Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Freak, by Marcella Pixley

It's a world full of familiar stereotypes -- popular older sister, geeky younger sister, mature inaccessible guy/love interest, and bullying popular girls at school. But in this story, each of these stock protagonists has a little twist to them. The sisters are both mean to each other, the bully has a weakness, and the love interest is flawed. This adds both realism and uncertainty to a story that becomes something more as a freak steps out of her shell to become much greater than her parts in a surprising way.

Folks who need a likable heroine in order to enjoy a book will find this story a bit disappointing. No one is perfect here (or for that matter even sympathetic). Instead, there is warmth and deep insight that makes this short novel a taut and surprisingly refreshing good read. Good stuff!

The Opposite of Invisible, by Liz Gallagher

Alice and Jewel have been friends forever and even though they are girl and boy, their friendship has been just that. But at a concert, the object of Alice's crush takes a noticeable interest in her and Jewel's jealousy rises up in response. Now Alice has to choose between her best friend and the boy of her dreams.

Filled with more than the usual amount of name-dropping of famous places in Seattle, this realistic take on the classic love triangle covers all of the usual bases. It's not a new plot or even a particularly inventive take on it, but it's a satisfying romance. If you know Seattle, it's also fun to picture all of the nearly-famous places where the action takes place.

Grief Girl, by Erin Vincent

In rapid succession, Erin's mother and father die from a car accident that leaves her, and her older sister and younger brother alone to fend for themselves. Quickly, Erin learns of the good and bad in the adults around her as some are helpful, while others exploit them. And it's not even a story of happy sibling bonding as the stress of taking care of themselves causes the kids to occasionally turn on each other.

I honestly had not intended to read two books in a row about parental death, but that is how it turned out. While this novel also veers around a bit (and it is even more jarring because the story jumps through the years), the book has a more compelling narrative and is the better of the two books. This is in no small part due to being a true autobiography. But even so, this could have been fairly turgid stuff. Vincent shows promise as a writer and should consider venturing into something more fictional.

Girlhearts, by Norma Fox Mazer

After Sarabeth's father died, her Mom promised her that nothing could ever happen to the family again, but Sarabeth knows that that is just a story you tell a small child. So, why does Sarabeth feel so much anger when her mother dies too, leaving her all alone, shuttled between Mom's old friends (not really wanted anywhere she goes). Now an orphan, Sarabeth doesn't know where she fits in.

Yes, it is one of those "books where the mother dies" (as Sonya Sones puts it) and while this is a promising premise for a dramatic sobfest, we get a fairly dull story instead. The narrative meanders between adults with issues and teen friends who sit on the periphery. When help comes, it's in the last quarter and pretty much an afterthought to provide a happy ending that ties everything up a bit too well.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Th1rteen R3asons Why, by Jay Asher

A few weeks after Hannah killed herself, Clay Jensen finds an unmarked package waiting for him containing seven cassette tapes. As he listens to them, he discovers that they were created by Hannah to explain thirteen reasons why she committed suicide. And now she is having these tapes sent -- post-mortem -- to each responsible party. Clay who hardly knew her is horrified to find himself so accused, but equally obsessed with learning the truth. A long night ensues.

While an interesting premise, I found the logic of this story annoying. I'll grant that it is a believable premise as teens (myself included) are melodramatic enoughto buy the whole blame game. However, as an adult, this is all about unhealthy attitudes. So, rather than being entertaining or edifying, I found the whole story selfish, depressing, and just plain icky. Give it a pass!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart

In the latest from one of my absolute favorite YA writers E. Lockhart, sophomore Frankie is trying to make a name for herself and break out of her shell as the delicate "Bunny Rabbit" that everyone must take care of. And while she likes the attention that being "helpless" can get her from her controlling boyfriend, she really wants to do more. So, when she cracks into the secret world of the Bassett Hounds at her private school, she gets both an opportunity to shine and to realize the costs of being famous. Along the way, there is love, philosophy, and "neglected positives."

Though not nearly as fresh as Boy Book or as funny as Fly On the Wall, the story grows on you and picks up dramatically in the home stretch. The characters are great (Frankie especially) and the ideas/concepts even better. I have a soft spot I'll admit for a novel that covers Foucault (a grad school fave) and Vassar Golf Course parties (an undergrad fave -- although I was never as cold as E apparently was!). This is not her best work, but it is a fine read and (as usual) recommended.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Touching Snow, by M Sindy Felin

Karina has trouble getting good grades at school. She does well on tests, but she never gets her homework done. But then if your stepfather was beating you and your siblings brutally as Karina's is, you'd have trouble working at home too! In the unfolding story, Karina and her family of Haitian immigrants have to find a way out of their mess (and find a way that avoids making things worse - a problem since so much depends upon keeping things entirely in the family).

As with almost all stories of abusive families, I find it hard to understand how the characters can so boldly avoid help from outsiders. I do get that it happens but the blatant nature of Karina's refusals to get help feel designed more to promote the tragic ending than to create a realistic story. It is hard to see the point of a story like this (a complaint I have made in other reviews I have written about abusive situations). Yes, the life she is living is horrible, but without showing how she pulls herself out of it, what we are left with is a voyeuristic novel about child abuse. That said, it's well-written and interesting, but I do recommend having a strong stomach because of the narrative's intensity.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Julep O'Toole: Miss Independent, by Trudi Trueit

When last we saw Julep, she was struggling with being the middle child. Now, she's having Mom troubles. Mom simply won't give her any peace! Whether it's being allowed to wear the shirt her aunt bought her, getting a cell phone, or quitting piano, Mom refuses to accept that Julep is growing up and should be allowed to have some independence. After all, it's not like she's a baby anymore! She's in sixth grade!

