This Week in Reviews: August 1, 2011

FICTION:

4Q 3P S A/YA

Bass, Elizabeth. Wherever Grace Is Needed. Kensington, 2011. 352p. $15. Trade pb. 978-0-7582-6594-4.

When Grace Oliver returns to her childhood home of Austin, Texas, to help her ailing father, she does not realize how much her life is about to change.  While trying to cope with the knowledge that her father’s condition may be more serious than she imagined, Grace befriends a neighboring family who has recently faced a horrible tragedy.  Bonding with the young Dominic, she also encounters brainy, conflicted Lily and her angry older sister, Jordan.  Grieving from the loss of her twin sister and mother, sixteen-year-old Jordan strives to overcome the guilt she feels for her part in the accident, but struggles to relate to anyone, and especially to her father, Ray, a man lost in grief.  As their stories begin to intertwine, Grace and her neighbors learn to lean on one another and come to realize the importance of family and the relationships that bind individuals together.

Readers gain unique insight into the lives of compelling characters in Wherever Grace Is Needed, with chapters alternating in point of view between Grace, Jordan and Lily.   Although teen readers might connect more with Jordon or Lily than the older Grace, whose perspective constitutes most of the narrative, readers of all ages can enjoy this thoughtful story of two families overcoming tremendous challenges.  Beautifully exploring the complexity of sorrow, loss, healing, and forgiveness, Wherever Grace is Needed provides insight into the significance of home and belonging.—Meghann Meeusen.


4Q 1P S A/YA  Graphic Format

Gould, Chester. The Very Best of Dick Tracy: An 80th Anniversary Celebration: Bullets, Battles, and Bad Guys. IDW Publishing, 2011. 128p. $19.99. Oversize pb. 978-1-60010-671-2.

Covering forty years of Dick Tracy comics, Jay Maeder has selected and introduces each of the storylines found within these pages. These stories highlight some of the most notorious villains from the Dick Tracy world. Dick Tracy began his detective work to solve his sweetheart’s father’s murder. In this single volume compilation, Tracy comes up against Flattop, Mumbles, The Brow, Maw Famon, and more. The black-and-white comic strips are examples of their time period which have been unaltered for historical reference. For fans of old-time comics, this is a great graphic novel. It encompasses stories from all forty years. The artwork and stories show the styles of their time. There are war commentaries during stories published during WWII. Every so often, there are “Crime Notes” about how detectives solve crimes.

Teens will most likely be turned off by this title since it is very old and stylized. The comics are very heavy in text. Most likely, this will appeal to adults and those few teens who are interested in the history of comics. Overall, this is a good investment for libraries wanting more classic comics, but who do not want to purchase the Complete Dick Tracy volumes that are also available by IDW. —Kristin Fletcher-Spear.

5Q 3P A/YA

Mayhew, Anna Jean. The Dry Grass of August. Kensington, 2011. 352p. $15. Trade pb. 978-0-7582-5409-2.

The year is 1954; Brown vs. Board of Education threatens to undermine an entrenched way of life in the segregated South.  June Bentley Watts (Jubie) is thirteen, and growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina.  In a week-and-a-half one summer, she develops from a sheltered, gawky adolescent into an activist young woman without completely understanding why or how.  Mama takes her three daughters, Stell, Jubie, and Puddin’, and baby Davie, to Pensacola to visit her younger brother, Taylor.  Mary, their black maid, accompanies them.  The trip there presages disaster from the first page of the novel, as tension and danger mount with every highway curve and every rural town.

Daddy’s presence, although not in the car, also heralds disaster as the whole family gladly leaves him and his alcoholic rages behind.  Adding to the growing sense of doom are Jubie’s flashbacks to the developing discord at home that prompted the vacation

Mayhew grew up in Charlotte in the 1950s, so the voices ring unflinchingly true.  Jubie is a compelling heroine in the mold of Lily Owens in The Secret Life of Bees.  This mesmerizing story takes place when segregation is being challenged in the highways and byways of the Deep South, no matter what the Supreme Court has ruled. Local color dominates with a tent revival, a traveling carnival, Claxton fruitcakes, sandy white beaches, and white gloves and heels, as the setting emerges as a pivotal character in this important debut novel.—Judith A. Hayn.

2Q 2P  M J

Monroe, Mary A. Tagger: Graffiti Was His Life-and Soul. Author House, 2011. 176p. $29.99. 978-1-4567-5028-2. $19.99 Trade pb. 978-1-4567-5029-9.

Graffiti art is everything to fourteen-year-old Luis.  He spends hours perfecting drawings in his black book, preparing to take his work outside to a waiting, blank wall.  His obsession causes his grades to slip and, when he gets caught the first time, he has to do Saturday detention.  It also gets him the attention of “Skills,” a local graffiti crew; his involvement with them is exhilarating and everything Luis has hoped for, but soon leads to both life-changing and devastating consequences.

