Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Heir Apparent

Heir Apparent
Vivian Vande Velde
Houghton Mifflin, 2002  315 pgs
Grades 5-8
Science Fiction

Despite protesters intent on protecting children from the dangers of video games outside its doors, Giannine enters a Rasmussem Gaming Center, intent on using the birthday gift certificate from her estranged father on a virtual reality game.  She chooses a game set in medieval times, putting herself as the successor to the throne of a legendary kingdom.  She has three days (in game time, real time is shorter) to convince rivals, enemies and staff that she is worthy of the crown and be declared the new monarch.  Once in the game Janine (as she is now called in the game) is informed that the protesters compromised the game and she is in real danger.  She must complete the game within a certain amount of time or suffer brain overload, resulting in permanent brain damage and, possibly, death.  The stakes become real as Janine meets her three half brothers (rivals to the throne) and the queen, her late father's widow.  Three advisers present themselves and Janine must decide which one to trust.  Disgruntled townspeople looking to overthrow the government, disloyal guardsmen, and a neighboring band of raiding barbarians all need to be appeased.  She has the help of three wizards with different powers, but they are also not to be trusted and must be cunningly dealt with.  Luckily, she has the use of certain items of magic, including a ring which commands the wearer to do her bidding, but Janine must be wise as to when to use the magical items.  After several poor attempts, taking Janine all the way back to the beginning of the game, she finally makes it almost to the end.  She must battle the fearsome dragon and make it back for the coronation.  Will she win the game before time runs out?

Reading Heir Apparent is like playing a video game.  The action is quick, the characters are vast and the game keeps restarting.  This book will appeal to today's youth and will make fantasy/science fiction approachable to realistic kids.  This book is an easy sell to boys and with a female protagonist also makes it girl-friendly.  The many restarts that Janine undergoes should make the story repetitive and tedious, but Vande Velde writes the story in a way that we experience the repetition quickly without the details and the plot picks up freshly.  There are many characters in this book, all with strange names.  I'm usually hopeless with sorting out characters, especially with names I don't have a frame of reference for.  For some reason the characters are all drawn so distinctly that this is not a problem.  The characters are a bit one dimensional (as in a video game), but that works well in this book.  I love the concept, love the fast moving plot and was satisfied with how Janine eventually played out her game.  My only complain is the bitter end, when Janine gets back to reality at Rasmussen Gaming Center.  I am often not happy with the endings of books, authors seem to struggle with them.  My favorite books are those with well written and conceived endings.  Vande Velde ends everything overly happy with the owner of Rasmussen Enterprises turning out to be a cute 16 year old boy who looks like one of the characters and then Giannine's father walks into the center, indicating that her family problems are all over.  What?  The book was really fun, but I could have done without the last seven pages.  Kids won't care.  They like a happy ending with no loose threads.  Heir Apparent is at first glance a cautionary tale against video games, but really isn't.  the bad guys are the protesters and Vande Velde is making a statement concerning people against fantasy and make believe.  Kids won't care what her statement is, they will just devour this book.  Psst...Hollywood: this would make an awesome movie. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Screaming Staircase

The Screaming Staircase
Jonathan Stroud
Hyperion, 2013  390 pgs
Grades 5-8
Lockwood & Co. series #1

Enter an alternate present day London where ghosts abound and only children and teenagers can sense and, therefore, exterminate them.  Lucy Carlye flees a devastating experience working for a ghost catcher in her rural community to London where she obtains employment with the sketchy Lockwood & Co.  Unlike bigger and more reputable agencies, Lockwood & Co. has no adult supervisors and is run entirely by its young proprietor, Anthony Lockwood and his esteemed, yet slovenly, partner George.  Lucy is blessed with the ability to hear ghosts, Lockwood with the ability to see ghosts, and George is an ace researcher.  After a bungled attempt to remove a ghost, Lucy obtains a locket from the menace's newly found skeleton, leading the youths to the mystery surrounding the ghost's death/murder.  Meanwhile, Lucy also, accidentally, while defending herself,  burns the house down.  Lockwood and Co. must pay for the damages, which proves to be an exorbitant sum.  Help arrives in the form of eccentric millionaire, John Fairfax, who offers to pay off the company's debts if they clean his notoriously haunted mansion of visitors.  The three ghost hunters must accept, leading them to the most dangerous mission of their lives, where they encounter the Screaming Staircase (of the title) and the famous and deadly Red Room (read the book to discover the origin of the room's name).  Things aren't what they seem and Lockwood & Co. gets more than they bargained for.  Eventually, a conclusion is reached, both cases come together in a satisfying course of events, and a creepy ending ensures that a new adventure (The Whispering Skull, 2014) awaits.

Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus series has long been one of my favorite series to recommend, specifically to Harry Potter fans who wish that Hogwarts could be just a little creepier.  His books are deliciously eerie, yet fantastic, creative, and funny all at the same time.  Stroud's latest series, Lockwood & Co., does not disappoint.  The book is filled with sinister ghosts, as well as humans, with a speedily moving and adventurous plot, all underlined with characteristic British humor.  The mood of the book feels Victorian and dark and it is always a surprise when Stroud throws in a modern touch, bringing us back to the present.  As in the Bartimaeus series, Stroud has young people working alone and fending for themselves through a dangerous life.  The three young people are fully developed and interesting characters and make the reader want to join up with Lockwood & Co. and live in that dusty old house with them, dangers and all.  This book will be a very easy sell to boys, but, featuring a female main character, makes it also accessible to girls.  The ghosts and fantastical elements are very believable, making the book a great choice for those who don't think they like fantasy.  Stroud never is never cheap with his writing quality and vocabulary choices.  He respects his readers and does not talk down to them.  This is a superbly written book that will challenge children, as well as entertain them and make their imaginations soar.  One warning: The book is a bit scary.  Sensitive children will find the Screaming Staircase the stuff of nightmares.  For kids who like horror, this is a wonderful choice.  It never gets too graphic or gruesome and is "just right" for middle grade ghost lovers.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska
John Green
Dutton, 2005  221 pgs.
Grades 9-12
Realistic Fiction

Miles begins his junior year of high school at a private boarding school in Alabama.  He meets his new roommate, a low in stature/high in personality, boy named the Colonel, who dubs him "Pudge" and introduces him to the world of smoking, drinking, and pranks.  Through the Colonel Pudge meets Alaska, a beautiful, yet emotionally complicated young woman, and Takumi, a fellow smoker and prankster.  The four form an immediate bond and experience the philosophical discussions, rivalry with the rich kids, struggles with homework and prank-planning involved in boarding school life.  Miles must take a religion course as a school requirement and though his teacher is decrepit and strict, he begins to think about the "Labyrinth of Life" and the "Great Perhaps".   Alaska fixes Pudge up with his first girl friend, Lara, and the year moves along at a rapid and happy pace.  Then after a night of drinking Miles and Alaska make-out, fulfilling Mile's dreams and leading to complications because of previous entanglements.  Before the ensuing drama can unfurl, something makes Alaska freak out, run out of her room in the middle of the night, calling for a distraction from Miles and the Colonel, and driving away drunk, when unforeseen tragedy strikes.  Miles and the Colonel must come to terms with Alaska's death and their part in it.  As the school year draws to a close, the boys discover what made Alaska run out of the room that night and start to find closure and healing.

Looking for Alaska, John Green's first novel, was awesome when it came out in 2005, winning the 2006 Printz medal for the best book for teenagers.  It is still awesome almost ten years later.  Pudge's journey is many teenager's fantasy: leaving your old life behind and going to boarding school with a fresh start and no parents around.  The first half of the book is fun, complete with romance and high-jinx.  We don't see Alaska's death coming and then WHAM!  After Alaska dies the tone of the book is very different and we experience Pudge's healing and maturing first-hand.  The second half of the book feels almost like a mystery as Pudge and the Colonel try to discern Alaska's motivation and absolving themselves of the guilt. Pudge, the Colonel, and Alaska are all very interesting characters and practically fly off the page.   Looking for Alaska has layers and  can be read on many levels.  There are philosophical and religious themes throughout the book which may lead the reader to delve deeper.  John Green is a hot commodity right now.  The Fault in our Stars was the big teen book of last year, staying popular into this year because of the release of the movie of the same name.  Now his book Papertowns is being made into a movie.  For my money, I think Looking for Alaska is his best book and would highly recommend it for high school students of both sexes.  Warning to parents: the book contains underage drinking, smoking, strong language, and adult themes, so be aware of this if its an issue for your teens.  If not, put this in the hands of teenagers and watch them begin to contemplate the "Great Perhaps".

