Monday, December 28, 2009

Aurelia, by Anne Osterlund

After a third attempt to murder Crown Princess Aurelia, the king asks for help from his old friend to help uncover the killer. Instead, the friend sends his son Robert. Robert and Aurelia are old friends of a sort (having attended the same school) and they have an odd chemistry (more on that later). While Robert is supposed to hide the purpose of his presence, Aurelia quickly figures it out and (no shrinking daisy) she becomes his partner in uncovering the source of the threat. Told in a vaguely 18th century setting, but with thoroughly modern teenagers, this book combines princess romance, whodunit, and bitchy High School dramatics into one cooly calculated book.

The book appears to be quite popular (based on the large number of library holds and positive reviews posted on book selling websites), but I'm at an honest loss to explain why. The romance seemed weak to me, the characters flat, the setting implausible, and the plot simplistic. This is historical romance for people who don't care about history and have fairly limited demands for a romance (the characters apparently kissed, but the heat didn't exactly radiate off the page). The author makes a point of reminding us repeatedly that the young people all went to school together, but I never could quite fathom the nature of Aurelia's and Robert's relationship. No attempt was ever made to get inside their heads or explain their motivations. And the far more important relationship betweem Aurelia and her step sister is largely neglected until it suddenly becomes crucial to the story at the end. There are so many decent historical novels out there (and even so many better written exploitative teen romances) that I think you can safely give this one a miss.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Breathing, by Cheryl Renee Herbsman

Savannah was named by her mother after the destination of a hurricane, but she hardly feels that powerful. Instead, coping with her strict Mom, her obnoxious little brother Dog, and her asthma, she struggles to get through her 15th summer in her rural Carolina home. While abandoned by her friends who have gone to see family or attend sleepover camp, Savannah figures that her days are going to be pretty long. But then (as is inevitable in books like these) she meets the Boy who sweeps her off her feet (and who happens to be a real gentleman). That happiness is short-lived though when the boy moves away and Savannah doesn't know if their long distance relationship can last. While no one else believes that her young love is worth such a struggle, she knows in her heart that it is.

On the face of it, this is a light summer romance read (much like the types of books that Savannah herself dives into), but Herbsman has crafted an above-average version of it. I can single out several things I really like about this book.

First of all, there is the setting. I'm not a huge fan of Southern fiction (the cliches wear thin) and I tend to prefer the Southern-light of Dessen or the over-the-top folksy charm of a Because of Winn Dixie. I initially cringed when I read all the "ain'ts" and "ruthers." But Herbsman originally is from these parts and she has a good ear for how people really talk. And so I began to appreciate the dialogue as I got into it. By the end, you began to realize that the community represented in the story wasn't just flavor, but an essential ingredient to the story. And I definitely had a chuckle over some of the sayings in the book (my personal favorite was "feeling as disappointed as a raccoon after the trash truck comes").

Savannah herself is a winner. Never too good nor too horrible, she has a big heart and an irrational stubborness to drive you nuts, but every move seemed true. She is the teen that teens might try to deny they resemble, but she had the right mix of responsibility and carelessness for me.

And finally, there is the mother (this is where I show my age, I suppose, appreciating the parents) who is no saint, but is as far away from the clueless parents of most YA books as you can be. I didn't always like her and she could be hard on Savannah, but she gave good advice and was one of the more successful single parents I've seen in literature. And it was great that the reward for being such a good parent was that she had a good realtionship with her daughter. Adolescence is dramatic enough without always having to pump up the parents as the bad guys.

Kudos to Herbsman for avoiding so many trite stereotypes!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Princess and the Bear, by Mette Ivie Harrison

Not so much a sequel of The Princess and the Hound as a story inspired from the myth of King Richon first told in that earlier book. This novel takes Richon's story of involuntary transformation into a bear and expands upon it, telling how the bear and his companion hound encounter the evil phenomenon of "unmagic" and fight to defeat it. The struggle takes them to find the Wild Man, who in turn sends them back in time to set all things right (which involves not just defeating unmagic but also saving Richon's kingdom from both internal and external enemies). Themes of compassion for animals and animals' rights are interspersed throughout to add some moral gravity to this fantasy.

I really enjoyed The Princess and the Hound a lot and I was really looking forward to this book for more of the same. So, it was shocking to find not only a very different story, but such a poorly written one. In her first book, Harrison showed an immense talent for writing deep and richly textured fairy tale, but here the narrative utterly drags. In part, the story is hubbled by characters that cannot communicate verbally for a bulk of the book (not a single word of dialogue is exchanged between them for the first fifty pages). The prose is written past passive and is lethargic and boring. The characters, their actions, and what motivates them are difficult to follow. In sum, I found the whole thing a chore to get through. Everything I loved about the first book (originality, engrossing characters, beautiful story) is missing here. It is as if unmagic has sucked everything good out of Harrison's writing and left behind a gray mass.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beautiful Americans, by Lucy Silag

Four teenagers (Alex, Olivia, Zack, and PJ) get to spend a year at the Lycee de Monceau in Paris. As you would expect, there will be joy and tears, mischief and love. But in this story, there is also scandal, sex, drugs, and a shockingly askew moral compass. If that works for you (or doesn't bother you), then there is plenty to enjoy here.

Alex is the spoiled and narcissistic one, who thinks mostly of herself and freely spends her mother's money until her Mom shuts off the Amex and stops sending money. Then Alex resorts to stealing and exploiting the other kids. Surprisingly, she is surprised when this all comes back and bites her on the derriere.

Olivia wants to dance in the ballet and has a real talent for doing so. But when her family comes for a visit, she has to face up to the fact that she doesn't want to pursue her dreams the same way that her parents do. No major breakthrough here, but a little ol' standard Afterschool Special scenario...with a little ol' R-rated twist.

Zack is the closet gay boy. Running to Gay Paree to explore his other side (and to get away from his stereotypical Southern conservative upbringing), he proves reluctant to actually make the moves. It's sweet, but again never moves far away from the second dimension of character building.

