lawyer.

It’s a bit predictable, but lovely anyway. Mo is a great, well-drawn character and an entertaining narrator. Realistically, she’s extremely observant about some things, and completely in denial about other things. Fox Street is lovingly portrayed, its community close-knit but certainly not perfect. Mo’s grief for her mother is apparent but not overdone, likewise Mercedes’s confusion and conflicted loyalties and Mo’s sister’s need for attention and approval. It’s a simple, honest, and enjoyable book.

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What Happened On Fox Street ~ Tricia Springstubb ~ Tricia Springstubb’s Blog

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Phoebe Rothschild is a slightly awkward girl, friends with the popular girls but not sure she wants to be, confident in her family—especially her millionaire super-successful mother—but not always in herself. You might go so far as to call her ordinary. Still, it takes courage to dump your clique and befriend the new, awkward girl in school, who’s wearing all the wrong clothes and projecting an attitude of pride and disdain—and that’s what Phoebe does.

Several years later, Mallory’s brother appears in Phoebe’s life, just as unexpectedly as Mallory had. And Ryland not only pushes Phobe and Mallory apart, he causes Phoebe to question everything—her world, her sanity, herself.

It’s fantasy, by the way. Interspersed with chapters of Phoebe’s life in Boston are conversations with the faerie queen, and eventually excursions into the realm of Faerie. The conversations are stilted and initially distracting, couched in formal language, a sharp contrast with the smooth, captivating writing of the real-world narration. Still, they serve a purpose: we need to know that all is not right in the realm of faerie.

The core of the book is Phoebe’s relationship with Ryland. The destructive, emotionally abusive relationship. It is plausible, realistic, and sickening as he takes this young woman and tears her down, bit by bit. Ryland is hateful, but the conversations with his queen remind us that he is doing this because he thinks it is necessary. That doesn’t soften the blow of his manipulation and abuse, but it muddies the waters and in many ways makes the book harder to read: we can’t just dismiss Ryland as unadulterated evil.

There’s family history at work, too, in the way characters must deal with our legacies: inherited money, taught beliefs, ancestral support and demands. Phoebe is Jewish—of the secular, not-particularly-theistic variety—and her relationship with her Judaism is dealt with quite well: rarely on her mind, but deeply important when it comes up.

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Extraordinary ~ Nancy Werlin
My review of Nancy Werlin’s Impossible

Risk of retraumatization for those with sexual misconduct-related trigger issues.

Five years ago, Josh was twelve and sleeping with his history teacher, Mrs. Sherman, a fact which came to light following a disastrous spin-the-bottle game with his best friend, Rachel. Now he’s a senior in high school, the teacher has been released from jail, and when he bumps into Rachel after years of avoidance, he learns that she’s not mad at him for the reasons he thought she was mad at him. And she doesn’t want to stay mad at him; she wants to pick up where they left off. And he’s waiting to hear from his Holy Trinity of colleges while trying to keep up both his straight-A streak and his remarkable batting average.

It’s absorbing, powerful, and really well-written. Josh is an interesting but likable first-person narrator, his pain and issues omnipresent but not melodramatic or maudlin. The lengthy sections in which he goes through his relationship with Mrs. Sherman and its immediate aftermath are particularly stellar, and particularly creepy; the author doesn’t spare us the details of Josh’s first sexual experiences, though he does for some reason shy away from the vaginal intercourse and actions that focused on her body, rather than his. Throughout it all, we can see her manipulations as she carefully works Josh around so that he thinks the guilt lies with him.

In the present-day sections, we can still see the remnants of those manipulations, even after years of therapy and being told that it wasn’t his fault. He is still obsessed with what happened, so much so that he doesn’t realize that while people in his small town know and remember, that it’s not all they think about. He realizes that his best guy friend, Zik, is doing his best by always being there for Josh and never asking about it, but he never, for five years, thought about what that does to Zik and Zik’s friendship with Rachel. And when he does, we see how painful it is for him, how he sees yet another reason for him to apologize.

The major flaw in the modern-day sections is Rachel. She knows what she wants—Josh—and she’s determined to get it. Whether he wants her or not. Their conversations are sometimes painfully reminiscent of Josh with Mrs. Sherman; him demurring, her instructing. Yes, they are the same age and neither is in a formal position of power, but the massive guilt he feels toward her does put her at an advantage over him—and she uses it. She does not respect Josh’s sexual agency—his right to not say yes—and she is emotionally manipulative, using, perhaps unknowingly, some of the same strategies that Mrs. Sherman used. She is presented as a heroic figure putting herself on the line to rescue her friend from his issues, but her actions are reprehensible. Boy Toy took pains to remind us that boys can be raped and taken advantage off; unfortunately, it forgot that men can be raped and taken advantage of, too. Absence of a yes is a no, regardless of gender, and a yes must be freely given, not the result of manipulation or abuse.

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Boy Toy ~ Barry Lyga ~ Barry Lyga’s Blog

Risk of retraumatization for those with sexual misconduct-related trigger issues.

