Saturday, December 03, 2016

Run, by Kody Keplinger

Agnes is legally blind, but as she's grown up, she's seen plenty.  And from a lifetime in rural Kentucky, she knows that she doesn't want to end up stuck here.  But she doesn't stand much of a chance of doing so as long as her parents keep treating her as an invalid.

Bo is the bad girl that everyone loves to gossip about from a family that everyone (including Agnes) avoids.  She is wild and free and Agnes can't help but idolize her.  Despite their disparate backgrounds, they bond.

When Bo's world collapses and she decides she has to run away, Agnes can't help but join her and the two girls hit the road, searching for Bo's estranged father.  In alternating chapters (Bo's in the present and Agnes's in retrospect), the two girls recall the story of how they met and formed their bond, and what they learned on the road.

This is less a sisters-on-the-road story and more character study of how these two young women found companionship and freedom together.  While it took me a while to warm to them, by the end I found myself heavily invested in their relationship and their emotional and spiritual journey together.  In striking contrast to my usual complaint about these sorts of books, I actually wished for less action as the drama often seemed to interfere with the more interesting back story.

Read Me Like A Book, by Liz Kessler

Ashleigh has never seen much point to school and she’s spent most of her energy trying to get out of doing any work.  With her parents separating, she’s even less engaged than normal.  But a young female teacher inspires her and awakens a love for literature in Ashleigh.  She finds herself caring about her homework which presages a turnaround in Ashleigh's life.  But is there something more behind her desire to please her teacher?

Ashleigh has far more questions than answers.  Kessler doesn't have much of a direction in her novel.  Instead, she basically lets Ashleigh stumble through bad relationships and friendships that run hot and cold, searching for something much more.  The fact that Ashleigh does in fact pull her life more or less together is what makes the story work.  Rather than achieve a true dramatic arc, we are presented with a slice in Ashleigh’s evolving life, watching her drift from one situation to another.  The result is something more of a character study than a story but Ashleigh's strength will inspire readers.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

P.S. I Like You, by Kasie West

Some YA romances can pack a punch, other are intended more for casual pool-side reading.  I don't shy away from the subgenre because of the surprise enjoyment of finding a hidden gem, but it's a troubled field of mixed quality.  Many of the more popular ones are unreadable by anyone over the age of consent, which suits the publishers and the targeted readers just fine.  Kasie West's latest falls somewhere in between.

Bored in chem class, Lily doodles the lyrics of her favorite song on her desk.  The next day she finds that someone has written a message back to her.  She writes more and the mystery writer reciprocates.  Before long, they have graduated to paper letters hidden on the underside of the desk, and chemistry has become a lot more interesting for Lily.  As hearts are opened and secrets spilled, Lily discovers she's attracted to the letter writer and wonders who he is.  She's secretly hoping it's the guy she's been crushing over, but she fears it isn't.  When she does find out who it is, she's initially shocked and offended, but gradually comes to see the letter writer in the person.

This isn't a novel suffering from subtlety.  One of my least favorite things about it is the way that the story is unnecessarily dragged out as Lily turns out to be the most clueless young person on the planet.  A hundred or more pages before she figures out the love of her life, we're already there and finishing our popcorn.  That can be cute (smiling as you think about how excited she'll be when she figures it out), but taken this far, it grows boring and annoying.

In a different vein, her family (and her siblings in particular) annoyed me as well, but here it's all on me.  Siblings are annoying and West does a wonderful job of portraying the love-hate world of a big family getting along.  Lily's something of a saint amongst them, which seemed a bit too precious to me, but it otherwise sounded authentic.

I'm mixed on the romance itself.  The enemies-becoming-friends thing has been done better.  The initial sparring seemed mean and the explanations of how it was just misunderstandings seemed too convenient.  Really, it felt like some adolescent version of "if he teases you, it's because he likes you" nonsense that I would hope that young people have long since rejected.  I just didn't like the guy and couldn't really see why she would like him.  That didn't make me hate the story, but it made the romance less interesting.  If you don't like the guy as well as the girl, it's pretty hard to sell the reader a romance.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Memory Book, by Lara Avery

Sammie's worked hard all her life to get good grades and a ticket out of her small Upstate New York town.  But when she is diagnosed with an incurable terminal disease that will strip her of her mind and bring on dementia, her plans get torn asunder.  Now just struggling to survive, she pours every memory she has into her laptop, creating "the memory book" which she hopes to use to record what she remembers while she still can.

That project becomes more than a place to download stories of her past.  It also serves to journal her slow descent into dementia, documenting in painful detail the way that her disease affects her friendships, family, and her loved ones.  In that context, the petty infighting and a potential love triangle that dominate her life will seem silly, but these things serve as a reminder that life does go on.

The novel is every bit as heart wrenching as you can imagine.  At times the story falters, but the material is powerful enough to move it along.  The weaknesses stem from the insurmountable issue of a heroine who gradually loses coherence as the story continues.  The tension between the personal emotional growth that Sammie experiences with her physical and cognitive degeneration is difficult to parse and occasionally fails.  In the end, it is really the side characters (her friends and family) who have to take over the story.  The reader is forced (along with her loved ones) to let go of her.  In the end, much of her story is unfinished -- which is a realistic (albeit unsatisfying) conclusion.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Never Missing Never Found, by Amanda Panitch

Kidnapped and forced to work as a slave for four years in a whorehouse, Scarlett has lived through hell.  Of all her traumas, the one that hangs with her the most is her memory of her companion Pixie who didn't make it out.