And finally, we have PJ, who has barely escaped from the United States before her parents are arrested. She tries to get herself into the graces of her host family so she doesn't have to go home to the US and have folks know what happened to her parents. What she doesn't expect is that her French host family have much darker secrets to hide...and what she also doesn't seem to realize is that there is a US Embassy in Paris to which in-danger Americans can turn (but since Silag is more interested in creating drama than realistically addressing problems, I'm sure THAT small important detail was judged to be too boring!).

It's not a badly written story. The characters are a bit flat and more than a little repellent, but the setting in gorgeous and there's enough action to keep the story moving. What is lacking though is plausibility. This is, without a doubt, the most poorly supervised group of teens in France. Authority figures never play much of a role in YA, but the extremes to which these kids go suggest outright child neglect (and not even the French would tolerate this sort of situation). I'm OK with a little fantasy here and there, but when it's stretched this far (and when it borders into child abuse, neglect, and endangerment) then I have to put my foot down. This is a trashy book -- a well-written, but ultimately trashy book. You may like it, but don't take it too seriously.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sea Change, by Aimee Friedman

Miranda hasn't had a lot of luck or experience with boys, but when she joins her mother on Selkie Island to help clean up her grandmother's house so it can be sold, that looks set to change. Most of the boys on the Island are rich trust fund types, but Leo is different: intelligent, sensitive, local townie...and maybe something else. As Miranda gets to know him better, she becomes convinced that he is actually a merman.

For the most part, this book is fairly standard teen romance material, but the hint of the supernatural spices things up nicely. Is Leo just different because he's the right sort of boy for Miranda? Or is he actually a merman? For that matter, what of Miranda's bloodline? Does it make her susceptible to the charms of the sea? In the end, most of these questions turn out to be unimportant, but they add a nice metaphorical layer to the budding romance.

I was a bit annoyed by the ending, though, which not only wrapped things up too conveniently but resorted to adding information that should have been added (or hinted at) earlier in the story. My sense was that the ending was rushed. Aside from that, this is an above-average romance.

When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton

Seven Halloweens over seven consecutive years told in seven chapters. Each one reveals a different aspect of Jimmy Cannon's life and that of his friends and town. But most of all, each one tells a part of Jimmy's relationship with his father -- a railroad worker in their town in West Virginia in the 1940s. The stories are boys' stories (spying on a secret meeting, vandalizing a car, winning a championship football game, etc.) and told with a nice folksy warmth that evokes the spirit of Mark Twain.

Given the timelessness of the stories, the individual independent strength of each chapter, and the literary flavor of the entire endeavor, this book has "instant classic" written all over it. I'm sure it will be quickly picked up on by school teachers and other book-report assigners. So act fast if you want to enjoy the book on its own innocent merits. As for me, I can recognize the greatness, but it wasn't the type of book I really like. Historicals don't tend to appeal to me and nothing makes me glaze over faster than male bonding (and football). Still, I'm sure others will like this.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Shift, by Charlotte Agell

In a dystopian future, state religion has replaced the world we know with a fear-driven society. The only alternative to the HomeState world are the nuclear wastelands of the Deadlands and the wilds of the north (current day Maine) beyond them where the crazies live.

When 15 year-old Adrian's best friend is seized by the police because he is Jewish, Adrian sets off on a trip into the North. The disappearance of his mother (right after she has been found babbling about a coming "shift" that will change the world) is just one more motivator. Terrorists, crazy computers, and a penguin figure in as well.

The overall result is a seemingly random story. It all starts off well enough as a road trip tale, but as soon as the characters cross over into Maine, that storyline gets abandoned. And what it gets replaced with simply doesn't make sense. After a while, I simply gave up trying to follow the story. I'd like to suspect that the earlier drafts did make sense but somehow it all got mangled in revisions and editing. What I did get out of it was that the author was trying to merge some of the wonder of life in Maine (and witnessing the Aurora Borealis in particular) with a diatribe against religious fanaticism, but what a frustrating mess!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nobody's Princess, by Esther Friesner

Helen of Sparta is your typical modern fantasy heroine -- terrible at needlework, bored by feminine duties. She'd rather take up the sword, learn how to ride a horse, and set out on a grand adventure. Along with her older brothers, she gets her wish as they travel through the Hellenic Empire.

The adventure itself is surprisingly mundane and mostly serves to illustrate Grecian beliefs and culture -- the most noteworthy part of which for Friesner is the rampant misogyny of the period and the struggles that a woman who wanted to question them had to face. But as is usual in this genre, nothing is really beyond a young woman if she is wily enough to attempt it.

In other words, there is no new ground being broken here. The warrior princess archetype has now become as well worn as the helpless princess type of yore. And Helen is not the most interesting manifestation of the character. Her assertiveness, unbalanced by any humility, comes across as selfishness more than virtue (although I thought the beginning of the novel started out promisingly enough when she started challenging the gods) and overall just seemed like stubbornness. There are some interesting possibilities raised by the grown woman warrior Atalanta, who serves well as a mentor and inspiration to Helen, but she is sent away before the storyline can develop fully (perhaps to return in a sequel?). This is functional historical fantasy, but it doesn't go any where new.

It seems to me that what the genre really needs is a heroine who straddles the gender barriers more convincingly. A young woman who masters needlepoint, poise, and ALSO kicks serious butt with a sword would be interesting. Or one that struggles between not wanting to be perceived as weak and feminine yet also doesn't want to prove otherwise by killing things? So many possibilities to make deeper characters. And I think readers are hungry for female characters who get to be both interesting and introspective at the same time. After all, (to choose an off-topic example) Bella doesn't become the most interesting denizen of the undead world by being either kick-ass or wimpy all of the time (she is interesting precisely because she can do both).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nothing But Ghosts, by Beth Kephart

In the days since her mother has died, Katie and her father have found their own patterns of living in a house that feels too big. He works away at restoring art and she takes a job gardening at the estate of a reclusive old woman. By chance, she also gets the opportunity to sort through several boxes of ephemera donated to public library. All three plot lines come together in the form of a mystery from long ago and Katie uncovers the truth about the reclusive woman.

I liked Kephart's previous book Undercover because it was an ambitiously-written YA novel, but this one may push things a bit too far. Her intent is to invoke a mood and once it is there, the story/dialogue/characters really don't matter as much (I call this the Curse of the Modern Novel). It might work for high brow adult fiction, but it makes for deadly uninteresting YA. It is a beautiful book, but without the blurb and the author's notes at the end, I really couldn't tell where this was going or why. Disappointing!

Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Told in the form of a memoir, by the aging Queen Ben(evolence), this is the story of her youth, beginning with the murder of her parents and her tutelage under Queen Sophia. Ben at this age is hardly an aspiring royal. She despises her dancing, embroidery, and poise lessons, stuffs herself with sweets, and generally causes havoc where she goes. By accident one day, she discovers a secret portal in the castle that leads her to a book of spells. Events then fall into place for her to become a much better person and to truly bloom into a princess.

The story is all good fun, full of the requisite fairy tale elements (magic, dragons, battles, fancy dresses, etc.) but with a good dose of modern sensibility thrown in (Ben's rebelliousness, the narrator's advice to young readers, etc.). It never really takes off though. As with any adventure story, you turn the pages waiting for the next surprise and this one delivers, but the characters are remarkably flat and uninspiring. The romance, such as it is, never really takes off. Ben's coming of age (so crucial for this narrative) is never believable. Worst of all, the passive narration throughout (and some unnecessarily "forsooth" language) serves mostly to distance the reader from the story and the characters. It isn't a boring book, but there are so many better recent examples of this genre to try out.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Raggedy Chan, by Camille Picott

This is a pretty hard-to-find book, so you'll have to put some effort into locating it. Is it worth the effort? That depends on what you are looking for. Let's start with the story...

When her mother returns to work, half-Chinese and half-Irish Emma gets babysat by her Aunt Gracie. The aunt, who comes from the Chinese side of the family, is a fount of Chinese culture and obviously disapproves of how Americanized (and Westernized) her niece is becoming. To rectify this situation, she devotes the day to exposing Emma to her Chinese roots. This begins with Aunt Gracie giving Emma a rag doll with black hair and almond eyes to replace the rather more traditional rag doll given her by the Irish side of the family. During the day introduces Emma to the joys of chopsticks (useful for eating the marshmallows in Lucky Charms!), making wontons, and playing mahjong. This part of the story follows fairly traditional ground of introducing an initially reluctant child to new things and simultaneously exposing the reader to some cultural diversity.

However, the story has much broader ambitions. Auntie Gracie also shares a story with Emma about Raggedy Chan (her new doll), who is actually a Chinese princess named Yao-chi. When the benevolent and rain-making Winged Dragon is stolen from her lands by the demon Drought Fury, the princess must cross the ocean to the land of the Jung-wu (America) where she befriends Paul Bunyun and Babe, who help her with the rescue.

At this point, the story probably sounds a bit like a merger of Princess Bride with The Joy-Luck Club, but Picott's ambitions go further still as the fairy tale (and even Aunt Gracie's culture lessons) become an overall story about the Chinese-immigrant experience, racism, and the pain of leaving home.

The result is an unusual book that is hard to categorize into a convenient niche. The story is complex and multi-layered. At times, it is a bit hard to follow and young readers might get distracted. The mixtures of culture and themes struck me as a particularly Californian viewpoint of the world and readers in other regions might have trouble understanding how it all fits together.

I found myself admiring the ambition of the work more than the actual result. There really are at least two (if not three) separate stories in this book and I wanted more focus, especially in a book which is probably intended for younger readers. As an unrealted issue, more sensitive younger readers might find some of the scenes (eyes being gouged out, skin being flayed) a bit too intense, or at the very least confusing.

I haven't yet mentioned the illustrations by Joey Manfre, but they deserve special note. The styles are a bit diverse (sometimes Disneyesque, sometimes quite abstract) but the artwork is consistently vibrant and interesting. Given the story's iconoclast nature, the drawings are quite appropriate and added greatly to the experience of reading the book.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

After, by Amy Efaw

OK, so I'm prejudiced on this one, as it is placed in Tacoma WA and the author has definitely done her homework (the geographic details are superb). When you spend your day working at Tacoma General and then you find that your nightly read is situated there as well, it's pretty cool. And hey, the last time Tacoma featured in any part of YA culture it was as a stand-in for Seattle in Ten Things I Hate About You, but I digress....

As our story opens, Devon finds herself lying on the couch under a blanket and feeling sick to her stomach. But within a dozen pages, we learn that she's just given birth and abandoned her baby to die in a trash can out back. The problem is that Devon has no idea that it has happened. She can't even remember being pregnant in the first place.

It takes the rest of the story to help us understand how that could happen and what Devon has gone through. It's not a terribly pleasant trip (neither the subject matter nor the heroine are easy to deal with), but ultimately Efaw has a lot to teach us about teenage pregnancy, juvenile justice, mental states, and the lengths to which people will go to deny reality.

Devon is a difficult character to like, and my more regular readers know that I'm not a big fan of the unlikeable character. However, I found Devon fascinating and thus irresistible. She does some amazingly stupid things throughout most of the book (some would say all of the way through the book!), but I could understand her motives and even sometimes sympathize with them. And, far more importantly, she didn't do anything out of meanness or viciousness. Teen stupidity I can tolerate. Most significantly, Devon's cluelessness had a purpose and was part of the story. In sum, it worked.

The story suffers a bit more. Efaw is so interested in downloading information to us (about the juvenile justice system, dumpster babies, etc.) that the book has to resort to lecture mode (usually done through the mouths of an expert -- the lawyer, the psychiatrist, etc.). It gets old and it gets boring. I call this the Judy Blume curse -- the writer wants so badly to teach us something that she doesn't care what it does to the pacing of the story. The only solution to this literarry misfortune is the editorial axe: if the information cannot be revealed as part of the story, then it doesn't belong in the story.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Miles Between, by Mary E. Pearson

There are amazing coincidences in the world, days when everything goes completely right or, as Destiny Faraday puts it, "one fair day" to counter all of the terrible ones in life. And Destiny has plenty of things to deal with: being abandoned by her parents at the age of seven and shuttled from one private school to another, never visited, and afraid to grow attached to anyone because she will inevitably be sent away when things go bad. But on this magical day, a mysterious stranger accosts her in the school's garden while she is playing hooky and challenges her to make a wish for a perfect day. This is quickly followed by her stumbling across an abandoned car which she takes with the help of three of her fellow students. Before they know it, one piece of good luck will lead to another and another and another....

