Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dumb Love, by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson

While she doesn't have much experience with romance, Carlotta considers herself to be quite an expert at it. She is working on a love advice column and writing a romance novel. But in the worth of romance fiction in her town, there is a lot of competition from another girl who would steal not only her boy but even the characters from her novel! Meanwhile, she must also attempt to prevent her Mother from getting back together with her no-good biological father (and forsaking the confused but loving Franklin Thomas).

"Confused" is a good word for this book. While it claims to be humorous and funny, I found it more painful and difficult to follow, and missed the humor altogether. There were too many unmemorable characters and confusing plot lines. Give this one a miss!

Grace Above All, by Jane St. Anthony

In this gentle (if somewhat dull story), Grace copes through a summer vacation taking care of her siblings in the family's cabin, while her useless mother hangs on the sidelines. There's a love interest in the form of the boy next door and a handicapped relative that get Grace thinking about the importance of family (even if they DO drive you nuts!).

Gentle and dull. The romance and most of the other storylines sort of hang in place, but never get any serious development and the action is pretty much below the surface. Even the inevitable mother-confrontation scene is underplayed. The result is a realistic snapshot but one that does not go anywhere.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Cures for Heartbreak, by Margo Rabb

In this collection of loosely-interrelated autobiographical stories, Rabb tells the story of 15 year-old Mia losing her mother suddenly to cancer, and having to stumble through with only her father and testy older sister. Through these short stories (several of which were published previously as stand-alone pieces in earlier drafts) she outlines the various feelings and experiences she goes through.

While the characters are nicely drawn out and there is some poignant writing going on here, I found the novel rather dull. While marketed as "teen," this is really an adult book about being a teen and a YA story. And I find it hard to imagine that teens will find much in it either, except to share an adult's perceptions of growing up without a mother.

The Woman in the Wall, by Patrice Kindl

Like her father, Anna had an uncanny ability when she was little to blend into her surroundings and completely disappear (her father's talents were so great that he disappeared altogether some years ago). Combined with intense shyness, Anna is a perfect wallflower. Unable to deal with crowds and strangers, Anna spends her time alone developing skills with her hands (carpentry, embroidery, sewing, etc.). At the age of seven, in order to avoid being sent to school, she hides away from her family through a complex series of passageways that she builds in the house. For seven years, she lives in this alternate world safe and secure, but now her haven is threatened and she may have to confront all of her fears.

This novel works beautifully on two levels simultaneously. As a fantasy book, the story is entertaining and engrossing. But the book is also a fable and an analogy for growing up as Anna goes from caterpillar to brilliant moth after years in her caccoon. A stunning achievement in such a modest story.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Anatomy of a Boyfriend, by Daria Snadowsky

Dominique's best friend Amy is always managing to hook up with guys, but Dominique herself hasn't really dated. That doesn't stop her from wondering what it would be like and how it would be to do "it" with a guy. Then she meets Wes and they hit it off and she dives head first into the relationship. In doing so, she discovers the amazing rollercoaster of first love, in great graphic detail.

At its base, this is a by-the-numbers teen romance novel, but Snadowsky has bigger plans and ambitions in this book. Like Judy Blume (with whom she has been compared) she wants to address issues of sexuality as well as love. As a result, a considerable part of the book describes in explicit and graphic detail Dominque's sexual exploration (including arousal and orgasm, masturbation, intercourse, and oral sex). Beyond that, the story parallels Forever very strongly and my conclusion was that Snadowsky was going for an updated and modernized version of Blume's classic. Now, I'm not a big fan of Judy Blume (she's preachy and her older books are quaint and dated), so it will be faint praise for me to say that I think Snadowsky has improved upon Blume's book. But, for those of you who liked Forever, this book is certainly worth a read.

I have to say that it wasn't really for me. Perhaps because of my age and sex, I felt a bit like a pervy voyeur reading this book (I actually hid the pages from my neighboring passengers on the plane lest they think I was reading porn!), but I think it also is about what you expect from a book. The explicit detail may appeal to some readers (either out of lasciviousness or curiosity) but it set a mood that caused me to distance myself from the characters and the story. Sex and its mysteries are beautiful things and I don't mind discussing them or reading about them, but at this point in my life I don't need them spelled out. This is, in the end, an interesting - and probably controversial - novel, but it lacked the material to engage me as a reader.

Brave New Girl, by Louisa Luna

Doreen drifts through her 14th Sumnmer hanging out with Ted, smoking cigarettes, and listening to the Pixies. It isn't much of a life, but it beats being her angry dad, weepy mother, or stupid older sister. Never mind the older brother that Dad kicked out years ago when he was 14. But then an event happens that changes the entire family in ways that they (and especially Doreen) could not have predicted.

Written in a rambling train-of-consciousness style, the book is a bit hard to plow through. For the more jaded YA reader, Luna can get high points for originality and creating a character with a strong original voice. But I didn't personally find the voice all that interesting. Maybe because there are so many unresolved problems that keep piling up (just as I hate a book which ties up every loose end, I hate ones that leave almost them all unresolved). I found the experience a bit painful and unpleasant.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Life As It Comes, by Anne-Laure Bondoux

Mado and her older sister Patty were orphaned last Fall and, while Patty is the eldest and was granted guardianship over 15 year-old Mado, it is Mado who has always been the responsible one. This becomes painfully more apparent when Patty reveals that she is pregnant and expects Mado to take care of the baby.

