Sunday, December 31, 2006

Accidents of Nature, by Harriet McBryde Johnson

In this autobiographical tale, 17 year old Jean (who has severe CP) spends a summer at Camp Courage - a "crip camp" for handicapped teens - in 1970. Over ten days, she has a few adventures and meets a more experiences (and more bitter) camper named sara who makes Jean question a little her life and her willingness to play her part in it as the cooperative poster child of disabled people.

As a book that raises serious questions about the way that disabled people were (and are) treated, you really want to like this book. If nothing else, it opens your eyes to the way that the "norms" treat disabled people with condescension and it will inspire many thoughtful essays (warning! book report alert!). HOWEVER, it just doesn't have much of a story. And no matter how educational or socially-agitating a book is, if it lacks a story, it isn't good fiction. Yes, in the end, we have a sense that Jean has undergone a life-changing event, but there is no dramatic arc or storyline to explain how this happened. I'm not asking for connect-the-dots, but something more than just presenting day-to-day facts would have made this interesting fiction. Read this book to learn more about a world you probably have never seen, but don't expect entertainment.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Dandelion Garden, by Budge Wilson

In this collection of short stories, Wilson tells of the impact of a divisive family that blows into town, a spoiled older brother, a canoe trip, a boy who dreamed fo being a dandelion gardener, a Mother's pregnancy, and several others stories. The themes are diverse and seemingly unrelated. The jacket claims that each story deals with transformative moments, but that isn't really true, except in the loose sense that every story is about a change of some sort.

Short story collections are usually a bit uneven. This is no exception. The first three stories (including the title story) work very nicely and are quite outstanding. The last couple ones (including a fairly feeble science fiction one at the end) do not work nearly as well. When Wilson is good, she's very very good.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Looking for Normal, by Betty Monthei

After Annie's mother is killed by her father (who then kills himself), she and her brother have to come to live with their maternal grandparents. Some things there are better, but as grandma reveals her own abusive tendencies, Annie must both learn how to cope with all of her fears and anger, and also how to forgive everyone who is causing her pain.

The first half of this book really drags as Monthei brings us up to speed through the use of flashbacks that don't really do much more than explain how spousal homicide happens. The second half gets better, but seems to be so much of a different story that it is hard to develop a clear coherent story.

The Winter Road, by Terry Hokanson

In the dead of Winter in northern Ontario, Willa takes her uncle's plan to pick up her mother at a remote settlement. The plane crashes in a remote area and Willa has to fight to survive the elements.

The novel is booked as having lots of psychological elements (overcoming grief for a dead brother, problems at school, etc.) but these are fairly unrelated to the story, which is instead straightforward action-survival stuff. That's OK, but the problem I had was that Willa is pretty near perfect and always manages to do just the right things to survive. It strains credulity that someone without significant formal survival training could do the things she does. Beyond that, I just find the action formula a bit dull. As a character, Willa simply wasn't that interesting and I didn't really care if she survived or not.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Tending to Grace, by Kimberly Newton Fusco

Cornelia has a hard time expressing herself. She loves to read, but she stutters badly and doesn't want to talk. There are plenty of things, though, that she would like to say. She'd like to be in honors English and she'd like to be able to drink coffee again, but most of all, she would like to have her mother come back and reclaim her from her aunt Agatha (with whom she was dumped).

All of which may have you wondering where "Grace" and the book's title come from. You won't be able to figure that out until the last five pages or so of the story. And it doesn't have much to do with the rest of the book.

As for the book, it has some charm to it (requisite memorable characters, some nice individual scenes) but it does not really get to a dramatic payoff. Instead, it sort of meanders to a predictable claimax with Mom and is then completely underplayed. Fusco in fact seems to have trouble writing dramatic scenes and avoids them (using flashback as a means to avoid action). The result is a story that is all over the place and one in which she didn't seem to know what to do with her strong and well-written characters.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Devilish, by Maureen Johnson

Jane and Allison are best friends and would do anything for each other. When the new girl Lanalee comes between them, Jane knows something is up. There is something that just seems evil about this girl. But when Lanalee turns out actually to be evil incarnate, things take a turn for the weird and the stakes for Jane are raised significantly.