A bit more like her Adoration of Jenna Fox (in the sense of being a fantasy about children with rich parents) and less like the creepy and desolate Room on Lorelei Street (of which I was in a minority of critics), this is a very lighthearted and harmless story about a day when things go right. As a story about endless good luck, there is not a lot of suspense in this story (one or two big surprises though). Instead, the story is anchored in the premise that four kids getting to know each other on a very strange road trip is enough of a story to keep us hooked. For the most part, it really does work, although the twists of luck vary widely in believability and I was less credulous about some of the more bizarre turns that the story takes. It is decent escapism, but not as thought-provoking as her earlier works. There simply isn't that much profound to say about good things, except the way that they help us to understand the bad.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Princess and the Hound, by Mette Ivie Harrison

Prince George may be heir to the throne, but he bears a terrible secret: he possesses "animal magic" which allows him to communicate with the animals. This is such an evil thing that anyone found to have such powers is usually burned alive. And so it must remain a secret. Princess Beatrice is shy and private, preferring the company of her loyal hound Marit over the company of any human. And she too bears secrets that may be even more horrible than George's magic. When their fathers ordain that the two should be married, their match seems unfathomable. But George and Beatrice are both dutiful and will obey the will of the kings.

A strikingly beautifully written fairy tale, told in an unusually fairy-tale like voice (avoiding the typical first-person action novel approach used in most fantasy). Harrison's PhD in Germanic Lit is put to good use as this story, while bearing no resemblance to any one legend, bears the style of the best of them -- part Brothers Grimm, part Parsifal. You can read the story literally and enjoy it heartily, but there are numerous additional layers to entertain you: from the "magic" that dare not speak its name to the struggle that Beatrice and Marit have to define their identity to the troubled relationship that both of the children have with their parents. There is an awful lot here to be explored.

Some of the most memorable scenes in the story creep up on you unexpected (the confrontation between Marit and the pack of wild dogs, the duel in the Game of Kings, Lord Peter daring George to plunge into the moat). Others are much longer to develop and grow with the dramatic arc (the bear, the demise of the kings, George's coming of age). What is so marvelous is that they all flow so well together.

The funny thing is that the "animal magic" stuff, so central to the story, is the part that worked least well for me. Perhaps because it is always being suppressed and concealed, it seems underdeveloped, even non-essential for the story. Its purpose (for me anyway) seemed more to illustrate a nice symmetry between human and animal world that makes this story stand out.

And yes, I will turn to the sequel in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rapunzel's Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale

I'm not a big fan of graphic novels (see below), but Shannon Hale is one of my favorite authors, so I couldn't pass this one up.

It's the story of Rapunzel, but with a bit of a twist. Exiled to a tower in the woods by her evil witch stepmother, Rapunzel (named after the lettuce) manages to break free in the nick of time (before she starves to death or gets "rescued" by a pig-headed prince) through some fancy lassoing with her abundant hair. Those braids make a mighty fine weapon as she teams up with a boy named Jack and the two of them hunt down the witch. This isn't like any fairy tale you or I know -- Rapunzel kicks some serious cowboy butt in this rowdy Westernized variant of more than a couple familiar stories.

The story is cute, but undeveloped, as I often find graphic novels to be. The irony is, of course, that I was a huge fan of the genre as a kid (Tin Tin, Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas, and a good number of adult graphic novels when I became a teen). This stuff reminds me of them. But they are still glorified comic books. The stories tend to be heavy on action and light on character development. The plotting is all-important, the narrative secondary. So, they are fun to read, but not very filling. And most of them are not what I would consider literature.

Take this example. Hale writes some pretty good and original fantasy fiction (Princess Academy is a wonderful book, as are the Books of Bayern), but this current story is terribly thin. It's original and contains a healthy amount of modernization (Rapunzel is pretty good at taking acre of herself). There's some humor and plenty of frenetic action, but no moments that I want to go back and read. Rapunzel is an amusing heroine, but not anyone I really care about. And if one were to translate this story into straight fiction, it would have a hard time running beyond short story length.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Red Glass, by Laura Resau

Growing up with her Mom and Stepfather in Tucson, Sophie has been exposed fairly often to migrant workers and while friendly to them she has stayed largely detached. When a young boy comes to live with them (after his parents are killed while crossing the border), Sophie abandons her usual fears and opens up to him, dubbing him her Principito (little prince) after the title character of her favorite book. And when the family discovers the little boys living relatives in southern Mexico, Sophie agrees to accompany the boy on the trip back. Going with her are her eccentric aunt Dika (a Bosnian refugee), Dika's boyfriend Mr. Lorenzo, and Lorenzo's son Angel. For Sophie, who's been afraid of nearly everything around her, it is the trip of a lifetime, exposing her to strange and scary new worlds.

A beautifully written journey through Central America. The multicultural flavor of the book (Bosnians, indigenous Mexican, and Guatemala) will appeal to the folks who worry about such stuff, but like the very best books that straddle multiple cultures, none of it really matters in the end. Instead, Resau has written a book about human beings, showing how we are all creatures of circumstance. Sophie's transformation from "weakling" to fuerto is as wonderful as it is expected, but she don't neglect the others. Almost every character in the story undergoes some sort of transformation, which draws us to them (even to the bad guys).

There's a fair amount of adventure and action in here to keep restless readers occupied, but more than anything else there is good dramatic payoff in the end that makes you feel like you have been more than entertained.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

OK, it's only the most hyped YA book of the year and it's been out for two months already and I haven't read it (nor did I score an ARC like the real reviewers), but I would be very remiss if I didn't get around to reading the sequel to The Hunger Games and posting my thoughts.

At the end of Book I, Katniss and Peeta have both won the Games through some nice manipulation of the rules, but things will hardly get quiet. Their little trick has unwittingly made them symbols of a rebellion -- a notion which doesn't even occur to Katniss until she is visited personally by the President. To stave off the movement and save their families from the leader's wrath, they must convince the world of their loyalty to the Capitol and to each other. But even that won't be enough when the next year's Games are announced -- a special round called the Quell -- and the results of the reaping are known.

