Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Problem With Forever, by Jennifer L. Armentrout

When they were little, Rider always took care of Mallory.  Living in an abusive foster home, it was Rider who literally took the blows that the grownups dished out.  He promised her that he would be there for her "forever" and she believed him.  And with a knight in shining armor, she could hide in silence.  He called her "Mouse."

But when Mallory was injured and the dire state of their arrangement revealed, Rider and Mallory were split up.  She was taken in by two doctors who gave her a stable home and eventually adopted her, giving her a future.  She still has nightmares from those early years, but she's moving on.  What hasn't changed though is her silence.

Four years later, fate finds Mallory starting her senior year in a new school, where Rider also attends.   They haven't seen each other in all that time, but immediately bond again -- a bond that leads to attraction and romance.  But what neither of them can admit is how much they have changed.  And how much their reunion will change them further.

It is a moving story about recovery and survival that is as gritty (and depressing) as the the city of Baltimore, where the story is set.  The story has a lovely dramatic arc as we get to watch Mallory emerge from her shell and gain a voice of her own.  There's no denying the appeal of the complex characters of Mallory and Rider, and even the supporting characters (Mallory's step parents and the bitter Paige in particular).  But the novel is very long and it drags (and even repeats itself).  The overall effect is to blunt the impact of so much of the story.  The ending is a particularly drawn out affair and Armentrout's insistence on a happy ending just seemed too contrived and untrue to the story.

The Cresswell Plot, by Eliza Wass

Castella and her five siblings live in the woods in upstate New York, in a state of fear.  Their mother is crippled and their father bordering on insanity.  Raising them on a strict diet of religious fanaticism, he’s isolated the children from their peers.  In preparation for the coming of end times, the children have been betrothed to each other and are forbidden to socialize outside of the family. But the kids can’t help but be curious about the world and others.

In stories like this, there are two things that we commonly encounter.  The first is usually a pretty thorough dig at faith and the casual elision of fanaticism with all forms of organized religion.  To her great credit, Wass goes out of her way to distance this family's belief system from any specific religious tradition.

The second element is usually a tremendous effort to set up physical barriers that explain why the kids stick around.  The most common explanations are physical isolation or restraints.  Wass takes another tact altogether:  she provides her heroine with plenty of opportunity to flee, but puts psychological barriers in her way.  It is not confinement that keeps her around (far from it, she is quite free at all times). Instead, it is her loyalty to her siblings, the years of indoctrination, and her doubts about her own sanity that keep her in place (as they do to entire family as well).  The result is a chilling tale of faith and madness.  It's a fast-paced icky read.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Read Between the Lines, by Jo Knowles

Told in the voices of ten young people in ten separate chapters, their lives interact with each other over the course of a day.  What ties them together is their incomprehension of each other.  This translates into anger and resentment, causing each of them to have a moment when they flip each other off.  This leads in the end to some late moralizing about how we might all be happier if we took a little more time and effort to understand each other.

The result is clever, but often distractingly so.  At times, it is something of an effort to tie characters together.  Also, given the overall structural demands of the story, linking the characters overshadows any significant storytelling.  It is a story entirely too much in danger of being too clever.  Still, I liked the experiment and the ten voices were at least interesting to follow.  Naturally enough, it’s a bit gritty and having the central  organizing conceit being an impolite gesture is a bit risqué.

The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson

David is a young teen struggling with gender identity and the lifelong belief that he should have been a girl.  His parents just assume he's gay, and he hasn't mustered the courage to speak to them yet.  Leo is a new kid at school who is trying to lay low and not make friends at all (a plan which is thwarted when he attracts the romantic attention of one of the most popular girls in their class).  When Leo comes to David's rescue during a bullying episode, these two unlikely compatriots bond.  But as they soon find out, they share far more in common than either of them expected.

An interesting British take on transgender YA which also finds time to look at classism and racism, as well as creating a nice friendship story.  There's a bit too much effort to spin a happy ending, in spite of the realization that these kids face a lifetime of hardship ahead, but I get that the author didn't want to go out on a down note.  There is not a yet of gender queer literature coming out of the UK, so this novel is notable for that fact alone.  The fact that it is an enjoyable read is a bonus.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Summer of Supernovas, by Darcy Woods

For Wil, the next few weeks will be especially critical:  a brief period of planetary alignment means that she will have to face her worst astrological fear (the Fifth House).  In plain English, this is a prime period in which she could find the Love of Her Life (just as long as he is not a Pisces!).

