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I began many challenges in 2008, but, as I suck at challenges, I did not complete most of them, though I tried. 

First up, The 2k8 Challenge! By my (probably inaccurate) count,  I was ten books away from finishing this one; I read 18 YA debuts. Check out my list here

The Read For Your Dreams Challenge, also started by me, was a success! And, okay, I had to stretch a little to include some of these, but I did read ten books about or including significant amounts of travel. My list is here. I also want to give a shout out to Cafe Shree, who finished the challenge by reading about photography!

Let us not even speak of the failure that was The Printz Award Challenge. Not one book read.

I also tried the First in a Series Challenge. By my count, this was a success! However, the rules state that the “series” must be at least a trilogy, and I’m not entirely sure all of these are slated to have at least three books. 

The Short Story Reading Challenge was a failure. I read some books, yes, but not enough to complete the challenge.

I really don’t know about The Chunkster Challenge. I suspect I completed this one, but I don’t really want to go and look up the page numbers of the books I read and figure out what I read in what quarter.

I only finished three of my eight categories in the Triple 8 Challenge

I give up. Challenges are not for me, though I like the idea of them, and I do not plan in participating in any in 2009. 

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I loved the first two books in this fabulous series, Secret Society Girl and Under The Rose, and also quite enjoyed Rites of Spring (Break), though I’m not sure that it’s quite as good as the first two (but my love of Secret Society Girl in particular would be difficult to match!). In this book, Amy will be spending some of her spring break on her secret society’s private island, along with some of the other past and present members of Rose & Grave. Many of the delightful and colorful cast of characters from the previous two novels return in this installment, including my favorites, Poe and Malcolm. Amy is having some relationship troubles, with Brandon, an ex who currently has a girlfriend but is spending suspicious amounts of time with Amy, and with a new fling as well. She is also being subjected to vicious pranks by a rival secret society, dealing with intra-society dynamics, the disgrace of a Rose & Grave patriarch, possible invaders on the island, and everything else that goes with being a member of one of the most untraditional clubs of one of the most notorious secret societies at Eli University.

I loved every second of the time I spent reading this book! Diana Peterfreund has a way with words that will have you spending hours devouring this novel when you only meant to read a chapter or two. I love all of the interesting characters present in this book, although there were some who I wished were a little more present, and, really, Rites of Spring (Break) has so much awesomeness in it that you can’t help but love the book. There’s romance, secret society rivalry, mysteries, a vicious prankster, a private island, conspiracy theorists–basically, everything you need for a delightfully fun pageturner. I love Amy’s voice, too, funny and smart and witty and just awesome. If you’re a fan of the first two books, you’ve got to read this one, and if you haven’t read those, then what are you waiting for? Go get them, now! Rites of Spring (Break) will be out in June.

Princess Ben is a departure from Catherine Gilbert Murdock‘s previous books, Dairy Queen and its sequel The Off Season, and it is quite a wonderful book! In this book, the author proves herself to be versatile as well as extraordinarily talented.

Princess Benevolence of Montagne is no ordinary princess. She has lived her life free of the constraints of things such as court etiquette, residing outside the castle proper with her parents who let her run wild, playing outdoors with girls from the village, and devouring fairy tales and her mother’s cooking.

Ben’s life is happy and uneventful, for the most part, until one fateful, dreadful day. Both Ben’s mother and the king have been killed, by assassins from the rival kingdom of Drachensbett, it is believed, and her father has vanished on the icy slopes of Ancienne, the mysterious and impassable peak that rises over the valley that is the kingdom of Montagne.

This tragedy leaves Ben under the control of Queen Sophia, at least until Ben reaches her majority and can properly take her place as ruler of Montagne. Sophia moves Ben into the castle and controls her every movement, not even letting her eat properly, in an attempt to turn the princess’s rather rotund figure into a more slender one. Ben is forced to learn embroidery, horsemanship, music, dance–all sorts of things at which she fails miserable. However, when she is locked in the castle’s highest tower, Ben does attempt to master one new skill: magic. She finds a secret passageway to a secret room at the top of the tower, a room which provides the tools she needs to become a sorceress of sorts. Perhaps those legends of wizards back when Montagne first came to be had a basis in fact, and Ben, as a descendant of theirs, is taking the tradition back up again in secret.

With her complete lack of grace or skill with a needle, but with a secret magical education, can Princess Ben free herself and save her kingdom from destruction or defeat?