It's not really worth talking about liking or disliking this book (there have been 100s of reviews -- most of them favorable) and the general consensus seems to be: if you liked The Hunger Games and want to read more of the same, this is a good read. If you're expecting much that is new, then you're probably in for a bit of a let down. But either way, this is quick, got-you-at-the-jugular reading. It is suspenseful, powerful, and good reading.

So, instead, let me talk about the tone of this book and its predecessor. These are gory books, to say the least, with more than a fair share of suffering and bloodshed (one might even argue that they are inappropriately violent for younger readers, but that isn't a topic that interests me). Rather, it is the message of this set up. What inspires the creation of a world that is this bloody? Does Collins believe that there are places like this? Or that we need to envision such worlds? What purpose does it serve? Most dystopian novels create their worlds as instruction to the reader (warnings, if you will, of what to avoid). It's hard to tell what this world's purpose serves except as a horror. And I find that a bit unnerving.

Yes, we have the eventual triumph of good over evil to look forward to, but at such a terrible cost that it's hard to really enjoy it. And what would feeling good about such a triumph say about us the readers? I'm really not sure what to say about all this yet, but it's the feeling I'm coming away from right now.

(Oh yeah, I may like the book, but I absoluteley hate the fact that Book II doesn't stand on its own -- having neither a beginning nor an end, but rather being an installment to get us to Book III -- like Back to the Future II)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Jumping Off Swings, by Jo Knowles

Teen pregnancy is one of those subjects that's been done quite a bit in YA and so it really wouldn't seem that there would be much new that could be done with it. The story itself is predictable and always follows the same basic pattern (girl has sex, girl misses period, girl can't believe this is happening, tears, crying, etc.). However, never get so jaded in the reading business that you underestimate the ability of a writer to totally surprise you.

Told in the alternating voices of Ellie (the pregnant girl), Josh (the guy), Corinne (Ellie's best friend) and Caleb (Josh's friend, previous admirer of Ellie, and blossoming lover of Corinne), we have a typical writer's challenge: how do you fit enough character-building narrative into 230 pages to effectively develop not just one teen, but four? Much to my astonishment, it actually works. Ellie gets to play the typical regretful and fretful expectant mother, but she's far from sympathetic. Instead, she make a series of errors along the way that have you wringing your hands, but you can't help but understand why it is happening (her distant mother, on the other hand, you will completely want to throttle, but even that minor side character is understandable). Corinne and Caleb have the interesting role to play as the shining example of what love should be all about. But of the four main characters, Josh was the one that caught my interest the most.

I've read some BLOGs claim that Josh's struggles with his feelings seems unrealistic, but I'd rack their inability to accept that boys have deep feelings as well up to the reviewers' age (young) and sex (female). (Hey! for all the years of abuse I've taken for being an old guy and not understanding teen girls, I think I'm entitled to my dig here!) If you ever have been in Josh's shoes (and yes, I have actually been in his position) then you totally know how hard it is to be the guy in this situation. Josh's balance of anger, frustration, and grief was utterly on the mark. And Knowles gives it just the right amount of balance -- neither playing him up as a saint nor claiming any greater rights than he gets (he's never portrayed as the victim). I'd have been pleased enough that Knowles wanted him to be something more than a sperm donor, but she goes much farther towards trying to explain him.

Ellie is the one who pays the greatest price, of course, but her story is less interesting because it is so well known. The strength of this novel is that Knowles wants to show how the pregnancy affects all four of the characters. It's a more nuanced read of the events. It doesn't change one thing about the facts portrayed or the shock you will feel, but it fills out the story.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wings, by Aprilynne Pike

After ten years of homeschooling, Laurel starts school at Del Norte High in Crescent City. She quickly befriends a boy named David in her bio class and things proceed relatively normally, but Laurel is anything but normal. She's a strict vegan, hates swimming in the sea, and one morning comes to find a flower growing out of her back. She and David are mystified by the latter development but quickly they discover lots of other odd things (she has no pulse, no blood, and she doesn't breathe oxygen). That would probably keep the story interesting enough, but when her father gets sick, things start getting a bit more frantic.

While the pacing in interminably slow, I actually rather liked the direction the story was taking in the beginning. Pike has a lot of fun re-imagining puberty from the perspective of a plant. That itself would have made a pretty good book. However, the point is really to bring this around to be a story about faeries and trolls and (a little) magic. That works too, but it's not nearly as interesting. The latter half of the book becomes a fairly standard fantasy adventure with death-defying and guns and battles, which seems a bit of a let-down (or as if Pike felt that the story needed to go somewhere else). I wanted something more ambitious and less formulaic. This isn't bad, but it's nothing new.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Trouble, by Gary D. Schmidt

Trouble is the one thing that Henry has always figured would pass him by in his safe blue-blood family and the idyllic sea-side ancestral abode where they live. But when Henry's brother is struck by a truck and lands in the hospital, Henry's world seems full of trouble.

Things get complicated. The young Cambodian boy Chay who is accused of driving the truck that caused the accident becomes the focal point of racial tensions in the community. Vandalism, revenge, and counter-revenge explode across the quiet Massachusetts community. Finally, Henry decides that the only way to escape trouble is to fulfill his brother's wish to hike Mt Katahdin and he sets off to Maine to do so. Accompanied by a rescued stray (who he calls Black Dog), his best friend Sanborn, and an unlikely compatriot (and fellow sufferer), Henry embarks on a trip that will change his life and the way he looks at trouble.

A remarkable and beautifully-written novel. From the very first page, I was blown away by the richness of Schmidt's prose. And while I sometimes wanted the story to move along at a quicker pace, there was little in retrospect that I would have gone without. Schmidt impressed me some time ago with his Wednesday Wars but here he absolutely outdoes himself. It's very rare for me to admire a story without even the slightest girlie element (and you really can't get more manly than the roadtrip-boy-and-his-dog genre), but this is truly a stunning book.

What's to like? I've already mentioned the writing, but there are other things that make this book shine. Characters. Every character in this book (even the supporting cast) are outstanding. Henry's struggles between grief, anger, guilt, and vengeance play surprising well (given the complex evolution he undergoes in this story). Chay is amazingly complex and his own grieving process is quite moving in the end. Sanborn provides some levity. But the best part is Black Dog, who utterly steals the show as the most lovable literary canine since Winn-Dixie (and I am not a dog lover, so you should be very impressed by this endorsement).

