Saturday, February 16, 2019

Mike, by Andrew Norriss

Floyd is an up and coming tennis star on the youth circuit.  But he's haunted by a boy named Mike that only he can see.  Mike is more than a casual hallucination to Floyd.  He's starting to literally interfere with Floyd's ability to play.  And when a sports psychologist suggests that Mike might be trying to tell Floyd something, Floyd gives in and starts to listen.  The message he hears will utterly change Floyd's life.

For a story largely about how the subconscious influences people, Norriss's storytelling is surprisingly free of emotions or feelings.  It's a decent adventure, but largely told in a passive voice that sounds stiff and cold.  Even the romance is told with clinical precision, as just something that happens.  As for drama, suspense is largely lacking.  In the end, it felt like I was reading a biographical entry in an encyclopedia.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th.]

Friday, February 15, 2019

The War Outside, by Monica Hesse

A historical novel is most satisfying when it either addresses some familiar event in a new way or finds an event that is largely unknown and brings it to life.  This novel falls into the latter category.  While the internment camps that West Coast Japanese were sent to during WWII are pretty well publicized, the camps for enemy aliens are less well known.  And the idea that a camp existed in Texas where both Japanese and Germans were imprisoned (with their families) for crimes that were never proven in court is an eye-opener!

Haruko doesn't understand why her father was arrested.  He refuses to even discuss the matter with her.  But when he is sent to the Crystal City camp in Texas, her family decides to follow him.

On their arrival, she notices Margot, a German-American girl who has already been in the camp for months.  Her father's "crime" (attending a Nazi meeting as a favor for a friend) is better understood, but she faces different problems.  Margot's mother is having a difficult pregnancy amidst primitive medical facilities.  And her father struggles with boredom and the temptation to join with the camp's Nazi sympathizers to pass idle time -- an idea that horrifies Margot and her mother.  In the midst of this madness, Haruku and Margot form a friendship that attempts to reach across the racism and prejudice of the time.  But in the end, they fall victim to a tragic series of events.

This moving (and horrific story) combines strong characters and extraordinary circumstances to create a real page-turner.  The ending is haunting and unforgettable and it is a truly astounding work.  Historical notes at the end discuss which parts of the story are fictional and which are based on facts.  A surprising amount of the story falls into the latter category.

The Last to Let Go, by Amber Smith

When Brooke sees police cars outside their home, she’s convinced that her abusive father has finally killed Mom.  Violence has become so routine in their house, that it wouldn't come as a surprise.  She is shocked to find that instead it is her mother who has killed her dad.  Not that the aftermath is much different.  Her mother is locked up and the kids have to muddle through without either parent as the case goes to trial.  Brooke, as the middle child, takes the brunt of the worry and care for keeping the remains of the family together.

This was supposed to be a special year for Brooke – starting at a new school and taking a slew of advanced classes -- but as her family falls apart, all of these things seem unimportant.  Tangled up in this mess is the way that her feelings for a new supportive friend may (or may not) be sexual and dealing with that awareness seems too much to take on top of everything else.

In many ways, Brooke is the type of character I hate – self-pitying, lying, and too proud to accept help – but for reasons I can’t fully articulate, I cared about her enough to want to read her story.  Some of that is due to the extraordinary circumstances of the story itself.  But I think there is an element of grit to her that I respected.  And maybe also a desire to see her triumph in the end. I was thus disappointed when the story neatly resolves without dwelling on steps involved in reaching that resolution.  It was an awful lot of build up for a wave-of-the-hand solution!  

Friday, February 08, 2019

Drum Roll, Please, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Melly gets called "mouse" by her friends and family because she is usually so shy and quiet.  But put her behind a drum set, and she can become quite loud.  Her best friend Olivia talks her into going with her to rock band camp during the summer.

It starts off inauspiciously as Melly's parents, on the night before camp starts, announce that they have decided to get a divorce.  Things grow steadily worse as she and Olivia are separated at camp and Melly ends up assigned to a wildly incompatible group to play with.  Worst of all, Olivia has fallen for a guy in her group and doesn't have time to spend together anymore, just as Melly needs her friend most!