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles

The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles
Julie Andrews Edwards
Harper Collins, 1974  277 pgs
Grades 3-6

Siblings Ben, Tom, and Lindy meet the brilliant and eccentric Professor Savant and the four become friends.  The professor confides his knowledge of the legendary Whangdoodle and how the species once lived among humans.  He has personally been to Whangdoodle Land and starts training the children in sharpening their detection skills and using their imaginations.  After many exercises and coaching the children are ready to try to journey to the magical land.  Donning their "scrappy caps", magical hats that help them to transport, They enter Whangdoodle Land.  It is even better, more colorful and beautiful, than the professor described it.  They make friends with a "whiffle bird" who continues to help them throughout their quest to find the Whangdoodle.  After several exploratory visits to Whangdoodle Land, the evil Prok (the Whangdoodle's left-hand man) kidnaps Lindy and the other three set out to save her.  Their rescue attempt takes them close to the Whangdoodle's castle and the professor finds he cannot go on.  The three children cross the bridge to the palace and talk Prok into letting them meet the Whangdoodle.  The Whangdoodle does not disappoint.  He is as fabulous as the professor has promised, only he is very sad.  The Whangdoodle is the last of his kind and wants companionship, specifically that of a female Whangdoodle.  Lindy is given the task of coaxing the professor across the bridge and to the Whangdoodle's castle in order for him to use his knowledge of genetics to try to solve the legendary beast's dilemma.

Even though I was a child when this book came out, I have never read it.  The kids in my 5th & 6th grade book group suggested reading it, so I finally gave it a try.  The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles was written by the prolific Julie Andrews (yes THAT Julie Andrews) under her married name.  Reading it feels like watching one of her movies: comforting, sweet, and slightly magical.  I never heard of Whangdoodles, but, as the children in the book discovered, they are in the dictionary as "a fanciful creature of undefined nature".  Doesn't that definition get your imagination going?  The book feels a little like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, both in being transported to a magical land and befriending creatures and in its Briticism, although without the violence.  Both girls and boys will enjoy this book and although it has 277 pages and (gasp!) no illustrations, it reads quickly.  Andrews explains in an author's note that she purposely did not want illustrations in order for children to use their own imaginations to see the Whangdoodle however they want.  The kids are likable enough, although I kept confusing the identity of the two boys were are never fully developed.    The youngest sister gets the bulk of the adventure and the professor is wonderfully eccentric, thus stealing the show.  Although it feels like an older book, modern touches and slang are thrown in to contemporize the story.  Today's kids may question the Independence given the children in the story and modern children no longer befriend adult neighbors and spend full days at their houses.  Regardless, its a blast back to a kinder, gentler time when kids grew up slower and magical lands could be just on the other side of the bushes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson
Penguin, 2014  320 pgs
Grades 5-8
Narrative Poetry

Woodson offers free verse, narrative poems tracing her childhood and all its complexities in this fictionalized autobiography.  Born in Columbus, Ohio, we experience Woodson's first memories, family background, and the turbulence of her parents marriage.  She and her mother and two older siblings move into their grandparent's house in South Carolina.  Jacqueline's mother leaves the children with her parents, traveling up to New York City to seek a fresh start and better opportunities.  The Woodson children thrive in South Carolina, treating their grandparents as their parents, and exploring their rural surroundings, all while under the shadow of Jim Crow.  Eventually mother has another baby, Grandfather develops emphysema, and the children move to New York to live with their mother.  Life in New York is opposite in every way to South Carolina, in physical space, diversity of the neighborhood, and the way leisure time is spent.  After Jacqueline's baby brother contracts lead poisoning, another South Carolina summer is spent, now through the lenses of a northern city girl.  Throughout it all the Woodson family stays true to their Jehovah Witness beliefs and we observe first hand the sacrifices, time commitment, and sense of community the faith involves.  Eventually, after much heartache and growth, Jacqueline discovers that she is a writer and embraces her own story, beliefs and desires, warts and all.