While it may seem a bit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is actually a clever original re-telling of the selling-your-soul-to-the-devil story. It's both entertaining and well-written (although it is very poorly edited -- I counted no fewer than three significant typos! -- who's proofing the galleys?!). There's ample opportunity for dry humor (my favorite being the comparison of corporate culture with hell!). Johnson has a great way with characterization and creates a truly multi-faceted Jane who can grow a little but still be very much a teenager. Fun!

Wow! Two really good books in a row...either I got lucky or I've become a softee!

Incantation, by Alice Hoffman

In the midst of Inquisition-era Spain, Estrella discovers two fatal secrets: her secret Jewish identity (hidden behind 100 years of pretending to be Christians) and the depths that jealousy will drive even your best friend to betray you. In the end, love will triumph over hate, but not before a terrible price must be paid.

This is a truly wonderful and beautiful book. It reads quickly, yet is full of some of the most gorgeous prose you will ever read. Even if historical Judaica does not interest you (and I'm not a big fan myself), this is a truly magical book that transcends its ubject to both inspire and entertain. There is nothing more that one could ask of a work of fiction. One of the best books of 2006!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Shadow Falls, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Annie is spending her first summer in the mountains of Wyoming with her grandfather since her older brother died in a climbing accident. It's a hard thing to do because Grandpa always was so gung ho about Cody (her brother) climbing. Ironically, for the first time Grandpa is willing to let her start climbing too. But Annie has no interest. All she feels is anger. But her anger doesn't even begin to match what a young boy Zachary and his brother are struggling with. And then there's the strange grizzly bear that Annie keeps coming in contact with and a local Indian.

Perhaps because the story is all over the place or because the characters didn't engage me, but I never really quite got caught up in this story. It's a wonderful setting and follows all the standard rules of novel writing, but left me unsatisfied. The ending is bit too predictable and easy, but in the end it just seems a bit mushy.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Life History of a Star, by Kelly Easton

Kristin Folger is dealing with Nixon, Vietnam, our "ghost" upstairs, her best friend Simon who keeps trying to get in her jeans, and her own body betraying her as she hits puberty. It's the 70s and everything you've forgotten (or didn't know because you weren't alive then!) is out with a vengeance. Told in diary form, Kristin relates the pain of a family who don't get along, parents who are separating, and a lost brother (physically present, but emotionally destroyed) who lives upstairs in their home -- a victim of Vietnam.

So very much potential here and so many vivid characters, but absolutely no story line to speak of. For folks who like the modern adult novel where everything is experienced but no story is actually told, this is a fantastic book, but I don't read for art -- I read for a story. There's some lovely details about the era (god help me, I'd completely forgotten about the game Masterpiece!), but it's not enough to save this meandering mess!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Guitar Highway Rose, by Brigid Lowry

Asher has a hard time fitting in at his new school, but he does manage to make a friend there, Rosie. Asher is a bit "feral" while Rosie appears to be a goody-goody (but we quickly learn that she's learning to be a wild girl herself - piercing her nose, smoking pot, etc.). They connect. And when Asher is unjustly accused of stealing, the two of them decide to run away.

The book has a quirky style of constantly-shifting viewpoints and writing styles. You'll either love it or hate it. Some passages are free association, others are dialogs (with none of the speakers identified), and there's some lists and poetry. The narrators shift between kids and adults. As a result, I spent the first 40 or so pages just getting oriented to the style.

The Valley of the Wolves, by Laura Gallego Garcia

Since she was six years old, Dana has been aware that she could see a boy named Kai that no one else could see. But that is only the beginning of her powers. When she is 10, a sorceror arrives at her home and convinces her parents to let her come and be apprenticed. For years she studies to become a sorceror herself. And while she doe, she also wonders about visions she sees of a woman dressed in gold, a legend about a unicorn in the woods, and the threat of wolves in the valley.