This is the third novel written and published by Monroe, a high school reading teacher, meant to interest teen boys who “find reading boring.”  While the story—inspired by the life of one the author’s former students—may be of interest to teen boys, it is weighed down by clumsy and cumbersome writing.  Although in the author’s note she mentions that the student upon whome she based the book recommended she change dialogue that was not representative of how boys talk, she did not take the lesson fully to heart, as much of the dialogue sounds awkward and unnatural.  There are also several glaring mistakes a copy editor would likely have caught, including an inexplicable switch from first-person to third-person point-of-view late in chapter thirty-five.  The dearth of engaging books for reluctant male readers is no reason to accept subpar writing and unfortunately, even with the free teaching materials provided by the author via her website, this self-published work has little to offer teens.—Vikki Terrile.

4Q 4P M J Graphic Format

Mucha, Corinne. Freshman: Tales of 9th Grade Obsessions, Revelations, and Other Nonsense. Zest Books, 2011. 112p. $12.99 Trade pb. 978-0-9819733-6-4.

Rendered in a simple, clean-line panel format, Freshman effectively captures the drama and angst and humor of one girl’s freshman year in high school. Annie’s journey begins the night before school starts with a dire warning from her older brother that freshman year “defines who you are for the rest of your life.” Vignettes move from fall to spring, as Annie attempts to connect with her former best friend, Beth, who has undergone a goth/party girl transformation; stumbles through field hockey practices; scores a less-than-desirable part in the school musical; and hopes for a boyfriend.

Mucha’s characters come alive on the page through familiar social situations and conflicts, and comic strip-bubble dialogue rings true. Readers will empathize with Annie’s worries, doubts, and ambitions as she makes her way through this pivotal defining year. Funny, earnest, and approachable, Freshman will be popular with even those young teens who are not typically graphic novel readers. Expect readers to ask if there will be a Sophomore sequel.—Paula J. Gallagher.

3Q  3P M J

Sitomer, Alan Lawrence. Nerd Girls: The Rise of the Dorkasaurus. Hyperion, 2011. 224p. $16.99. 978-1-4231-3996-6.

Maureen is one of those kids who is picked on at home and in middle school. She is fat, not pretty, not the brightest, and she has no friends. But when she comes to the rescue of Allergic Alice and Beanpole Barbara by standing up to the Three Ps—the pretty, popular, and perfect girls who have bullied her all of her life—everything changes. She gains new friends, but she must now confront the Three Ps on their own turf, the school’s talent show. The Three Ps and their siblings have won it every year since anyone can remember. Can Maureen and her new friends come up with a better performance than the Three Ps?
Sitomer manages to create tension and hilarity out of the preparation for a talent show, but also conveys the lesson that, regardless of what you look like or how you act, you can find a friend in the unlikeliest of places. The characters begin as parodies of themselves, but evolve to discover their own redeeming qualities. Readers who enjoy a story with a predictable plot and who like to cheer for the underdog will love this entertaining book.—Etienne Vallee.

Nerd Girls is the story of a group of outcasts who suffer from bullying and must overcome obstacles with each other’s support. They eventually come to the conclusion that, sometimes, the most important thing in life is the power of friendship. This book provides insight about the reality of what many kids experience today and the scrutiny they face. The story is empowering and shows that it is all right to have individual differences because they are what make you who you are. 3Q, 3P.—Halley Jacobs, Teen Reviewer.


4Q 4P S

Stimpson, Michelle. Someone to Watch Over Me. Dafina/Kensington, 2011. 320p. $14. Trade pb. 978-0-7582-4688-2.

Tori Henderson is rapidly climbing the corporate ladder in her marketing career until she is sidelined by emergency surgery.  When her Aunt Dottie has a stroke, Tori travels from Houston to Bayford, Texas, to care for her and finds more than she expected.  Tori takes care of DeAndre, her eight-year-old step cousin, her aunt, and her aunt’s store, while trying to do her job remotely in a place with no Wi-Fi or cell phone reception.  As her world is falling apart, preacher’s son, Jacob, helps Tori accept that God’s plan for her may be different than her own.

Stimpson’s characters are complex, showing growth in faith through the studying of scripture and the examples of others.  Tori learns compassion as she struggles to overcome her temper and the prejudice of those who knew her first as a pregnant teen. The juxtaposition of small-town life with high-stress corporate expectations helps Tori to realize that family is more important than her job.    Jacob is a caring pastor, but also a man who wants to be more than a friend to Tori.   This is a compelling story peopled with characters that readers will want to know better.  It will appeal to those who like inspirational romance and family stories sharing the African American experience.—Deborah L. Dubois.

3Q 3P J S

Valentino, Amanda and Peter Silsbee. The Amanda Project: Revealed. HarperTeen, 2011. 240p. $8.99 Trade pb. 978-0-0617-4215-6.