Early in her junior spring semester at an elite, idealistic boarding school, Alex is date raped. At first, all she wants is to hide, to wash it away and pretend it never happened. She doesn’t want her parents to know, she knows that there’s very little the police can do1, and her school administration is convinced that anyone smart and driven enough to go to their school is honorable and perfect, and therefore said administration is basically useless. What her school does have is the Mockingbirds, a volunteer group of students who establish and maintain a code of conduct, putting students on trial when they break the code, and enforcing nonviolent, off the record punishment to the perpetrators. Encouraged and supported by her best friend and older sister, Alex turns to the Mockingbird and seeks justice.

Written by a date rape survivor, The Mockingbirds is painful and powerful. It’s extremely well written and forthright, dealing candidly with the gamut of emotions experienced by survivors: anger, illogical coping mechanisms, denial, guilt, confusion, fear. It gets into the way rape can affect all aspects of the survivor’s life; Alex is no longer comfortable walking around the school grounds or eating in the cafeteria, certain classes are difficult, whether because of her rapist or because of his friends, and even music, her primary interest and love, has been tainted by what happened. Though the plot revolves around the process of her case with the Mockingbirds, the emotional core and character development is in her slowly and haltingly reclaiming her life, her body, her sexuality, and her mind, from her trauma and post-traumatic stress. Alex’s friends and sister are amazing but realistic; they are angry on her behalf and they know what they want her to do, but they know they need to support her in what she wants to do and can handle doing, and not push her. Her assailant is also, unfortunately, realistic, oblivious to consent issues and never thinking of his actions as rape. The one false note was a series of connected English assignments; the assignment is reasonable, the extent to which the teacher takes it does not feel reasonable, and the teachers actions are hard to explain except as malicious—but the teacher is given no motivation or reason for malicious behavior. It’s a relatively small lapse in a book that is otherwise brilliant, dealing with a difficult issue with both honesty and sensitivity, and without leaving any doubt that the absence of a yes must always be assumed to be a no.

November 2010

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1As with most date rapes, especially those involving alcohol (or drugs) there’s no physical evidence worth a damn. Even if she hadn’t showered and washed away all the evidence, all it would show is that the sex happened, not whether or not it was consensual.

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The Mockingbirds ~ Daisy Whitney’s Blog

Red Pyramid Kane Chronicles Rick RiordanThe Kane Chronicles, Book 1

The author of the Percy Jackson books is back, and this time he’s moved from Greek mythology to the Egyptian variety.

Carter Kane is fourteen and lives out of a suitcase, traveling the world with his Egyptologist father. Traveling a bit more than seems strictly necessary, if its just for professional reasons: most Egyptologists don’t need to switch hotels in the middle of the night, for instance. Of course, most don’t get shot at, either. Sadie Kane is twelve and lives in London with their grandparents, jealous of Carter for getting to spend his life with the father she only sees twice a year. It’s on one of those biannual visits that they all go to the British Museum, at which their dad blows up the Rosetta Stone and gets kidnapped by a fiery supernatural being. An Egyptian god? Yup. This is, naturally, followed by adventures and the need to save North America, if not the entire world.

The narrative is presented as a transcript of an audio tape1 recorded alternately by Carter and Sadie, complete with interjections as the on-mic sib responds to the teasing of the one off-mic, and distracting chapter openers as the narrator switches. It’s an annoying gimmick and the framework detracts from the book; not only does it slow the chapter transitions, the explanatory “author’s note” delays the start of the story, and at the end, the book comes to a satisfying conclusion… and then adds a completely unnecessary extra-extra gimmicky chapter, just to explain the main gimmick. I will grant that the extra chapter does set the stage for the second book, but in a frustrating rather than a tantalizing way; the first book really has been tied up, and instead of letting you close the book with a satisfied sigh, it stops dead and then introduces the conceit behind the sequel without introducing the plot of the sequel.

Gimmickiness aside, the other issue with the narration is a lack of distinction between Carter’s voice and Sadie’s voice. They have distinct personalities and interests—and are both appealing, sympathetic kid characters—but I got more of a sense of each of them as individuals from watching their actions than from hearing their voices. The name of the current narrator is always on the top of the page, and I found myself needing to check more than once.

Nonetheless, it’s a very fun book. The Egyptian gods running around have plenty of limitation on their powers while still being fairly badass, and the plot moves quickly, cleverly, and at times hilariously through various confrontations with deities and magicians. The magicians are members of the House of Life, a millennia-old secret society. They are not particularly happy with the actions of the Kane family; their ancient policy is that the gods should stay locked up, all of them, and the Kanes keep messing with that. Fittingly, the organization has difficulty displaying adaptability in reaction to the Kanes; this is the nature of humanity and bureaucracy. We find ruts, make them oh-so-comfortable, and never get out of them.

Sadie and Carter are multiracial; unsurprisingly, they have plenty of Egyptian heritage if you trace it a couple millennia back, but it’s been mixed with much other heritage, so their dad presents as black and their long-dead mother was white. Carter takes after their dad, while Sadie looks more like their mom, though, obviously, she’s darker. It’s really nice to see such a mainstream book dealing with race, and it does so well, particularly in Carter and his dad’s awareness of public perception of them as African American men.