This rather complicated and convoluted story meanders in several directions. Plot twist after plot twist occurs without much of any sense of direction. Evil is overcome and good triumphs, but the plot changes so often that this becomes a frustrating story to read. Disappointment after having ead her wonderful Legend of the Wandering King.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Sacrifice, by Kathleen Benner Duble

Based on the true story of the with trials of 1692, this historical novel tells the story of the Faulkner family and the struggle to survive as its members are accused of witchcraft and jailed for months, awaiting a trial that they cannot win.

This is a surprisingly engaging novel. I'm not too fond of historical fiction and less so of the period in question, but the author has created a genuinely interesting story that is a lively read. The details of prison conditions in the 17th century are truly horrifying and may gross out younger readers, but the story is actually fairly uplifting and affirming despite its depressing setting. Recommended.

Ingo, by Helen Dunmore

A year ago, Sapphire's Dad disappeared without a trace, lost at sea. But somehow she has always known that he was still alive. Then she meets Faro, a mer-boy, and discovers some of the secrets of Ingo (the world beneath the sea). And while no one can quite say what has happened to her Dad, Sapphire is closer to finding things out about herself.

As fantasy goes, this isn't a bad story. It could have used some serious editing to tighten up the narrative a bit and shorten the length, but it has some nice character development. Still, I never got a clear sense of who Sapphire was (not even how old she was!), and several plotlines seemed to get dropped in the name of keeping the action going. There's something to be said about leaving some things a bit open, but too much of that is not a good thing.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn, by Sarah Miller

Gideon comes to prep school and falls in with a pair of seasoned potheads, who spend their day getting high and scamming on girls. Gideon starts off awkward, but by mid-semester he's gaining confidence, but he's still undecided about whether to pursue exotic and flirty Pilar or sweet Molly. Given the choice, he'd rather chase Pilar, but his roommates have set up a bet for him to lose his virginity to Molly. So far, so very cliche. We have all the usual trappings of the clueless administrators and the unsupervised horney teens, except for one very important twist. The narrator, a girl, is somehow inside Gideon's head and knows everything that he's thinking; and so gives us some very funny commentary on Gideon's understandings/misunderstandings about the opposite sex. And, somewhat more mysteriously, she's also one of the girls in the story, but we don't find out who until the very end.

It's a very clever plot device, both interesting because we spend the story wondering who she is, and also fun because of the commentary she makes about the boys. I wanted very much to decry the boys as "unrealistic" mostly because they are portrayed as such shallow creeps, but I'll give Miller points for getting "boy" almost right (and probably better than most male writers could do). And I'll also give her points for getting the girls mostly right as well. But there are times when she veers more towards stereotypes and loses some of that realism. Still, this is pretty amazing for a first novel.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Plastic Angel, by Nerissa Nields

Randi is doing her best to be popular at school. Her best friend Angela is on the verge of being a famous model and actress. Together they share a talent for singing and a dream of making it msuically. This is not so far fetched, as Randi's Dad has made a decent career as a singer himself and the girls apparently have talent. But Angela's Mom is adament that Angela stick to modeling and not get sidetracked by a musical career.

This is, of course, Nerissa Nields of the Nields (East Coast trendy folk troubadors with the distinctive warble). And the girls' songs are actually Nields songs (a CD that comes with the book includes the songs on it). That's a clever conceit. While they say that an author should always write from their own personal experience, one might find a bit too much of that in this book. The characters seem a bit unreal and the story flat and predictable. It's a awkward book.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Diary of an Anorexic Girl, by Morgan Menzie

Based on the diaries of the author, this book reproduces the journals of a girl struggling with anorexia. At first, her weight loss gives her greater health, but quickly it plunges her intoweakness and lack of self-confidence. In near textbook fashion, she reveals the symptoms of the disease, obsessing over caloric intake, becoming less sociable, and battling depression , as she falls in further and further.

There's a maddening quality to the character who is so anti-social that it is hard to feel much sympathy for her, but that's also the realistic element to it. The story has a strong Fundamentalist Christian bent to it (and is published by a Christian publisher) , but the story is actually surprisingly ecumenical (there are frequent Bible quotations but they fit the story) and her struggle with faith actually adds a bit to the character. I wouldn't say that this is the best story of its type (Leaving Jetty Road -- which I just reviewed -- probably does a better job) but this is accessible and revealing.