Friday, December 30, 2011

The Kick-Butt Girl Sleuth in 2011: A Rare Fictional Creature

I'm a huge fan of mystery novels.  I read my first Nancy Drew in 4th grade; once I had exhausted that all local libraries' supplies of that eternal series, I moved on to Agatha Christie and Martha Grimes.  But while I love these more complex mysteries (with murder and mayhem included), I missed seeing a teenage girl as the investigator.  There were a few short-lived possibilities on television (anyone remember The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo?) but nothing really caught on.  Then Veronica Mars was born.  Although the show struggled to last even three seasons (and the last two seasons hit some bumps), Veronica Mars stands out as one of the few recent attempts to create a true teen girl sleuth for the 21st century.  And I for one was absolutely thrilled.  I loved the show and love Veronica even more.  She was a great female protagonist, complex, conflicted, angry, vulnerable, brave, sexy, and flawed.  And she was a great detective.

In my library's most recent book orders, there have been a few young adult novels that heavily incorporate a mystery and an investigation of that mystery by the female protagonist.  In my constant search for the next literary Veronica Mars, I read each of them--but was generally a little disappointed.

The first mystery that I snagged after cataloguing was Rosebush by Michele Jaffe.  As it's striking cover demonstrates, this particular novel kicks off with a dramatic and mystery image: a few blocks away from a big Memorial Weekend party, popular and pretty Jane is found tangled and unconscious in a rosebush, the apparently the victim of hit and run.  As Jane, lying paralyzed in the hospital, attempts to regain her memories of the accident, she begins to understand that the truth--about that night, her friends, her boyfriend, and her past--is much more complicated than she thought.  And soon it appears that Jane's accident wasn't an accident at all and everyone in her life is a suspect.  Now Jane must unravel the mysteries surrounding her before the killer strikes again.  While this novel had a promising premise and great opening image, it was a disappointing reading experience for me.  The slow revelations of complexities through flashbacks and the inside view of the pretty, popular clique of girls reminded me a bit of Lauren Oliver's Before I Fall and the setting among the seamy underside of the rich and privileged was reminiscent of Veronica Mars. But frankly, Jane is a less interesting character than either Sam or Veronica and the mystery here has almost too many twists and turns to remain believable.  So while I think that Rosebush might be a hit with some of my younger teens who like mysteries featuring the dark side of rich, pretty, and popular cliques, I was left unsatisfied in my quest for a solid teen girl detective.

Next, I snagged our new copy of The Liar Society, a debut novel written by Lisa and Laura Roecker.  When Kate gets an email from her best friend Grace, she's shocked and deeply confused--because Grace died a few months ago in a mysterious fire.  But when the messages begin to imply that Grace's death was not merely a tragic accident but the result of the tangled conspiracy of secrets filling the hallowed halls of their elite private school, Kate plunges into a dangerous investigation with the help of two new allies: her nerdy neighbor and the cute bad boy from school.  Firstly, this novel came much closer to the kind of teen mystery novel I was craving.  Kate is much more likable protagonist than Jane and a more effective detective.  The mystery was exciting and built well as more and more secrets and clues were revealed as the plot progressed.  I'm also a big sucker for secret society tales and this novel fits that bill very nicely.  Overall, it was a well-paced and fun mystery; The Liar Society reminded me a bit of both Veronica Mars and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, although it didn't quite reach the level of complexity of either.

The last recently release young adult mystery featuring a teen girl sleuth I read this fall was my favorite, although it might be the most challenging to sell initially to teen readers.  The Girl Is Murder is delightful historical mystery by Kathryn Haines Miller set in 1942 New York City featuring plenty of juicy historical details, a solid mystery, and a determined young female detective.  15 year old Iris Anderson never used to lie--not about big things anyway.  Then her mother's suicide and her father's return from war missing a leg changed everything.  Suddenly, Iris has left her comfortable private school life far behind and entered the very different world of the Lower East Side, where she starts at a public school while her Pop struggles to get his private investigation business going again.  Money is tight and Iris knows that Pop could use her help--even if he doesn't know it yet.  So when his newest case involves a boy from Iris's school, she decides to do some investigating of her own.  Suddenly Iris is lying all the time, inventing identities and excuses as she tails her former private school classmates and sneaks out to Harlem club to dance until 3am.  Iris is a stubborn and smart young detective; she makes mistakes of inexperience and arrogance but overall she proves her skills as an beginning investigator.   The historical setting is solidly fleshed out with everything from slang to fashion to cultural tensions.  However, while both the mystery and the characters' developments are clearly tied to the time period, they remain interesting for a modern audience.  Iris is a great candidate to join the ranks of Nancy and Veronica and I hope Kathryn Miller Haines brings her back in at least one sequel so we can watch her investigative skills grow.

Here's hoping that 2012 brings us a new crop of teen mysteries and kick-butt girl sleuths!