I sell Julep a bit short with that description, because she remains a funny and mildly precocious character whose struggles to define herself and her role in her family continues to make her an endearing person. Just as the previous book had something that anyone with siblings could relate to, this book will strike instant recognition with anyone who has ever fought with their parents. Delightful and fun!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Mother-Daughter Book Club, by Heather Vogel Frederick

When a group of mothers who happen to take a yoga class together decide to form a mother-daughter book club, their daughters become unwilling participants. All the more so, because they come from different sides of the tracks. But as they explore Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women together, they discover more about each other and themselves. It all wraps up with a too-good-to-be-true happy ending.

Charming but forgettable. Large sections of the book are entertaining but there isn't much substance here and the plot is fairly predictable. The ending, as I've already noted, ties things up way too nicely and you get a bit of a sense of being cheated by the lack of true payoff. There's a place for books like this (light easy read for the 9-12 age crowd), but it's the literary equivalent of Burger King.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Isabel and the Miracle Baby, by Emily Smith Pearce

Isabel can't stand the baby. Rebekah is supposed to be some sort of "miracle baby" but Isa just knows that thanks to it she has to share her room with a smelly gross infant, her Mom never has time for her, she has no friends (except for Tara who her Mom won't let her be friends with anymore), and she can't do anything anymore. And thanks to her Mom's cancer, Isa has to worry about fires, the sick ladies who come over every week, and now she's saddled with Ben who's just an absolute baby!

Billed as an uplifting story, this fairly short novel (130 pages or so) doesn't really get to redemption until the last few pages. Prior to that, we have to bear through an awful lot of whining and fussing. I will grant that the whole thing has an element of realism to it, but somehow it is hard to be sympathetic to a character who is selfish and mean (even if she has good reasons!). So, it makes for a hard sell of a story. And yet, I'm not sure it could have been written another way. Make your own decision about whether you can put up with it. The other issue is trying to figure out what the audience of this book is supposed to be. Adult readers will probably be more forgiving than younger readers so I envision a child giving up on this story. Older readers will simply feel that Isa is a selfish brat, while younger readers will not understand why she is so bossy and mean.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Picture Perfect, by D. Anne Love

Phoebe Trask has a number of problems to deal with: a mother who leaves to pursue a career, a pushy woman who moves in next door and is making the moves on Dad, protesters disrupting the July 4th parade, an assault on her Dad, a boyfriend with family troubles of his own, and so on it goes. Every day brings a new challenge and by the time one issue has been resolved, two more have appeared.

And that lack of a central plot is basically what sends this novel plummeting to the bottom of my ratings. In place of a story, we have an endless set of subplots, which might make the story realistic (life is not a novel) but does not make for an interesting read. The book, in sum, has no purpose (no lesson learned, no major obstacle overcome, no major change witnessed). And it also does not help that every issue is resolved easily. We build up a conflict but rather than allow it to climax, Love simply resolves it in a sentence or two and we're off to the next subplot. By the time we got to the death and dying subplot (yes, I realize that that is probably a spoiler), I was rolling my eyes and ready to just give up. So, let me save you the trouble and tell you to just give this book a pass.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Almost Home, by Jessica Blank

Elly has been molested for the past year by her stepbrother. After an unrelated sexual assault at school, she latches on to a mysterious girl who hangs out outside her school. This girl introduces Elly to the street, giving her a new name (Eeyore) and bringing her in touch with other kids getting by on the streets of LA. A harrowing, but realistic narrative unfolds, told from a shifting perspective as each teen tells their story of survival.

Shocking and immensely depressing, I would have to be a bit sadistic to rate this high (I can't see myself picking it up for a casual re-read), but that does not mean it is bad. Rather, this is a very powerful work with engaging characters (who you would still probably not want to be in the same room with). A fascinating view of this other world.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Frannie in Pieces, by Delia Ephron

After Frannie's father dies, she discovers a puzzle in her Dad's workshop with her name on it. This is no ordinary puzzle and, as Frannie starts to put it together, strange things start to happen. She finds herself being drawn into the world of the puzzle (quite literally). Frannie becomes convinced that the puzzle will lead her back to her Dad.

As a fantasy story, this book works pretty well, but Ephron's decision to add a BFF and a boy interest seems a bit forced. They don't really add much to the story and it seemed overall as if Ephron was trying to do too much. Still, the characters are interesting and the book is a good read.

Spanking Shakespeare, by Jake Wizner

Shakespeare Shapiro is straddled with a horrible name, a best friend who is obsessed with his own bowel movements, a younger brother (Gandhi) who is massively more popular, and a complete inability to get laid. But he does have an amazing way with words and that charming skill might land him the senior memoir prize (or even more). Alternating between recounting his senior year failures and providing flashbacks on his life and dysfunctional family through excerpts from his memoir, Shakespeare reveals a true talent for ribald wit, which the Bard would have truly appreciated. In the end, he does what any horny 18 year old boy should do ... enroll at Vassar College.

OK, I was being a bit cheeky on that last comment (although it does happen and I truly appreciate the plug for my Alma Mater - and I am sure that Shakespeare would enjoy a career as a Vasshole). This book is laugh out loud funny (which is not recommended on a plane, like where I was reading it). Shakespeare is clever and endearing in an obnoxious 18 year-old male way. As someone who gets occasionally chided for being unable to know what a real teen girl goes through (for the obvious reason that I was there), I feel a greater confidence in saying that Jake has nailed the boy-side of the equation rather nicely (and doesn't do that bad of a job with the girls either IMHO). Any book with chapter titles like "The Time I Watched a Pornographic Movie with My Mentally Unstable Grandmother" and "The Time I Saw My Father Get Drunk and Act like a Complete Idiot" wins at least special mention. This is a special book. Recommended.