I quite enjoyed this captivating new fairy tale, with its little references to the tales we know and love that made me grin. See if you can spot them! Ben is a wonderful princess, one who needs no prince to rescue her. I loved her even more because she didn’t care about her weight, and realized how many things in the world are more important than appearance. My pet peeve, though? When book characters claim not to care about weight and then lose some weight all the same. Sadly, Princess Ben does not escape this. That is a minor flaw, though, and overall I really loved this book. There is romance (although that is a bit hurried for my taste), adventure, magic, and an independent heroine who takes charge of her own life. Ben really grows as a character, and that was an aspect of the book that I really enjoyed. Princess Ben is written in a style that really fits the story–a bit old-fashioned and fantastical, as well as witty and intelligent. Catherine Murdock really has a way with words, and Ben’s distinct voice makes this story even more of a pleasure to read. Ben is not the only complex, interesting character, though; there were many characters I enjoyed, and the relationships between them were well-done as well. In short, Princess Ben is an extraordinarily well-written novel with all of the elements that make for an enchanting story I couldn’t put down!

This is a spoiler-free review! As Meg Cabot requested on her blog, I certainly do not intend to reveal anything that might ruin it for you, but I do want to share some of my thoughts on Airhead.

Emerson Watts is a video-game-playing tomboy, a loner at a school full of those she and her best friend, Christopher, have dubbed the Walking Dead. Christopher seems to be Em’s only friend, but she likes it that way, for the most part; she just secretly wishes that perhaps he could be something more than a friend.

What seems like an annoying but relatively routine trip to the opening of a new Stark Megastore in her neighborhood, an event at which Christopher and Em are chaperoning Em’s annoying little sister, turns out to be far more important in Em’s life than anyone could have predicted. In fact, it changes her entire existence, but that’s all I feel comfortable sharing with you at the moment–you’ll just have to wait for the book to find out what happens there!

Airhead is definitely one of my favorite Meg Cabot books, and she’s written some really fantastic ones. I loved the characters, the whole premise of the novel, and, of course, Meg’s funny, distinctive writing style. Meg Cabot fans will adore this book, but so will those who aren’t necessarily fans; I gave this to a friend of mine when she had nothing else to read on a school trip, and she quite enjoyed it, even though she usually only reads fantasy! I’d say that says a lot about the awesomeness of this book, and hopefully has convinced you to preorder it (the book will be out 1 June). Like many of Meg Cabot’s books, this is a fun and entertaining read, but also a smart, and at times thoughtful, novel. I’m really excited for this book, and already can’t wait for the next book in the series! It’s not quite a cliffhanger, but the end does leave the reader itching to know what happens next. But first, you have to read what happens to set off the whole series, and for that, you’d better mark 1 June on your calendar!

Almost Fabulous is Michelle Radford‘s first YA novel, and I certainly hope it’s not her last. It was such a fun read! I read it while sick in bed, and it was the perfect book to keep me completely interested and distracted from my various ailments, not bored for a second, but it also did not hurt my already throbbing brain. Which is great even if you’re not sick (which I hope you’re not; it sucks).

Ahem. I digress. Almost Fabulous stars Fiona Blount, a fourteen-year-old girl living in London with her mother, a former pop star and currently a major music producer. When she was younger, Fiona’s mum used to travel around with her band, the Bliss Babes, and Fiona has lived in various countries and started over so many times that she’s perfected the art of Total Anonymity. They’re staying in London now, which Fiona is happy about because she does not enjoy change, to say the least, but Fiona, now with her best friend, Gina, is still content to lay low and not attract attention from the school bully, Melissa.

Some of Fiona’s problems are typical fourteen-year-old girl problems; some are not. She’s got a crush on a fantastic guy, Joe, who happens to be dating the mean girl and school bully, Melissa. Her mother might just ruin her life (if anyone finds out who Fiona’s mum really is, Total Anonymity will be difficult). Melissa might ruin her life. The new girl, Peaceflower, stands out far too much for comfort and has attached herself to Fiona and Gina. Fiona is also searching for her long-lost father, William Brown (a common name doesn’t make it any easier). And to make it even worse? She might have superpowers. Or possibly a brain tumor.

Although I do tend to find all-powerful and totally evil popular girls in teen novels a little unrealistic, because I don’t think anyone is really that powerful or that evil (but maybe I’m just lucky enough not to have experienced that), it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of this book. Almost Fabulous is completely fabulous and entertaining and hilarious! I loved the characters. I loved the London setting (I love London, actually). I loved the music aspect, the superpower aspect–well, the whole book is just pretty fantastic and fun. It’s not a seriously deep-thinking read, but my brain certainly didn’t deteriorate as I read it, either. Somewhere in between, which is just what I need a lot of the time! I really loved this book, and I would love to read more about Fiona in the future.