And then there is the story. It would have been so easy to just write a stages-of-grief book (Henry passes from denial, anger, grief, etc. and ends up with acceptance), but Schmidt has much higher expectations for this book and he surprises us even on the last few pages. Nothing is predictable, yet it is all plausible and when everything is revealed and in the open, the sheer tragedy of it all is devastating. No detail is superfluous. In sum, this is a master storyteller.

So, what are you waiting for?? I'd rate this the best book I've read in 2009 (unfortunately, it was actually published in 2008 so it can't qualify as a best book for this year).

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Fade, by Lisa McMann

Back in August 2008, I reviewed Wake (the first book in this series). Now, we have the sequel...

Janie has now taken on part-time work for the police, working undercover with her Cabel. Their mission is to track down a teacher who is sexually preying upon students at the high school. What this all has to do with Janie's ability to experience other people's dreams is a bit unclear, but it does plunge her into some apparent danger. There are also some visits from the Beyond by the late Miss Stubin to keep things interesting.

I really liked the concept of Wake but complained that it suffered a bit from clunky writing and a weird ending. Unfortunately, this book picks up in the midst of the weird stuff and stays there. And the writing doesn't improve. McMann attempts to write the entire book in present tense, which is very challenging to keep up and to make readable. She does succeed.

She also continues to try to simulate dreams with short micro sentences.

And paragraphs.

That aren't.

It's enough to drive you completely nuts or make you want to scream or just close the book.

In two words: it stinks. And it isn't writing.

In addition to being poorly written, this book suffers from a nonsensical plot, a lack of suspense, a romance without even a flicker of heat, and some of the most inane dialog ever put in a published YA book. I think it is safe to say that I despised it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

So Much To Tell You, by John Marsden

Told through the diary entries of 14 year-old Marina, this story traces Marina's recovery from an assault. The details come out only slowly and the reader is left mostly in the dark about the circumstances, focusing instead on Marina's struggles to communicate with her peers and caretakers. For that reason, it isn't really possible to say much more about the story without giving out spoilers.

This spare story is short and actually quite straightforward, complete with a feel good ending towards which it is inexorably hurtles. It's a classic (book of the year in Australia) and it has its charms. Marina's voice is very clear and her recovery is quite believable. The problem is that this story of a young woman who loses her ability to communicate has been done so much better since (Speak being an obvious example that jumps to mind). The book feels more like an Afterschool Special than a YA classic. The device of the diary entries allows Marsden to skip over events as he pleases which helps move the story along, but it also distances us from the other characters in the book. Only Marina herself gets developed and we are left to wonder what really is going on with the other girls (who we are told go through all manners of heartache and suffering -- based on the crying and histrionics -- but of which we never learn much in the way of details). It's a pleasing tear-jerker but an opaque and largely unfulfilling work in the end.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fire, by Kristin Cashore

Identified as a "Companion to Graceling," this story is actually chronologically a prequel, although it shares only one character in common with Cashore's acclaimed novel. Set in the same world as the earlier book but in a largely inaccessible portion of territory, Fire is the story of a young "monster" human named Fire who, like all of the monsters who inhabit this area, has the ability to bend people's minds to do her bidding. It is an unwelcome talent to the girl Fire, whose father used the power to pervert the mind of King Nax and sent the kingdom into debauchery and self-destruction. After's Fire's father's death, she tries to maintain a lower profile.

Two events thwart her plans: the appearance of mysterious archer with a foggy brain and the command that Fire come to the King's city (a place she has avoided all of her life because it was where her father did his evil deeds) to help the surviving royal family unearth their enemies. Once in the city, Fire becomes embroiled in untangling the politics of the court, unraveling the plots to overthrow the royals, and averting all-out war. It is a calling she resists but ultimately proves adept at, although she must approach it on her own terms. And always in the background, there is the threat of an unknown force that put that mysterious foggy-headed archer out there.

I've done something of a disservice in my simple summary of the story's plot, but it is a long novel (460pp) and a very complex narrative. You'll do well to simply believe that it all works very nicely. As for the story, I have a number of things on my mind upon finishing this book.

First of all, there is the theme of generations and inheritance. Almost every character in this book bears the scars and the legacy of their parents (or grandparents). Fire fights off the guilt of being related to a literal monster. Archer struggles with the legacy of his parentage as well. The royals are who they are because of the mistakes of their King Nax. Everyone struggles with not wanting to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors and with wanting to atone for those mistakes. It's a beautifully universal theme and adolescents (and older!) readers will appreciate a familiar theme in their own lives.

The second theme I want to mention is a bit more controversial: sexuality (and sexual violence in particular). Cashore's first novel was noted often by reviewers for containing a number of mature themes. That pattern is replicated and expanded here. It is not that Cashore is ever explicit, but sexuality is quite persistent in the world of this novel (with regular mentions of menstruation [which is admittedly an important plot device in this case], birth control, pregnancy, childlessness, etc.). None of this bothers me. I'm all for a healthy dose of mature and responsible sexuality in YA as it sets a healthy standard. What is trickier is the high presence of rape and sexual violence in this story. Within the first 100 pages, there are mentions of at least three rapes and many more of assaults and sexually-motivated attacks. It is integral part of the plot that Fire's powers include the liability that men feel uncontrollable desire for her and that that passion frequently leads them to attack her. This sets up dramatic tension of course, but it also creates a truly terrifying world.

I myself am torn over the issue. I appreciate the author witnessing for the overwealming presence of sexual violence in modern society. If young women are not aware of such things, then they need to be and if reading about a strong heroine who confronts it and actively protects herself can empower the reader, then this is a good thing. But at the same time, I worry that becoming aware of the prevalence of sexual violence can also make a person see it everywhere and retreat into a world of fear. I suppose others will say "it's just a book!" but it won't stop my conflicted sense of loyalties about this message. Is it a good message or a bad message to be sending out to readers? I honestly do not know.

In general, this is a very good book. It will please fantasy fans and it has something to offer folks who never shy away from fantasy (like myself) because they want more human interest than the ol' hack-and-slay normally offers. It is a worthy successor to Graceling and I look forward to the next installment.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Remembrance, by Theresa Breslin

And now for something completely different...