Years later, Scarlett thinks she has moved on.  But when a young woman at her new job in an amusement park goes missing, Scarlett is forced to re-live these memories.  And as the events unfold, she finds that the woman's disappearance is hardly coincidental.  A face from the past has returned to haunt her.  Subplots involving a love triangle and rivalries between Scarlett and her sister complicate the picture.

It pretty much all comes together in the end, but for most of the read I struggled to link it all (and it took some pretty major plot twists to get to that point!).  The twists are a bit improbable and so I'm not sure I liked where we ended up, but it is a sufficiently creepy (and depressing) ending. Probably better enjoyed by the targeted young and mopey.

Friday, November 11, 2016

How It Ends, by Catherine Lo

Shy Jessie and outgoing Annie seem opposite types, but they are drawn to each other for different (and largely unspoken) reasons.  Jessie needs Annie's strength to survive the bullying at school and a smothering mother who aggravate her panic attacks.  Annie's confidence belies the loneliness she feels living with a stepmother and a largely distracted father.  And she longs for the close family world of Jessie's home.

When Annie befriends Jessie's tormentors, the two girls are driven apart and these unspoken agendas aggravate the division.  Jealousies and betrayals ensue, which are lent drama by being told in alternating narratives.

A relationship story, this is quintessential chick lit, but I still enjoyed it.  It veers about a bit and there are some loose ends (the girls' relationships with their mother/stepmothers and Jessie's abuse of prescription sedatives, in particular) that I would have liked to seen reach some sort of closure.  There's also an abortion clinic scene that, while powerful and interesting, felt a bit tacked on to the story.

I was happiest when the girls were just talking with each other.  Their conversations felt real and the relationship complex and authentic.  Lo has a very good sense for how friendships work and the way that people give and take.  I also found that Lo's description of  Jessie's panic attacks resonated with me quite vividly.  Overall, this is an insightful and enjoyable read.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Once Confronted, by Lynne Stringer

After Madison and her coworker Evan are robbed and assaulted at work, they respond in dramatically different ways.  She retreats and grows fearful, avoiding strangers and dark places.  He becomes angry and belligerent.  But with time, Madison heals and finds the courage to confront her assailant.  Evan rejects that approach and slips deeper into darkness.

An interesting tale with a big heart and an eye for the roots of societal ills, I enjoyed the story.  The biggest distraction for me was the writing itself.  Stringer's background is in journalism and the writing here is very direct and to the point.  While a fairly slim book, there's a lot of action here and a great deal of things happen to the characters.  What we don't see much of is how they feel about those things.  Madison goes through some major changes and we are told that she is upset, angry, sad, and ultimately happy, but we don't see much of her psyche.  The characters, while varied and interesting, lack depth in general, making it hard to empathize with them.  I liked them, but I didn't feel for them.

[Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  No other compensation was involved.]

We Were Never Here, by Jennifer Gilmore

During summer camp, Lizzie finds herself struck down by intense pain, which is diagnosed as ulcerative colitis.  Soon, she's in the hospital and facing surgery. Scared and afraid, she finds comfort from a hospital volunteer named Connor and his dog, Verlaine.  He helps her through the ordeal and she falls in love with him.  It is a surprise when she finds that he likes her just as much.

But as she recovers from her ordeal, she finds that Connor has even darker challenges of his own.  And their relationship, far from being a source of happiness for her, becomes nearly as destructive as it is healing.

While the story wraps up nicely, it meandered too much for my tastes, introducing new characters at regular intervals (seemingly simply to give Gilmore something to write about).  There's the relationship with Connor, but also a sister, two very different friends, several animal adoptions, and a little dating with another boy on the side.  I was hard pressed to figure out the connection between all of this and it never quite comes together.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

I wanted to take a break from heavy teen books and pick up a middle reader for something light.  Unfortunately, I picked poorly....

Carley comes to stay at the Murphy's home as a temporary placement.  Her mother is in the hospital and Carley herself is pretty beat up.  But the damage to Carley is more on the inside than the bruises on her arms that she hides away.  When her stepfather came after her, it was her mother that betrayed her.  Now, Carley trusts no one.  None of which stops Mrs. Murphy's efforts to reach out to her new foster child.

For every effort that Carley makes to resist Mrs. Murphy's outreach, the woman responds with kindness and patience.  Carley can't believe that anyone would act this way and she responds with distrust and anger.  But over time, she eventually opens herself to the possibility that love can actually exist and that she actually deserves to experience it.

A heart wrenching story about learning to love again after betrayal.  As a story of this nature requires to be successful, the characters are strong and vivid.  Their development and growth vivid and meaningful.  The relationship between Carley and her foster mother is nuanced and complex.  The one with her biological mother even more so. 

I loved the story, but it's a very painful read and the ending left me angry (even as I admitted to myself that it was the only plausible one out there).  The themes and their treatment are surprisingly mature for the target age range and the thematic material strikes me as not necessarily being appropriate, but I would suppose it would depend on the reader.

Maybe I can find a nice light dystopian to read next?