To her credit, she does find the right guy with the right sign.  Seth doesn't just have the right birthdate, he's also a nice guy and friendly.  So then, why does she find herself distracted by his brother Grant?  And why does she find herself thinking about Grant instead of Seth when they're together.  Grant can't possibly be Mr. Right -- he has an entirely wrong sign altogether!

Faced with a conflict between what the stars tell her and what her heart desires, Wil makes a mess of things for 300+ glorious pages.  The fact that she is blessed with a loyal BFF, two doting (and unbelievably patient) potential boyfriends, a bunch of supportive adults, and no real responsibilities make this YA romance nirvana.  I, on the other hand, found it saccharine and unrealistic.  Folks may attribute my negative response to my gender, but this is honestly vapid stuff.  I've got no issue with romances.  They can work quite well when the characters have depth, honest motivations, and the reader is allowed to develop sympathy for both side.  A reviewer compared this novel with Jenny Han's books, but there is so much more going on in those books (like guys who actually have feelings and relationships based upon communication).

The set-up (girl obsessed with astrology to the point of ignoring common sense) wears thin and is a paper tiger that she will easily overcome in the end (I was somewhat more impressed with her twelfth-hour defeat of her clown phobia).  It didn't help my mood that, once again, we have the dead mother trope (although ironically much is made of Grant and Seth's angelic mother putting in pinch hitter maternal advice).  The most original (and my favorite part) were the two sidekicks (Irina and Manny) who provide some original (albeit ethnically-stereotyped) comic relief.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Love & Gelato, by Jenna Evans Welch

After her mother dies, Lina discovers that she has a father in Italy whom she’s never met.  With her only other living relative (grandmother) too old to care for her, she’s sent to him.  Upon arriving, she is greeted by another surprise:  her mother’s journal, covering the period of time that Mom spent in Italy and the story of how she met Lina's father.  But the more Lina learns, the more complicated she finds that history is.  With the help of a boy next door, her search takes her across Florence and all the way to Rome, stopping at a number of beautiful and romantic sites.

Meanwhile, Lina’s own love life is taking off.  Torn between the neighbor and a super hot guy she met at a party, she finds herself making all the wrong choices.  In the end, it will take a major intervention (in the form of The Dress) to make all things right.

In other words, it is silly romantic stuff.  Dead mother, hot but clueless guy, sensitive guy who conveniently makes himself available, lots of unsupervised time, food and clothes without financial worries, and of course a heroine who is shy and bashful yet sexier than she knows (obviously, since she can score any guy she wants!).  Of course, the book was fun to read, but not terribly good for you – the literary equivalent of gelato.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, by Kelly Jones (ill. Katie Kath)

Sophia, her Mom, and her Dad have moved to her late great uncle's farm in Gravenstein.  Her Mom is busy writing free-lance articles all day and her Dad is trying (without success) to find a job and (halfheartedly) working out how to run the place.  Soph doesn't know what to do herself until the day she comes across one very angry chicken, that is, a very angry chicken that has telekinetic powers and lays glass eggs!  Then another chicken shows up that can disappear and another that moves super fast.  She doesn't know much about taking care of chickens, but even without the help of her local librarian she can tell these are unusual chickens.  Some guidance from the local Redwood Farm Supply company gives her the basics, but there are some tricky challenges in the form of a sinister neighbor and her own special poultry.  Soph will have to become a truly exceptional carer of chickens if this is going to work out!

A lovely middle reader that combines entertaining facts about raising poultry with some fantasy and magic (and lots of amusing illustrations).  Mostly told through letters that Sophia writes to her late grandmother and to the owner of the Supply complany, Soph is revealed to be resourceful and insightful.  In an age appropriate way, she is not always strong enough for her challenges but still determined, brave, and well-grounded.  CCBC called this book out for the fact that she's also Latina, but not a lot is made of that (which is precisely what makes the book special).  I found the book a lovely break from the darkness of teen reading and also enjoyed its Sonoma county setting as well as the chickens themselves.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Fall of Butterflies, by Andrea Portes

When Willa says goodbye to her misfit friends at the "freak table" and that she will see them soon, she knows she is lying.  It's not because she is getting out of What Cheer IA and getting to attend a snooty rich person's school in the East and hopes to never return. It's because she knows that she intends to soon end her life out there.