Remembrance is the story of five young people who participate in the Great War. Francis and Charlotte come from a wealthy landowning family, while John Malcolm, Maggie, and Alex are the children of the local shopkeeper. However, their friendship and their involvement in the War effort brings them together. Wound up by patriotism and idealism, these teenagers of another time grow up quickly in a War that surprises everyone with its brutality and harshness. Breslin has crafted a story that is YA only in the sense that its protagonists are in their teens. You will find no familiar tropes here. No proms, boy crushes, or any of that fluffiness. This is a fairly mature story of a time in history which is probably only seen by most teens now in two-dimensions in some World Civ class. Kudos to the author for attempting to make it more alive!

Telling a story from at least five points of view is a difficult undertaking, but Breslin does it well. Each character has their own voice and their own purpose for being in the story. As a result, the narrative rarely felt confused or cluttered. Excellent detail helps the period feel and anachronisms are kept to a minimum (Maggie's proto-feminism is nicely explored without imposing modern ideas upon it). In sum, this is a lively way to view a world of nearly a century ago.

I am not convinced that the book is truly YA. The characters mature and come of age, but we see very little of that development. Breslin is more interested in external details and in lofty statements about the horrors of the War than in writing of the micro-level growth of the characters. Love, for example, is accepted as fact rather than shown. There isn't much room for emotional growth in war time, at least not in Breslin's stiff-upper-lip depiction of it. As a result, this story works best as an adventure story.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Waiting for You, by Susane Colasanti

Marisa has the hots for Derek, who is involved with Sienna. Meanwhile, Nash who has known Marisa for ages is annoyingly interested in her at the same time. Marisa's best friend Sterling is hopelessly infatuated with guys she meets on-line. Marisa's parents are separating. And a stranger on-line named Dirk seems to know something about everyone. Who ever knew that Sophomore year could get so complicated?

In her third and latest outing, Colosanti gets high marks for getting the tone of contemporary teens down so well. As in her other books, dialogue is her strength (it's also her obvious love as most of her writing is conversations). Unfortunately, as with When It Happens, the rest of the writing just doesn't keep up. From the looks of it, she really isn't very interested in telling the story and most of the plot sort of falls in here and there in random order. At first, I figured it was an attempt at authenticity (having the narrator tell her story in the sort of random way that a teen might), but even that really does not hold together. It's a terrible handicap that turned this novel into painful reading. Such a difficult balance (excellent dialogue with badly disjointed narrative) and the result is a story that hangs together best when the characters are speaking and quickly falls apart when they are not.

In sum, a sweet story that feels authentic and has a great voice, but is not terribly original and is poorly told.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

In April 1979, Miranda's mother gets invited to appear on the 20,000 Pyramid [for you young'uns, that was a popular game show at the time] but the most interesting events of this story are occurring closer to home in the neighborhood. Miranda is receiving cryptic letters that she becomes convinced are being sent from a traveller from the future. The message is not benign: a friend of hers is in danger and she must write a letter to save this friend from certain death. But to whom is she to write to letter? And to when?

This modest but strikingly original novel is complex and multifaceted. On its face, this is a coming-of-age story of a sixth grade girl in New York. It's a nice story (twelve years old in 1979 is something I can personally relate to quite well), but nothing extraordinary and not really the point after all. The more interesting part is the riddle about time travel (told from the perspective of the people not doing the traveling). This is the clever part of the novel - never entirely spelled out - with just enough paradox and open-ended twists to get the mind going. Finally, there is a subtle but loving tribute to Madeleine L'Engle who inspired the author to write this story and whose books I remember loving myself when I was twelve years old. This is the kind of a book that makes you want to rush back to read those books again. Other details (about friendship, reaching for one's dreams, and confronting prejudice) are nicely added in, but not dwelled upon.

My problem with the book is figuring out who would be the likely audience. I personally found it a bit confusing to read and suspect I'd have to go through it another time or two before I really understood what was going on. I'm not sure that middle readers would keep up with at all. Teens won't find it very interesting because of the youth of the characters. So, I fear that this may slip off people's radars. The book itself has been well-promoted, but there is no wait list to check it out, so I suspect my fears are justified.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly

Going back a ways for a classic....

It's 1906 in the Adirondacks and Mattie Gokey is the 16 year-old daughter of a poor widower farmer, with dreams of going to college. Although she is bright and intelligent and her progressive teacher believes she has the talent to go to school, there are a lot of barriers in her way: a father who doesn't believe that higher education is appropriate, a family that needs her now that her mother is dead and her older brother has run away from home, a beau who expects her to become his adoring wife, and the grinding poverty of the North Woods itself.

Ostensibly told through the lens of the story of a murder of Grace Brown, her death is only a device to introduce the story of Mattie. Donnelly did her homework well (a bibliography at the end will give you her sources) and the book is full of rich detail (it's a great illustration of how to write good histiorical fiction). At the same time, the details are also just decorative and secondary to the author's purpose: which is to address the subject of identity at a time (and place) where finding your identity if you were a woman was particularly challenging.

I fear that this wonderfully-nuanced book has been taken over by the formal pedagogues and turned into an exercise to occupy the shelves of school lockers. The reprint edition I read comes complete with an author interview and a list of discussion questions -- the type that some lazy High School teacher is probably assigning their students to answer in perfect five paragraph theme essays. The story, with its healthy dose of political correctness probably brings that treatment on itself, but it never ceases to sadden me to have a book intended for enjoyment become a tool for formal learning.

Discussing whether I like or dislike a classic seems mostly pointless. If you haven't been forced to read this book for a class, then you'll probably like it (if you have been assigned the book, then hopefully you'll like it anyway!). There's plenty to like: memorable characters, the aforementioned intricate historical details, soaring hopes, and terrible set-backs. The unfortunate appearance of symbolism, irony, and Deep Meaningful Scenes is unfortunate, but intended mostly to keep frustrated English Composition majors (also called English Teachers) happy. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the interrupted narrative (too much jumping forward and backward in time) that Donnelly uses throughout the story, but it's very chic. It is, in the end, one of those awarded books that really deserved its awards.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cracked Up To Be, by Courtney Summers

Once upon a time, Parker was the perfect student, captain of the cheerleaders, and the center of attention, but then everything started to plummet and no one can figure out why. Why she started showing up at school drunk, failing all of her classes, or finally in a hotel room with a bottle of Jack and another bottle of sleeping pills. Now, she is bad news. With hardly a kind word for anyone and a determination to drive everyone away, her anger mostly focuses on her ex-boyfriend and a new guy at the school who is determined to break through to her. All of this is a thankless task as she spends 212 (out of 214) pages being a calculating witch to everyone around her.