Jacqueline Woodson is know for her beautifully written and thoughtful books, generally reflecting the African American experience.  I have read many of her books and even used a few in book discussion groups, (Hush being my favorite).  Brown Girl Dreaming is her best offering yet.  The poems convey a story, yet are so beautifully written that they could stand on their own individually in a separate collection.  This is a big publishing year for Civil Rights books and Brown Girl Dreaming is a wonderful contribution to the topic.  We experience the struggles of growing up as an African American girl both in the south and the north during a time when change was happening.  I am the same age as Jacqueline and grew up during the same time and couldn't help comparing her experience to mine.  Our experiences where so different, yet there were fundamental similarities about family and growing up that made me identify with her and put me in the story.  I think that this is an important book for kids to read.  I'm not sure all kids will "get it".  The poetry may put readers off.  I have used Out of the Dust with book groups and, although its one of my favorite books, they don't like it because of the  poetic format.  That said, we should not give up exposing children to high quality literature and, thank goodness, publishers are still willing to publish it.  Wimpy Kid has a place and is valuable in its own right, but once in a while it wouldn't kill a child to read something that makes them think and work a little bit.  I fell into the life of young Jacquline Woodson and did not want the book to end. I would highly recommend this book to thoughtful children who like their reading to contain a little substance and to adults who would like a quick meaningful read.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Its a Funny Kind of Story

Its a Funny Kind of Story
Ned Vizzini
Hyperion, 2006  444 pgs.
Grades 9-12
Realistic Fiction

Craig is excepted to a highly competitive high school in New York City.  He celebrates with his best friend (who is also excepted to the school), watches his best friend get together with his crush, and slowly sinks into a serious depression.  Craig's concerned and supportive parents take him to a psychiatrist for medication and then to a series of therapists, until finally finding the right fit.  Craig begins high school, starts to feel better, and decides he no longer needs the medication and stops taking it.  He now sinks into a downward spiral, resulting in a call to the suicide hotline after a night of extreme blackness.  The suicide hotline suggests that he check himself into the hospital, so after leaving a note for his family that's just what he does.  Because the teen unit is being renovated, Craig must be sent to the adult psychiatric unit for a minimum of five days once the doctor's are convinced he's stable and won't hurt himself.  At the unit and away from his pressures Craig finds that he is able to be himself and slowly starts to heal.  He makes friends with the other patients, specifically a man names Humble.  A relationship begins to develop with the only other 15 year old on the floor, a girl named Noelle, and he has intentions of continuing it even after release.  Most importantly, Craig rediscovers his love of drawing maps, which he abandoned as a child.  This new found love of art encourages him to transfer from the stressful school he currently attends to an art focused high school.  We see the impact the other residents (a kooky, yet lovable lot) make on Craig's life and the impact he makes on theirs in return.  The book ends on an optimistic note, with Craig feeling hopeful and strong with plans for the future as he takes his leave of the hospital and the people that changed his life.

Don't let the title fool you.  Although there are truly funny moments, this is not a comedy.  Told in the first person, this novel is based on the five days the author actually spent in an adult psychiatric unit and was written in three weeks following his release.  Maybe this is why Its Kind of a Funny Story feels so real and authentic.  Craig is lost and depressed, but retains a certain amount of naivety, keeping the novel from feeling completely hopeless.  Even at his lowest, Craig presents himself matter-of-factly and is devoid of emo-angst.  This feels like two books: 180 pages are Craig's back story and the road to the hospital and the remainder of the novel is life on the psych ward with the quirky characters Craig meets and the connections he makes.  He treats all his fellow patients with respect and kindness and instantly makes friends.  We see the comparison between Craig's so-called friends from home (especially in a scene where his crush/best friend's girl friend visits and hits on him) and his new friends, who are crazy, yet more genuine and positive influences on Craig.  I don't know if a new relationship with a broken girl is the right direction for Craig to head into, but young reader's enjoy a touch of romance, so for the sake of the book's success, I'll forgive it.  This romance is built up further in the 2010 movie based on the book, where the story is "Hollywood-ized" and much of the subtlety is lost.  Craig is a very likable character and teens will identify with him and root for his healing.  Even though the book is long, it is dialogue heavy and reads fast.  There are funny moments, especially with the characters in the psych ward, which goes to show that there can be humor in any situation.  Craig's humor and optimism, despite his depression, stand him well as he is released in the promised five days and is ready to reenter life.  Unfortunately the author, Ned Vizzini, was not so lucky.  After several years battling his depression and maintaining a successful career and family he tragically took his own life in December 2013.  Reality mirrors fiction.  I would like to think that Craig made it and found healing and peace even if his creator could not.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Storybook of Legends