The Amanda Project: Invisible, the first book in this series, leaves readers knowing that the main character, Amanda Valentino, is missing and it is up to three friends—Hal, Callie, and Nia— to find her. The Amanda Project: Revealed starts with readers finding out that Vice Principal Thornhill has been attacked in his office and is in critical condition. The police think Hal, Callie, and Nia have something to do with the crime, but do not have enough evidence to arrest them. Through multiple twists and turns in the story, clues about who Amanda really is and what she is trying to tell the characters are revealed, while Hal, Callie, and Nia are able to clear themselves of committing the crime.Although The Amanda Project: Revealed contains some information about the first book in the series, it is definitely not a stand-alone book. The crime scene described at the beginning of the story will entice readers into wanting to know, not only who did it, but also whether or not Hall, Callie, and Nia will be arrested for a crime they have not committed. Between the crime scene and the mystery behind who Amanda is, readers will experience two different story paths. There are some points in the story that are underdeveloped and slow-paced, but readers who enjoyed book one in this series will enjoy this follow-up.  Readers can learn more about the story and interact with other readers by going to The Amanda Project website: www.theamandaproject.com.—Jessica Skaggs.


2Q 4P J S Graphic Format
Yang, Belle. Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale. Norton, 2011. 250p. $15.95 Trade pb. 978-0-393-33996-3.
Yang, an incredibly talented writer/illustrator of picture books for children and adults, seems to completely misunderstand the uses and possibilities of her new genre in this, her first graphic novel.  The story Yang has to tell—the tale of several generations of her father’s family in Manchuria, culminating in her parents fleeing the Communists for America—teems with potential.  The illustrations, as such, are exquisite black-and-white line drawings. Unfortunately, the two elements do little but recapitulate each other, with the illustrations adding practically nothing of value to the text. Yang frequently resorts, for example, to overly literal graphic realizations of metaphors from the text. On top of this, the narrative itself comes in large, expositional blocks, eschewing dramatic representation for summary.
Stangely, Yang falls short at the one aspect that would seem to be the most straightforward: the narrative arc of her story.  The story of a family of landowners victimized by the Japanese occupation, internal rivalry, and the Communist revolution would seem to be ripe for dramatic possibilities.  But in Yang’s telling, the story never quite gels—it always appears to be simply a sequence of one event happening after another, with no insight as to why things occurred or how events interact with each other. There is no doubt that Yang is a talented writer, and some readers will find much interest and value in this memoir.  As an example of a graphic novel, however, Forget Sorrow is a frustrating mess.—Mark Flowers.


SERIES NON FICTION:

Opposing Viewpoints: Writing The Critical Essay.  Gale Group, 2011.  PLB $31.80.  Index. Illus. Appendix. Biblio.

4Q 2P M J S

Friedman, Lauri S. Web 2.0. 978-0-7377-5026-3.

Stem Cell Research. 978-0-7377-5025-6.

Gale’s Opposing Viewpoints: Writing the Critical Essay series includes volumes covering topics from universal healthcare to recycling.  Forty-three volumes in all, the series addresses the most popular topics for student research.  Each volume includes, not only Opposing Viewpoints essays on a controversial topic, but also tips and instruction for essay writing.

In Section 1 of Writing the Critical Essay: Web 2.0, readers are presented with the trademark, well-crafted Opposing Viewpoints essays exploring how social networking impacts human relationships, professional journalism, and the quality of information and art.  Each essay provides supplementary color graphics and images, questions to consider about the topic, and finishes with two questions requiring students to analyze the essay and perform sample writing exercises.  While the essays in Section 1 serve as useful potential sources on the topic, Section 2 offers three sample persuasive student essays, highlighting thesis and topic sentences and supporting details, and providing additional notes, suggestions and exercises for practicing the persuasive essay.  Finally, Section 3 provides students with relevant facts and additional sources for research, and discusses using and citing sources correctly.

Writing the Critical Essay: Stem Cell Research follows the same format. The essays in Section 1 discuss the morality of embryo use in stem cell research, the use of adult stem cells in research, and cloning of humans.  While each of these essays is again presented in the traditional Opposing Viewpoints format, with an essay exploring each side of the argument, the remainder of the book teaches the composition of an expository essay.  Students who wish to use the Section 1 essays as resources for an expository essay must distill the facts from their persuasive format before using them in their own informative papers.

While the series format seems to be a good fit for practicing persuasive writing, the persuasive essays at the beginning of Stem Cell Research do not fit quite as well with the exploration of expository writing, nor are they a perfect fit with other volumes in the series that explore narrative writing.  The sample student essays in both volumes are sound if formulaic;  in each volume, two of the three samples student essays follow the standard five paragraph essay format.

As the cover copy states, “Learning the fundamental principles of essay writing is becoming an ever more important skill for students.”  This series makes a laudable effort to help students in that practice, but the format seems unlikely to lead to success.  Students are unlikely to use the books as more than information sources.  If they do explore further, students new to paraphrasing and citing may struggle not to plagiarize essays laid out in such a convenient format, no matter how honest their intentions.  While the instruction and exercises are well done, they would be better suited to a class environment rather than practiced in isolation.  The books are well suited to a motivated student looking for extra writing help, but are unlikely to have widespread appeal as writing guides.—Anita Beaman.

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