I don’t know as much Egyptian mythology as I know Greek, so this was breaking more new ground for me than the Percy Jackson books had; this was a fun exploration of a pantheon with which I am not very familiar. I particularly appreciated that he gave credit to the existence of multiple versions of myths, accepting them all rather than choosing one, but with an explanation that made sense. I also appreciated that he casually left room for this and the Percy Jackson books to take place in the same world, but didn’t stress it or threaten to blend the two series.

The Red Pyramid is a creative, fast-paced adventure that suffers from its narratorial gimmick, but it’s only a flesh wound.

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1Yes, audio tape. Not a recording saved on a thumb drive or SD card, an audio tape. What is this, the 90s?

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The Red Pyramid ~ Rick Riordan
My reviews of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (Book 1), The Sea of Monsters (Book 2), The Titan’s Curse (Book 3), Battle of the Labyrinth (Book 4), and The Last Olympian (Book 5)

David Sun, along with many of his peers—wealthy, constantly internet-connected, often drunk high school students—calmly watched, via webcam, as one of their fellows committed suicide. This worries his parents and the school shrink. His parents are too busy to actually, y’know, parent, so when the school shrink suggests that they invest in the latest gadget designed to help “disassociated” teenage boys learn to form health relationships, they go right ahead and buy their son a hot female robot. Er, “companion.” She comes with a built in Intimacy Clock; he only gets to snog the hot female robot after a designated amount of healthy social non-sexual bonding. If he tries to jump the gun, he gets an electric shock. Basically, they’re trying to use the promise of robot-nookie to train teenage boys to behave better. It’s a completely half-baked, insulting-to-women idea… and, therefore, frightening plausible.

Anyway, when David can’t get what he wants from his personal hot female robot—Rose—she ends up turning to Charlie, a lonely, depressed social misfit with abandonment issues. She helps him get some confidence and sense of companionship; he helps her gain some independence and a sense of personhood. (She’s a very advanced robot. (Incidentally, she’s significantly more advanced, emotionally and mentally, than the other companions we come across in the novel. This is noted but never explained.))

The novel is largely a meditation on the suckiness of breakups, and at that it succeeds pretty marvelously. The characters’ pain is palpable, but the plot moves along at a good clip and protects it from descending into melodrama. Rose tends to be over the top, but in a believable way; she’s learning how to be human, how to have feelings, how to think—there’s some trial and error, and it feels natural for her to overdo it.

It’s also an uncomfortable book. The male culture David inhabits is, without recognizing it, extremely sexist. Women, even those who aren’t robotic, are reduced to bodies, and even their bodies are reduced to, well, their girl parts. In groups, if girls are present, they’re mostly there to be witnesses to the supposed coolness of the guys—and the girls know it. And, of course, the book raises all sorts of sex issuess: are the companions just objects and no more need to consent than does a vibrator, or are they feeling beings? If they’re feeling beings, are they capable of giving informed consent, or are they like children and animals? For that matter, are the boys able to give informed consent? Are the parents participating in their sons’ sex lives by purchasing their bots? If a bot experiences the desire to kiss her assigned boy but the Intimacy Clock prevents it, is she being denied her sexual agency by her makers or by her body?

The actual writing about sex is mixed; the scenes of female masturbation and of awkward, not-very-good sex are very well done, but the scene of supposedly mind-blowing sex is painfully corny and overwritten.

Overall, though, it’s an interesting idea-driven book with a strong emotional core.

August 2010.

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Girl Parts ~ John M. Cusick

powerless codyDaniel, a Sherlock Holmes devotee but otherwise a normal twelve year old, just moved to a tiny town in Pennsylvania. Not only is he the new kid, but he’s pretty sure the kids—even the ones who seem to like him—are keeping some sort of weird secret. This is awkward, but temporary; eventually he learns that the kids in town have superpowers—flight, invisibility, releasing a nasty-smelling gas, that sort of thing. The only catch is that on each kid’s birthday, he or she will wake up with no power and no memory of ever having had a superpower. With several thirteenth birthdays coming up, powerless Daniel is recruited to look into the matter. His investigation leads him to Golden Age comic books, a cranky old man, and his own family history.

It’s a solid, entertaining, uncomplicated read. The powers and their limitations are thoroughly conceived and the characters, though not particularly deep, are believable and consistent, complete with badly-suppressed anxieties and early-adolescent awkwardness between friends of different genders. The writing dips into the sentimental at times, but it’s self-aware enough to shrug off its saccharine tendencies: “‘But, you know, that’s what being a hero is all about, right? Overcoming your fears and failures to help other people, like Johnny noble did.’ Eric smiled. ‘I know you cringe when I talk like that but it’s true.'”1 We cringe, too—but it’s okay, the book acknowledges it and gives us permission. A healthy dose of younger brother-related snark running through the book helps, too. The family history bit is somewhat overdone—think Snape and Lily Deathly Hallows revelations—but the idea that history is important and that current events were seeded seventy years before are welcome and the plot is satisfying. Generally, an enjoyable book.

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1Pp. 172-173

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Powerless