But those intentions get quickly sidetracked.  The new school takes her by surprise.  There's a brief encounter with the supernatural which brings her into the orbit of a golden girl named Remy.  Remy lives a privileged life and she and her friends introduce Willa to how the 1% live and party.  It's a completely alien lifestyle and Willa is in over her head. Initially star struck, she comes to understand the ugly underbelly of Remy's life.

Combining the usual tropes of the boarding school genre (drugs, lack of supervision, and very little studying) and the stereotypes of simple honest Midwesterners and jaded jetset Easterners, you're not going to find much originality here.  Willa's voice is entirely too mature for her age, but it fits the story which is mostly about driving home the message that nice girls end up first in the end (and drugs and sex don't really solve anything).  The plot meanders a bit and a number of subplots just fizzle away (including Willa's suicidal intentions).  Still, it's a brisk read and enough of a decent fantasy to make it enjoyable.  If you like these sort of stories, I'd suggest e Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks as an alternative.

100 Days of Cake, by Shari Goldhagen

A year ago, Molly had a breakdown at a swim meet and subsequently was diagnosed with depression.  And since then, Molly has wallowed and tread water.  Her mother and sister don't know how to deal with her and respond and dramatically different ways.  Mom keeps baking her cakes in the mistaken hope that they will pick her up (unfortunately, she's a bad cook!).  But her sister, instead, is perpetually angry at her and acts out.  As for Molly, she can't seem to pull herself out of her funk.  The sole bright spot is her job at a fish store.  But when the owner announces that he's shutting down, she doesn't know how she'll keep things together.

A slow and frustrating story that is sort of about depression, but meanders into lots of other territory -- inappropriate relationships, Golden Girls episodes, eighties and nineties music (is there any other?), and sisters.  There are some girl-loses-boy action, but this isn't a romance, but more about self-help.  There are a few bright spots, but ultimately this just treads water, much like its heroine.

Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo

After her father leaves her mother for a dental hygienist, Raymie hatches a plan to get him back by winning the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition.  To pull this off however, she needs to learn how to twirl a baton.  And so she finds herself in Ida Nee’s class.  She never manages to learn much about baton twirling, but she does befriend two other girls, Louisiana and Beverley.  The "Three Rancheros" (as they call themselves) set out to do good deeds and end up rescuing library books and abandoned dogs along the way.

This period piece, set in the mid-70s, is the usual mix of DiCamillo’s folksy absurdity and dry humor, making the book a brisk and enjoyable read.  It will remind readers of her (much better) debut Because of Winn Dixie for the humor and the memorable characters.  And while this is not her best book, it is hard not to like her gentle storytelling.  For drama, there are some dicey moments with animals in peril, but everything ends up well in the end.  And a short wrap up with her father at the end avoids sentimentality while providing satisfaction.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Elements of Evil, by Brooke Arnold

Bernice is searching for a hero and what better way to unearth a hero but to have an evil villain on the loose?  She's ready to fit the bill of the evil genius through a series of scientific pranks.  It's been hard to be the little sister to the popular and respected Edith, but Bernice is certain that her plots will both make her mark on the world and let her nemesis sister prove her heroic qualities.

An energetic and irrepressible middle reader for the scientifically-minded.  Perfectly tuned to encourage girls into STEM fields, Bernice's enthusiasm for chemistry and science in general will interest young readers.  There's not much drama or story, but the story is packed with interesting fun scientific facts.  And what young budding scientist doesn't fantasize about flirting with evil?  Personally, I found the structure (basically, just journal entries and a few pieces of ephemera) too jumpy and impersonal, but it works and I think that younger readers will get caught up in the action.  It will play less well with readers who enjoy character development over action.

Another feature that readers will like is a wonderful secret code used throughout the book which, once you figure it out, provides hours of additional fun decoding.  (Full disclosure:  I figured out the basic principles of the code, but was too lazy to actually do the work!)

My one complaint is the design of the book.  There are lovely illustrations and a nice balance between text and ephemera, but the font used was horrible.  Cramped and weighted a too light, the type used in the book was uncomfortable and unpleasant to read.  It would be a shame for a lovely original story like this to be rejected by its potential readers because it just looked bad!

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.  I will be donating the book to my local public library and have received no other compensation]