Alone and lonely, Melly learns to make new friends and makes a few self-discoveries along the way.  With the help of a band mate, the independent Adeline, Melly makes tentative steps towards standing up for herself and working out how to be both a good friend and good to herself.  In the end, she also builds a better understanding of how to deal with her parents and changing family.

A pleasant and fulfilling middle reader that addresses a variety of interpersonal relationship issues in a realistic fashion.  This includes not only friendship and family, but also Melly's nascent sexual orientation -- a subject that it handles sensitively and age-appropriately.  Placed by Bigelow within the context of how feelings between even boys and girls are so undeveloped at this point, Melly and Adeline's exploration of their feelings for each other feels similarly tentative. These are kids for whom holding hands and kissing are still wondrous (and scary). Bigelow captures that innocence respectfully.

The Opposite of Innocent, by Sonya Sones

When Lily was a little girl, she announced to her father’s best friend Luke that she wanted to marry him.  Luke promised her that he would wait for her and everyone had a good laugh.  Years later, Luke comes back for an extended stay with her family.  Now a teen, Lily finds that she likes him, obsessively in fact.  And when he reciprocates her affection, she’s thrilled.  But the fifteen-year gap in their ages is only the beginning of their troubles.  Lily quickly finds that Luke’s interest in her is not the sweet romantic fantasy she has in mind, but something darker.  And when she attempts to break it off, he threatens and coerces her.

While novels in verse are more frequently misses than hits, Sones is an outlier in the genre, producing really powerful novels that combine strong verse and vibrant topics.  As the genre is prone to, she can be melodramatic (and more so with a topic like this where the “ick” factor is quite high).  But the novel is blessed by well-written verses (several of which could easily have stood on their own).

The story is not in itself original, but I liked the characters and appreciated the major role she gave to Lily’s friends (who could have easily been throwaway roles).  The plot is dragged out a bit by making Lily particularly resistant to seeking out the help she is offered early on – a decision that Sones herself feels compelled to criticize in the book’s afterward.  I so wish that authors would find a better way to meet their contractual length requirements than having their protagonists make bad decisions!

Friday, February 01, 2019

Finding Yvonne, by Brandy Colbert

As Yvonne enters her last year of high school, she is losing her enchantment with playing violin.  Up to now, she’s assumed she would go to a conservatory.  But after her teacher drops her, it just doesn’t seem worth the trouble.  Then she meets a street musician named Omar who really believes in her and who inspires her with his own playing and with his casual bohemian lifestyle.

But this isn't the only option she has.  Accidentally, she discovers that she has some serious baking talent.  Her father (a professional chef) and his mentor think she should become a pastry chef.  The idea of following into the same sort of work as her Dad had never occurred to her, but it doesn't seem like a terrible option.

Career is not the only thing that Yvonne is struggling with.  Omar isn’t the only guy on her mind and her long-standing friendship with Warren, her father’s sous chef, is starting to heat up.  Juggling the two guys seems OK as long as they are just friends.  But Warren wants to take it to the next level and things with Omar have moved beyond friendship.  And then events intervene that force Yvonne to make some difficult choices.  

I was doing pretty well with this breezy but thoughtful exploration of a young woman’s struggle to discover herself.  There were a few melodramas (a missing mother, some baggage with Warren, etc.) but Yvonne is a great character who stands up for herself and makes all the right statements.  I imagined her coming up with a cool decision at the end that would resolve her dilemma.  But then Colbert throws in the aforementioned crisis out of the blue that amps the story and makes her character more symbolic (and subsequently less interesting).  The twist largely ditches the original story and opens the narrative up to a polemic that sidetracks her character.  The ending is not bad but so much of what the story was building up to is lost.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Outwalkers, by Fiona Shaw

In the near future, England and Wales are ruled by the Coalition – a totalitarian government that monitors its population with tracking chips implanted in the neck.  While the details are fuzzy, it was the double threat of terrorism and a virus allegedly originated in the countryside that drove people to accept the Coalition's rule.  An impenetrable wall now separates England and Scotland, ostensibly to keep the Scots out, but actually to keep the English in.  And in a twist of reality, the Channel is heavily patrolled to keep people from making illegal crossings to Calais.