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Kitchen Interlude: Sugar Cookie Bars

As a new librarian working with teens, I have been reading constantly to keep up with booktalks, book reviews, and general reader's advisory.  I have also been baking on a nearly weekly basis.  As my blog title and username might indicate, I have both a big sweet tooth and a huge love of baking.  And since I fully believe in the power of baked good bribery, my job has given the ideal opportunity to bake a lot and then get the yummy results out my apartment as quickly as possible (thus saving me from myself).

I run our middle school book club that meets a few times a month and I, of course, provide homemade goodies at each meeting.  We had a meeting scheduled for this Tuesday and since I was traveling all day Sunday, I needed something I could make quickly and easily with minimal shopping Monday evening after work.  Cookie bars immediately sprung to mind and after surfing around on that most beautiful of time-wasters, Foodgawker, I discovered several similar versions of these basic sugar cookie bars.  And they turned out to be the perfect last minute treats!

Sugar Cookie Bars with Basic Buttercream Frosting
Cookie Bars
1 cup butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
5 cups flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
*based on recipes and directions from Une Gamine dans la Cuisine & lisa is cooking 

1.) preheat the oven to 315 degrees F and grease either a 13 x 18 jelly roll pan OR an approximately 10 x 15 cookie sheet with raised edges.  I used a cookie sheet with raised edges and it worked just fine.

2.) In one large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

3.) In a different large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until fluffy.  Then add the eggs one at a time, beating the batter after each egg.

4.) Add the vanilla and mix in.

5.) Add the flour mixture into this batter.  I find that it works best to add the flour mixture in small increments (such as a 1/2 cup or so at a time), mixing after each addition.

6.) Spread dough on the pan, making it as even as possible.

7.) Bake for about 10-15 minutes until a toothpick (or knife or cake-taster) come out of the center clean.  If you're not sure, don't be afraid to pop it back in the oven for a few minutes longer; I was worried about the edges burning so I took the tray out a tad earlier and the upper part of the center pieces was a little doughy.

8.) Cool completely before frosting

Basic Buttercream Frosting
1 lb. confectionary sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3-4 tbsp. milk

1.) Mix butter, sugar, and vanilla together until well blended.

2.) Add 2 tbsp. of milk and mix.

3.) Add another tbsp. of milk and mix.

4.) Add a fourth tbsp. of milk only if needed texturally.

5.) Dye the frosting with food coloring if you wish!

These cookie bars were both simple to create and delicious to eat, making them an ideal party treat! 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I work at an independent girls' school in the library that serves the 7-12 graders and some of the most popular books are exciting fantasy novels with interesting and strong heroines.  This specific sub-category of books encompasses several key authors, such as Tamora Pierce (the Tortall sequences and the Magic Circle series), Kristen Cashore (Graceling, Fire), Garth Nix (the Abhorsen trilogy), Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games trilogy), and Robin McKinley (The Blue SwordThe Hero and the Crown).  Because I have a few very voracious readers who especially love these kinds of books and keep appearing at my desk requesting recommendations,  I am always looking for new fantasies with kick-butt heroines!  When I read the summary for Rae Carson's debut novel, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, I was interested and hopeful that I had found another book to give to lovers of Tamora Pierce's and Kristen Cashore's adventures.  And once I started reading, I was delighted to see that my instincts were right!

Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza is the chosen one--the bearer of the Godstone and marked for special and sacred service.  But Elisa is also the younger, less attractive, and more ignored of two princesses.  She can't imagine ever doing anything remarkable.  Then, on her sixteenth birthday, Elisa becomes the secret wife of a handsome king who is desperate for the political aid and unknown power that Elisa can bring to his tumultuous nation.  Now Elisa, who is more comfortable reading religious texts in the library or snacking on pastries in the kitchen, must enter into a new court as her husband's secret ally.  The kingdom is on the verge of war and leaders on all sides are very interested in the mystical bearer of the sacred Godstone--including a daring young revolutionary convinced that Elisa can save his people.  Soon Elisa has left her sheltered life far behind as she enters into a dangerous adventure full of political intrigue and magical battles.   But in order to save a nation and its people, Elisa must learn to understand and use the power deep within herself, risking her life and her heart in process.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns brings us into a rich, new magical world with fully developed cultures and religion.  Unlike many other fantasy adventures, this world appears to be physically and culturally inspired by Spanish and Mediterraean societies.  Elisa is a wonderful protagonist, whose unique strengths grow and develop visibly as the story enfolds.  She is highly intelligent and is a both a skilled military stratagist and a perceptive religious scholar.  When the novel begins, she lacks a great deal of self-confidence and has spent much of her life doing very little physical activity and eating when upset or nervous.  However, when forced into strenuous physical activity by necessity, Elisa grits her teeth and refuses to give up;  as a result, she gains better health, new survival skills, and a more positive attitude towards her body and her abilities. 

In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Carson creates an action-packed story filled with three-dimensional characters and uniquely interesting settings.  This novel is definite must-read for fans of Tamora Pierce, Kristin Cashore, and Robin McKinley!