The Storybook of Legends
Shannon Hale
Little Brown, 2013  304 pgs.
Grades 4-7
Fairy Tale/Fantasy/Humor
Ever After High series #1

Raven Queen enters her second year of Ever After High with a heavy heart.  This is the year that she must sign the "Storybook of Legends" and embrace her destiny to be the wicked witch in the Snow White fairy tale.  The problem is that Raven is not wicked and doesn't have the desire to be so.  Her best friend Maddie Hatter (daughter of the Mad Hatter of Alice fame) tries to console her, but Maddie is a little too wacky and scattered to be much help.  Popular Apple White (daughter of Snow White who will share Raven's story) chooses to room with Raven so they can get to know each other since their futures are entwined.  Raven begins to question the acceptance of her destiny.  Does she HAVE to sign the Storybook of Legends?  Will she disappear if she refuses to sign as headmaster Grimm has said?  How about her fellow story-mates?  Raven with the help of her friends does some digging into a past story where an evil character refuses to sign and then makes the decision of her life.  Raven's decision to sign and the aftermath conclude the book and lead the reader to the next installment in the Ever After High series: The Unfairest of Them All.

I wanted to hate this series.  Its pink and purple, expertly marketed, flew to the top of the children's best seller list and (gasp) has a doll for purchase component.  After dragging my heels for a year I finally buckled under the pressure and read the first installment of the Ever After High series.  I loved it!  The book stars characters from famous and not-so-famous fairy tales and classic children's books and places them in a modern setting.  Humor and puns abound with clever wording (ex: the characters "hex-message" each other).  The characters themselves are all true to the nature of their classic counterparts, but are unique to themselves.  Raven is clearly torn between following the "safe" route and doing what she thinks is right and choosing not to be evil.  The third person narrator becomes a character who is only heard by Maddie Hatter, adding further dimension to the book and humor. Following the great surge of mythology spin-offs thanks to Rick Riordan, I feel like fairy tales are the next big thing.  (Land of Stories by Colfer is currently one of my most popular series).  This was started by Michael Buckley with his Sister's Grimm series of a decade ago, but that series appeals more to Harry Potter/Lemony Snickett kids, who are sophisticated readers.  Ever After High is fantasy/fractured fairy tales for the masses.  The book's design, which initially put me off, is carefully done and appeals to today's visual youth.  Every page contains a colorful boarder with the feel of a magical book.  The website for the series is interesting, vast and has free games.  The link to purchasing the dolls is in small print at the top corner of the page and the marketing for the products is much subtler than the American Girls.  The books can be enjoyed without ever entering the site or knowing about the dolls. Ever After High is a fun series that may lead kids to the original fairy tales and will encourage reluctant readers to pick up a book.  It will visually appeal to kids, while still containing enough content to make the experience worth while.  My library owns three copies of all three titles in print and currently none are on the shelf, so the popularity of the series is proven, making them a choice for girls of all interests and reading levels.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Whipping Boy

The Whipping Boy
Sid Fleischman
Greenwillow, 1986  90 pgs.
Grades 3-5
Adventure/Historical Fiction

Prince Brat causes all sorts of mischief and mayhem in his castle home.  Whenever he misbehaves his father, the king, calls for "the whipping boy" to take his punishment.  Jemmy has been promoted out of the sewers and into this position.  As much as he enjoys the comforts of castle life, living with Prince Brat for company and the constant threat of an unearned whipping makes life miserable for him.  One night, out of sheer boredom, Prince Brat decides to run away and demands that Jemmy accompany him to carry the hamper. Not long after this adventure begins, the two runaways are captured by a pair of notorious outlaws: Hold-Your-Nose-Billy and Cutwater.  A case of mistaken identity leads to the outlaw's confusion of which boy is the prince and Prince Brat gets a whipping for the first time in his life.  After a narrow escape the boys meet a near-sighted potato man and a young girl with a dancing bear heading to the fair.  After another run-in with the outlaws and a narrow escape with the help of the bear, they travel with their new friends to the fair and enjoy being regular boys.  Unfortunately all is not over with the kidnappers, who manage to catch the boys again.  After a harrowing escapade in the sewers, where they must fight for their lives, the boys escape to freedom.  Its time to head back to the castle, but will Jemmy be accused of Prince Brat's kidnapping?  Will Prince Brat have the courage and loyalty to stand up for his new friend? What will become of the friends and enemies met along the way?  All is revealed by the end of this fast-moving and enjoyable story.