Daphne Grab is a member of The Longstockings blog and The Class of 2k8. Alive and Well in Prague, New York is her impressive debut novel about Matisse Osgood, a New York City girl through and through who has to move with her parents to Prague, a small town in upstate New York about four hours away from the city. Matisse loves the city, and that, along with her bitterness about having to leave her world of art galleries and foreign restaurants and everything she loves, makes her seem to be a bit of a snob at first. Matisse has a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude; in her opinion, city people (herself included) are cultured and artistic and mature and intelligent, and the residents of Prague are backward hicks. The name of the town, in Matisse’s opinion, is a cruel joke.

However, Matisse’s attitude can be forgiven, a bit, when readers discover the real reason she and her artist parents left the city. Her father, a rather famous sculptor, has Parkinson’s Disease, or PD. He can’t sculpt anymore; he can hardly function even with the help of all his medications. Matisse can’t deal with that, and she doesn’t want anyone in Prague to find out. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the huge pity party that she left behind in the city. Matisse has a lot to deal with; she may be a pain and a snob at first, but there’s a real reason she’s acting that way. She’s refusing to deal with what’s really bothering her (her father).

Soon, though, despite her attitude, she begins to make some friends. Violet, a loner who writes poetry and sits by herself with a book at lunchtime, for one. Maybe even Hal, her next-door-neighbor who Matisse at first writes off as a complete hick, and Marco, who at first just seems like a shallow stereotype of a jock. Despite alienating her best friend in New York, maybe Matisse isn’t as alone as she thought.

I quite enjoyed Daphne Grab’s debut. Matisse is a realistic character, especially in terms of the way she handles (or rather, doesn’t handle) her father’s illness. Matisse’s character development is right on. Alive and Well in Prague, New York is an engaging, interesting story, and solidly well-written. I loved Daphne Grab’s portrayal of small-town life, and it’s pretty accurate (though I don’t live in such a tiny town, the community where I live is a lot like Prague, New York in some ways. And, yeah, I’ve been on a hayride!). I put this book down feeling quite satisfied, and I look forward to Daphne Grab’s future efforts. This book will be released on June 3.

Violet by Design is Melissa Walker‘s second book about small-town-girl-turned-supermodel Violet Greenfield, and it’s just as great as Violet on the Runway. In this book, Violet has decided to return to the modeling business and she’s off to work the Sao Paolo runways. That’s right–Brazil! Violet is on her way to becoming an international star.

Of course, there was a reason she left it behind before. Modeling certainly has its ups and downs. Sure, she gets to travel to exotic places–but she also gets called “la gordita” (little fat girl) for not being afraid to gain five pounds and be normal-girl-skinny instead of anorexic-looking.  She’s in the tabloids, and anything she says can and will be used against her. Is the life of an international supermodel really worth leaving all of her friends and family at home behind to deal with so much pressure and superficiality?

On top of all of that, she’s got the typical teenage girl worries about her future, her romantic prospects, her friends, staying true to herself, and, like any recent high school graduate, balancing new with old. What’s a girl to do?

Yes, this is a book about modeling. But, as with Melissa Walker’s debut novel, it’s about so much more than that! It’s about life and friends and family and romance and knowing who you are and blindly feeling your way through an uncertain future the way we all do at some point.

As you can probably guess, I was pretty disgusted with the way already-super-skinny  Violet was always being pressured to lose five pounds, but that doesn’t detract from this book because Melissa Walker knows what she’s talking about when she writes about the fashion industry, and I do believe this is true-to-life. It’s not the book that horrifies me; it’s the truth of it, of the fashion industry, of that horrible negative body image that so many girls get from it. It’s relatively minor here–five pounds. But many girls are dozens or hundreds of pounds above the “ideal” weight in the fashion industry, and there’s nothing wrong with those girls. There is, however, something wrong with the fashion industry.

PSA over for the moment. Violet by Design  is an honest, funny, thoughtful, and intelligent book about one girl’s struggle to figure out who she is and stay true to herself despite the temptations to be someone else (like international superstardom and money and free stuff and exotic travel in this case, but there can be so many things that threaten us in that way).  I love Melissa Walker’s characters, and she is quite a talented writer. I can’t wait for the third book in the series, Violet in Private.

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