Saturday, June 21, 2008

Primavera, by Mary Jane Beaufrand

Flora will never have the marital bliss of her sister Domenica or even her mother's affection, but unlike her sister or mother, she enjoys the freedom to come and go around her family's estate Pazzi Palazzo. It is the late 15th century and the setting is Florence. Two of the world's most powerful families (the Pazzi and the Medici) are locked in a bloody conflict that is tearing the city - and Flora's future -- apart. In the chaos that ensues, Flora has to find the strength to survive and help the few people that she can.

Historical novels are drab affairs and ones that are based on true events even more so, but this one actually works as both a bit of stirring action-adventure and as coming-of-age story. There are no deep sentiments here and the too-good-to-be-true ending grates at me a bit, but the novel is still excellent summer reading. So, if you need some period escapist lit, this one is for you!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lessons from a Dead Girl, by Jo Knowles

When Leah Green dies, Laine begins the process of coming to terms with the legacy of her friendship with Leah. Because this was a "friendship" only to outside eyes. Even in public, Leah teased and humiliated Laine. But it was what Leah did to Laine in the "doll closet" that was the most sinister. In shocking detail, Knowles dissects the nature of an abusive relationship between two alleged BFFs.

This qualifies as a good read, but an extremely upsetting story. The "ick" factor is quite high. For this reason, it won't make my list of books I'm going to re-read any time soon. However, the story is an important one and Knowles's writing is sharp and intelligent. If you have the stomach for it, this is well worth cracking open.

You Know Where To Find Me, by Rachel Cohn

Laura and Miles were cousins, and as close as they could be. And while they appeared to share nothing in common (Laura was petite and popular; Miles overweight and a loner), they were very close. As they grew up and transitioned from fantasy play in the tree house to abusing prescription pain killers, they maintained their tight bond. Laura was always the one who had it together, so when it is Laura who kills herself, no one can believe it. And Miles who has the most trouble struggling to survive without her lifeline.

A bit of a departure for Cohn, this downer novel suffers from a dead plot (pun intended). The theme is grief, but you have probably never seen the phases of sorrow depicted as dull as this. Virtually nothing happens in this story and saddling the plot with an unsympathetic heroine does not really help things along. Give this a pass!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Undercover, by Beth Kephart

Elisa is not the type of girl you notice. She stays out of sight and keeps a low profile. But her way with words makes her useful to lovelorn boys who take the love poems she ghostwrites for them to win the hearts of their girlfriends. But one of her clients (Theo) is special and different, and the poems she writes for him to give to his Lila mean more to her than they could ever mean to Lila or Theo. More inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac than copied, this lyrical love story celebrates the strength to rise out of the shadows and seize the day.

Beautifully written, albeit prone to more than a few digressions, this is a strong YA debut from an author who carved out her credentials in the adult market. There are times when this novel drifts away from the YA world, but Kephart shows much more talent than your usual crossover author. Recommended.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Canning Season, by Polly Horvath

When Ratchet's mom sends her to Maine for the summer to live with her two maiden "aunts" Tilly and Penpen, no one knows quite what to expect. Certainly not bears and blueberries and phones that you can't ring out on! But as one could expect in a story like this, there are lots of adventures to be had. There are also plenty of surprises in trademark Horvath style with strong quirky characters.

I'm a big fan of Horvath's Everything on a Waffle, which I felt was a clever book that combined life advice with decent recipes. As I noted above, this is a similarly quirky and fun novel. It's not quite as memorable, but it's still a good read.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

101 Ways To Dance, by Kathy Stinson

In this slim collection of short stories, we get a variety of topics but all of them deal with teen sexuality in one way or another. Many of the ideas are quite original: sexual desire between kids with Downs Syndrome or kids who are dying of cancer. Some of the stories deal with forbidden topics (like incest). All of the stories address the conflict between physiological desire and parental/adult disapproval. So, as a unifying concept, sex works.

The stories themselves are rough. Some of them are certainly better than others, but none of them really moved me in a significant way. Beyond the yearning and the poignancy of young lust and love, the characters come across as surprisingly flat. Much credit can be given to Stinson for creating so many unique and original stories about sex (while avoiding all the usual stuff), but the stories needed more development and polish. Promising concept but a disappointment.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Little Friendly Advice, by Siobhan Vivian

At Ruby's 16th birthday, her long-absent Dad suddenly shows up. Ruby is not so pleased to see him again and runs out of her own party screaming. Her friends come after her and offer their support and advice on how to deal with the situation, just as they have always done in the past. However, this time, Ruby begins to realize that the help of friends is not always given without strings attached or some degree of self-interest. And that may pose dangers.

There is some excellent writing going on here, in terms of voice and characterization. Vivian has a good ear for dialog and the action feels very realistic. But the story is a mess. It was a good 80 pages or more before I could truly figure out what the story was even about (I don't read blurbs before I start reading the book). And it floats rather aimlessly about. Yes, there is an ending and a fairly normal narrative, but there is also so much noise and distraction going on that you don't get a story so much as a slice of life. Good writing is not just about capturing people, it's about telling a story -- Vivian needs to do that.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Girl, Going on 17, Pants on Fire, by Sue Limb

In this third book in the series, Jess now has to juggle her boyfriend troubles, an evil substitute teacher, perpetual tardiness, and taking her granny to the doctor's office without underpants. There's a barely-English-literate Japanese boyfriend for Jess's mother and a variety show for good measure. Much hilarity ensues.

The first book in the series was funny, albeit a bit silly at times, but it is harder to accept the proposition that Jess is still so immature yet now actually 17 years old. She always seemed a bit babyish, but now she seems to act like a tween (at best!). I've noted before that British YA seems to be a bit less mature than American. This is a classic example. Sadly, Limb's little franchise is losing steam.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox, by Mary E. Pearson

In the near future, antibiotics have lost their effectiveness, traditional agriculture has been taken over by genetic modification, and medicine has advanced to Frankenstein levels. Yet teenagers are still teenagers and Jenna, having woken a two-year coma after an accident, is searching for the meaning of her life. Her searches bring her far more than she could have expected and soon Jenna must confront questions about parental love gone amok, the meaning of the soul, and what quality of life truly means.

While bearing a superficial resemblance to Haddix's novel, Double Identity, this is a very different novel, and one which is far removed from Pearson's over-lauded A Room on Lorelei Street. The writing can get a bit turgid at times, but there are some fascinating themes raised here (warning: mandatory book review assignment material!). I'd recommend this book simply to give you a chance to read one of the more fascinatingly original YA novels written this year.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Camp Rules, by Jordan Roter

When Penny's parents decide to surprise her on her 16th birthday by sending her to camp for the summer, they don't realize that you can't just start going to camp at 16. It's something that you have to start doing at 8 and grow into. Worse, because of Fern Lake Camp's rules, Penny's been promoted to the elite Bunk One (where the oldest and most-privileged campers are). This doesn't sit well with some of her bunk mates and things get off to a rocky start. Gradually, Penny wins them over and discovers the fun she's been missing.

A lightweight and brisk read. The dialogue sounds authentic (or at least obnoxious enough to my crotchety ears to be authentic!) and the characters have good distinct personalities. But the plot is essentially non-existent. If you like to sit around and listen to a lot of goffy gossip, this could be fun, but I would think that going to camp this summer for real would be a lot more fun than living vicariously through these hijinx.