Jake is an orphan, condemned to a Home Academy after his parents -- scientists working on a cure for the virus -- perish in a suspicious car accident.  Separated from his beloved dog, Jake executes a daring escape.  The story then becomes a non-stop adventure careening from one danger to another as Jake, his dog, and a gang of outcast children (“Outwalkers”) relentlessly head north in an attempt to cross the border.

The pace in this dystopian action adventure never lets up.  And while this is an ensemble piece with a variety of distinct and well-defined characters, we don’t spend much time on the human element.  For me, the non-stop action and lack of real character building was simply exhausting (and why I also don’t watch superhero movies either).  There are hints of romance and a certain amount of bonding between the characters, but the story is basically just a jumping back and forth through different crises.  The ideas, while colorful, are not terribly original and the story breaks little new ground.

[Disclaimer:  I received an Advance Review Copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th]

Monday, January 21, 2019

Beautiful Broken Hearts, by Kami Garcia

When Peyton discovers that her MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter boyfriend Reed is illegally taking steroids to give him an edge in the ring, she confronts him and delivers an ultimatum:  quit the drugs or she will break up with him.  Instead of choosing, he becomes enraged and throws her down the stairs.  The fall damages her knee and puts her own athletic career (as a soccer player) on hold.  But that is only the start of the nightmare as Reed starts stalking her.

Concerned for her daughter's safety, Peyton's Mom ships her off to live with her brother and two sons.  There, Peyton tries to heal (emotionally and physically) but the process is complicated by two things:  her uncle and a new boy.  The uncle was a compatriot of Peyton's father in Iraq and the lone survivor when their group was taken out in combat.  Seeing him reminds her too much of things she really doesn't want to think about.  The boy is Owen.  And while he is also an MMA fighter, he couldn't be any more different from Reed -- kind, gentle, and protective of Payton.  But even if he is a good guy, Peyton isn't sure she's ready to rekindle romance, even if her heart has other ideas.

Ugh.  Take pretty much any stereotype of YA romance and this novel has it.  And the fighting stuff really did nothing for me.  It's aggravated by a huge amount of stupid male posing going on (so over-the-top that even the characters in the book have to call it out).  The dead and absent parents don't help the story much either and probably contribute to the plethora of poor conflict resolution skills being demonstrated by the kids.   Still, I finished it and for one reason:  Peyton.  She's one of the stronger characters I have seen in a while.  An occasional poor decision here and there is more than made up for by her strong will and clear sense of values.  Her heart may lead her into Owen's arms, but she still knows it's not a great idea and she owns that.  To be able to stand up to all these violent men, she shows incredible bravery.  She fights her own fights to the end -- no damsel in distress moments here -- without relying on the men around her to resolve her problems.

We Regret To Inform You, by Ariel Kaplan

Mischa's mother has sacrificed everything to get her daughter into Blanchard Academy.  And Mischa has done what she could to honor that sacrifice -- good grades, AP classes, plenty of extracurriculars, and stellar test scores.  So she's pretty confident that she has a good shot at a good college.

When she starts getting rejects, she's surprised. At first, it's just early decisions at top schools, so she figures that the competition must have been stiff.  But when she is eventually turned down by every school to which she has applied (including her safeties), she is shocked.  Depressed and afraid to confess to her mother what has happened, she instead endures her mother's ecstatic preparations for the college odyssey which will never happen.  But the mystery of why she got turned down remains and deepens as Mischa and her friends discover that there's been foul play.

An interesting mystery that plays on the omnipresent threat of college rejections.  The actual story is entirely too drawn out for me (so many plot developments that could have been resolved with ease and alacrity).  And Mischa, while she grows in the story, didn't grow enough for my tastes.  In sum, a promising idea, but not delivered well.

Bob, by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

Ten year-old Livy and her mother visit Livy's grandmother in Australia.  They haven't been there in five years and Livy doesn't recall much of the place -- just vague recollections and random images.  But when they arrive, she starts to remember things -- not in the way one does when one has been away but as if she has always known certain things.  The weirdness takes a step up when she finds a small creature in her closet named "Bob." Bob has been sitting in the closet for these past five years for Livy's return (because her last words to him were to stay there).  He's passed the time dissembling and reassembling a Lego pirate ship and wondering where Livy went.  Livy meanwhile had forgotten him altogether.