Not a very deep story (despite the dramatic potential), the action rolls out at a pleasant enough pace. In the end, there is not much of a dramatic pay-off (most of the important stuff is told in flash-back -- depriving the reader of any involvement). Fair writing, but not enough depth and the characters seem far too distanced.

Now You See Her, by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Hope Shay has been working hard to build her acting career and when she is cast as Juliet (in Romeo and Juliet), bypassing all of the older girls who are entitled to the role, she knows she is on her way. And it's no small matter that Logan (playing Romeo) is so hot for her. But then she is abducted in a plan gone horribly awry and all the perfect pieces of her life start to come apart.

[Spoiler alert! Back in 2004, a UW-Madison student was "abducted" and missing for four days and it turned out later that she had faked her own abduction. At the time, everyone wondered why she did it. Apparently, Mitchard wondered enough to create this thinly-veiled biography of that girl (changing a few details like making her a high schooler rather than a college student).]

As for the story, it's well-written but more of an adult book than a YA. Like I noted with the Jodi Picoult book I reviwed a few months ago, a good adult writer is not necessarily going to write good YA (even with a teen-aged heroine). The focus is just not quite right.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Cathy's Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233, by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman

Set up as the diary of Cathy, a 17 year old girl with an unhealthy curiosity about what her 23 year-old boyfriend is up to, this book tells the story of drugs, intrigue, and the Chinese mafia in San Francisco. The story however, is quickly dwarfed by all of the other elements to this package -- a half dozen real phone numbers (yes, you can call them!) and a bunch of web sites to research. Combined with copious illustrations throughout and a packet of 32 slips of paper (my library catalogued each of them!) that amplify and illuminate the story.

I found all the trappings a bit gimmicky and focused on the story, which was a bit convoluted and thin. However, if you like a mystery and want to have an unusual experience, then this is a book to digest. Some reviewers have compared it to an RPG and I can see how it would have a similar appeal. But I think the target audience is actually a bit younger. I could easily see a pair of seventh-graders having a blast researching every angle of the story and comparing notes. A lot of fun and hours of entertainment. As a read, however, this was not so exciting.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Haters, by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

When the studios option Paski's father's cartoon series for a movie and the two of them move to SoCal, paski feels like she has lost everything. And she's a bit fearful as well because of a premonition she has that things are going to go very badly. The thing is that her premonitions have a wau of coming true. And when she has a "vision" that the meanest (and most popular) girl in the school is going to be injured, she has to decide if she is going to try to save her or be just another "hater."

The first part of the book is quite good. Paski is a funny character (granted, with a lot of YA cliches) with an authentic voice. You want to be friends with her. But, for me, the supernatural stuff didn't work as well and the villian Jessica was poorly developed. I ended up feeling that a great character had been diminished by the rather silly story. And the ending combined the worst happily-ever-after set-up with managing to leave the most important issues unresolved. Great writing but a lousy story.

Anything But Ordinary, by Valerie Hobbs

Winifred and Bernie have been friends and soul mates through most of high school and plan to spend the rest of their lives together, even planning to go to the same college. But when Bernie's mother dies, his life takes a nosedive and their lives diverge. When Winifred goes off to college without Bernie, he's so broken up over their separation that he comes to her college and stalks her, not able to let go of what they had. But gradually their paths and plans diverge again and before the story is out, the tables will turn at least a few more times.

This very unusual and beautiful book about relationships, finding oneself, and holding on to what we have as we change our lives is an unusual gem. Perhaps not even a YA book (since the characters are more college-aged), it speaks to some very universal themes that will appeal to all ages. As a younger reader, I might not have appreciated the wisdom of this book, but as an older reader, I really appreciate what Hobbs had to say.

The characters are strong, not always likeable but interesting to follow. The plot is twisted but realistic and easy to follow. The conclusion satisfying. All in all, a great book.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

First Impressions, by Marilyn Sachs

Alice has always been an excellent student and gotten good grades, so when she gets a C+ on her paper on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, she is shocked. More so because she disagrees with her teacher's reasons for giving her the grade (Alice had written about the tragic nature of the character of Mary, instead of seeing her as a humorous figure). But as Alice re-reads the novel as part of a make-up assignment, she begins to appreciate the strength of Austen's novel and the ways it can give her strength in her own life.

[Let's quickly note my extreme distaste with any teacher who would downgrade a student's literary criticism because it was different or unusual (I recall a not-so-pleasant encounter or two of my own with literature teachers who were beholden to their particular views and graded on the basis of whether you agreed with them or not). To set up a story in which the great dramatic arc's end is to agree with the teacher is insulting.]

This is an ambitious, but ultimately confusing and disjointed novel. The story involves elements of fantasy mixed with realism as Alice find herself inside the story, re-writing what the characters do. A fascinating device but one which is used merely to point out that Austen is such a genius that a teenager is foolish to attempt to re-write her novel. Afairly unnecessary and even arrogant idea. As for a story, gthis is all over the place. Is it about Alice? Her relationship with a boy? Her mother? All of the above?

I am certain that within this novel there are plenty of wonderful allusions to Austen's work that I am undoubtedly missing. Truly Austen fans will probably find these clever stylistic devices and thus find something to enjoy in the book. In fairness, I'm really not a big fan of Jane Austen, so perhaps the exercise is wasted on me and I am an unfair critic or a lost cause.