The Whipping Boy is one of my lower-elementary book group favorites.  I'm using it this month for maybe the fifth time in twenty years and it never fails to delight me.  The Whipping Boy in my opinion is what a good chapter book for children should be.  The writing is excellent, the setting distinct, the characters are interesting, the plot moves quickly, and lessons are subtly learned. The book itself is short with equally short chapters, wide margins, large print and superb illustrations by Peter Sis.  This book won the Newbery Award in 1987, which is unusual for a beginning chapter book.  It is a stand-alone book with no sequels or fomulaic writing, also unusual for books aimed at this age group.  This is clearly an adventure story set in the past (making it an acceptable choice for historical fiction book reports) but it also contains much witty humor.  A perfect choice for boys, though girls will like it too.  The runaways are old enough that the book is also a good choice for older reluctant or limited readers.  The Whipping Boy is a wonderful read-aloud in both length and language.  Themes include the value of friendship, the consequences of bratty behavior, questioning of the class system, and the importance of education.  The author's note at the end informs the reader that Whipping Boys really did exist in the olden days, giving legitimacy to the book and further food for thought.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Jellicoe Road

Jellicoe Road
Melina Marchetta
HarperTeen, 2008  432 pgs
Grades 9-Up
Realistic Fiction/Mystery

Seventeen-year-old Taylor has resided at an Australian boarding school since her mother abandoned her at a 7-Eleven six years before.  She has been promoted to the head of her house as well as that of the General of what is know as the "Territory Wars".  The Territory Wars have been going on for years between Taylor's school, the townies, and cadets from a military school's yearly encampment.  The current general of the Cadets is the boy that Taylor ran away with three years before and hasn't seen since.  Her former best friend appears to have a previous relationship with the head of the townies, further complicating relations.  While trying to manage her house and the war, Taylor also is dealing with the sudden disappearance of Hannah, her house's adult supervisor and the person she stays with during school breaks.  Taylor is determined to locate Hannah, while also battling the desire to find her long-lost mother.  While Taylor's story unfolds, a parallel story is also revealed; that of five teenage friends a generation before and the history of the inception of the Territory Wars.  What happened to the teenagers?  Where is Taylor's mother and Hannah?  Who is Taylor's father?  Is the Brigadier General who is always hanging about really the serial killer stalking their Australian countryside?  These and other questions will be answered by book's end when both stories come together and the parallel plots are resolved in a satisfactorily way.

I meant to read Jellicoe Road the year it won the Printz (2009), but never got around to it.  It seemed too long, I hated the cover and the description sounded confusing and boring.  Was I ever glad I finally picked it up. Its an amazing book!  The problem is: I don't know that its for teenagers.  The writing is descriptive and eloquent.  The plot is intense and multi-layered.  There are so many little threads to this book.  Somehow Marchetta manages to weave all those threads together and sew them up into a neat little package by the end of the 432 pages.  Even though the book is a little long for me, I didn't care.  I was never bored and had a hard time putting it down.  The trend in well written adult fiction these days is to have more than one story happening simultaneously, managing to come together by the end (ex. And the Mountains Echoed).  Jellicoe Road follows this trend and deservedly won the award for the best piece of teen fiction of the year.  As much as its a brilliant book, it is more of an adult book featuring teen characters.  I do not think most teenagers would have the patience to slog through the first one-hundred pages or so, which are confusing.  Its hard to know who is who and it took me a while to figure out that two stories from different times were happening simultaneously.  Taylor is extremely unlikable for the first half of the book, until we get to know her a bit better and the rural Australian setting may put off American teenagers.  The book is a tear-jerker, which teens love, but its a long way to get to the payoff.  The high school students I serve at my library, although bright and thoughtful, are over-worked and over-scheduled.  They are a bit impatient in their pleasure reading and will give up on a book that doesn't grab them in the first twenty pages.  This book can be appreciated by boys as well as girls, if you can convince them to get past the cover.  Criticisms aside, Jellicoe Road is well worth the time, if you have some to spare.