Bob has a number of extraordinary powers.  No one except Livy seems to be able to see Bob. The two of them can go outside with Bob wearing a ridiculous disguise which five year-old Livy made for him that makes Bob look like a chicken. And, after the five year interval, the two of them reestablish their connection.  But while five year-old Livy accepted her friend as-is, ten year-old Livy wonders why Bob is here?  And where did Bob come from?  That search takes them on an adventure for ramifications much greater than childhood friendship.

Told in alternating viewpoints between Livy and Bob, this is a sweet middle-grade adventure.  Sort of an outback ET, there is a really big moral lodged at the end, but the story itself is a fun adventure that is a joyful read.  Quirky illustrations liven the text throughout.

The Last Best Story, by Maggie Lehrman

Rose is the star reporter for the school paper and Grant is the equally dedicated editor-in-chief.  While they've never dated, they have nonetheless been inseparable through the years.  Rose kept hoping for something to happen but Grant was so obsessed with the paper that he couldn't see the romantic potential in front of him.  Frustrated with that, she quit the paper (despite his dogged attempts to get her to stay on).  The romance seems lost.

Then, at their senior prom, an active shooter alert and subsequent school lock-down brings them back into each others' orbits.  Unable to fight the appeal of getting an inside scoop, they team up to cover the story as it unfolds.  In the process, they find each other.

A fast-paced romance and mystery combined together. As an avid fan of Gilmore Girls I couldn't quite rid my brain of the image of Paris and Doyle as the inspiration for the two protagonists here (it actually works pretty well in this case!) which gave the book some appeal.  But as the rather crazy plot would suggest, this story is all over then place.  It manages to get the various threads tied up by the end, but it's a confusing ride.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Soul Struck, by Natasha Sinel

Rachel’s mother believes that she developed the talent to be able to see a person’s “soul mate” after she was struck by lightning.  The experience also prompted her to found a support group for lightning strike survivors.

Rachel, jealous of how much attention her mother lavishes on her group, has grown obsessed with getting struck by lightning too.  It seems like the only way for Rachel to get noticed by Mom.  Rachel would also like to know more about her father (who Mom alleges was her soul mate) but Mom has always refused to go into much detail.

While clearing out the junk in their garage one day, Rachel discovers an old box which contains clues about the past.  And when Rachel starts snooping through it, she discovers that her mother’s rosy-colored recollections are not even true.

A character-rich story in a picturesque setting (Cape Cod) with just a small touch of magic and lot of complicated relationships.  Just about every character in the story is complex enough to relate to the others in different ways.  Being set in a small town, it makes sense that everyone knows everyone and their histories are partly shared and partly unique. There’s also a certain fluidity as friendships wax and wane throughout the novel. It’s a rich enough story that a re-reading might be justified.  For me that would be too much work, but I admired the writer's effort in creating something so sophisticated.

Tradition, by Brendan Kiely

Jamie Baxter is the type of kid who doesn’t get second chances and after a near-fatal incident on the football gridiron, his career prospects seem bleak.  But his coach manages to pull in some favors and slips him into the elite Fullbrook Academy on a full scholarship to play hockey.

Jules is much more at home at a rich person's prep school like Fullbrook, but after three years the place doesn’t seem so gleaming and pristine anymore. She's disgusted by the way that boys get to be boys and the girls are mostly added on as an afterthought.  Dozens of the school's traditions are, as one character puts it, in place to “benefit the boys and not the girls” and she wants to fight back.

For Jamie, the recent arrival, it is a surprise to see what privilege is associated with these wealthy kids, but it is the sexism of the students and the staff that eventually push him over the edge.  And Jules’s little rebellions eventually escalate to one grand gesture to take a stand against tradition.

There’s not much subtlety in this grueling account of white male privilege and twisted notions of consent.  While the general ideas made me think hard about my own experience in private schooling, the ideas are handled here with a sledgehammer.  That makes for entertainment (if the subject of sexual assault and objectification can be considered light reading) but it doesn’t lead to much reflection on the subject matter.  That will probably be left for anyone who wants to discuss the book afterwards but there isn't much gray area here.