Now, I really am afraid of the people who are going to take me to task with statements like "I really related to her" and so on. If you can relate to Parker, then you must be something of a sociopath...and a very scary individual. The point of a story like this is mostly to show the dead end nature of self-loathing (and to eventually show the character overcoming their problems and going through some sort of rebirth). At least, that's the only reason I can see for trudging through the sheer nastiness of a story like this. We want to know what could make a nice girl become so mean and how she'll break out of it. The irony that you begin to realize, though, is that Parker was never a nice person. A self-absorbed perfectionist, she seemed (even in her better days) to enjoy belittling people and promoting herself. This insecurity combusts though when faced with the reality that she too can become vulnerable and fail. The lesson, Summers would like to teach us, is that hedonism at this scale is self-destructive. As such, there shouldn't be a soul out there that wants to follow the example.

So, is it a good book? Summers is a decent writer and the whole thing comes across authentically. The story is complex and thus engaging. But again, this is hardly a book that one reads for pleasure. The main character is so nasty and so mean that I was writing her off early. And in the end, the explanation for her pathology seemed pathetic after all of the wind-up leading to it. I never quite had the pay off that I needed to reimburse me for the time spent enduring the character. So, how do you rate a well-written story about a character that you despised? If you don't mind despicable heroines, then you might like the book. As folks who've read my other reviews know, I have to like my characters (or at least see something redeeming in them) to make it worth the effort to learn about their lives. Parker Fadley doesn't deserve my time.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Sweet Life of Stella Madison, by Lara M Zeises

Stella definitely has a pretty sweet life. The only daughter of two major big-name culinary figures, she has all the friends, fun, and looks a 17 year-old could ask for. But she's horribly conflicted by having to choose. On the one hand, there's her loyal and adoring boyfriend Max. On the other is the gorgeous intern that her mother's hired to work at the restaurant this summer. So what that he's nearly 21 and so what that Stella's idea of a great eat is a ball park frank instead of the haute cuisine promoted by her parents? These are minor complications! But as summer progresses, Stella struggles to figure out what she really wants.

Now, a book by one of my favorite authors (Zeises) with glowing reviews from two of my other faves (Dessen and Lockhart) on the book's cover has a lot to live up to, but I think the reviewers got it right: this is indeed "the perfect summer read" (Dessen) that is "full of broken hearts, broken promises, and broken eggs" (Lockhart). It is no instant classic and I'll probably forget the details quickly enough, but it fulfills all of your nutritional needs and leaves you with a full stomach.

In a book like this, it is all about the details. Sure, I'm not huge fan of long descriptions of the clothes she wears or the make up choices she makes (I rack that up to being a clueless guy!) and I can't stand it when a character totally abdicates on their responsibilities (e.g., Stella's pathological ability to ignore phone messages), but it is one of Zeises's skills as a writer and Stella's charms as a character that the book devotes so much attention to those details. The food angle itself is fun and Zeises explores it in all sorts of ways (from Stella's flirtation with food reviewing to the way that her Dad communicates through cooking). Finally, the side characters (while fairly stock) are humorous and an integral part of the story.

And then there is the smart writing. Zeises caught my eye with her absolutely outstanding novel Bringing Up the Bones. As I've already said, this book is hardly that sort of classic. However, even in a light read, Zeises combines wit and insight with some very down to earth moments when she needs to be. Stella is very much alive and strikingly authentic. And while she has that caustic wit that we expect from our summer reads (think Ruby Oliver), she never really forgets that she's a teen and not just some sit com character.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Wherever Nina Lies, by Lynn Weingarten

Two years ago, Ellie's older sister disappeared. And while Ellie has tried to follow her friends' advice and move on, it simply hasn't been possible. Instead, she wonders where her sister has gone. Then one day, while sorting through some old junk at a thrift shop, she finds a drawing that was obviously drawn by her sister in an old book. This leads her to other clues and also to a hot guy named Sean. And at a speed that takes her breath away, Ellie is off on a cross-country road trip with Sean following a trail of clues that she hopes will lead her to her sister. A romance sizzles and things get interesting....

I'll start by talking about the first two hundred pages of this book, which unfold in a fairly traditional YA sort of way: with a few small exceptions, Weingarten has spun a beautiful and lyrical story of loss and rebirth. It's really quite breathtaking how well she writes. The party scenes got a bit jumbled for my tastes, but I really got under Ellie's skin and could see how her obsession both drove her and humanized her. The romance with Sean (and her friend Amanda's seeming jealousy about it) is also really nicely done and I totally got into the characters. If the story had ended on that note, I would be easily claiming that this life-affirming story was one of the best of the year.

*SPOILER ALERT* But unfortunately the story does not end there. Starting around page 224 (about where a good book like this ought to end), Weingarten decided to kick the story up a notch and take it from angst into creepy. Now, if you like suspense and psychos and icky stuff like that, then this is probably where the book starts to redeem itself. But from my perspective, this is where the story goes downhill. Sean, who admittedly had some bad vibes around him, suddenly becomes ultra psycho and pulls out a gun and the whole thing falls into melodrama. I'm left wondering why? Why take a carefully crafted tale with some really interesting characters on an interesting quest and plunge the story into a third act of silliness (and it isn't just the violence, but the terrible implausibilitty that the story falls back on)? It seems like Weingarten, having written a wonderful story, had run out of ideas and didn't know where to go with it. So, she took it over the edge. But it's more than a bizarre twist in the story, it's also a total decline in the quality of the writing. The ending (starting on page 294) should be skipped altogether as it adds nothing to the story. Rather than conclude the story, we are treated to a slow motion replay of the story with all of the gaps filled in (written at the level of a TV sitcom). This is especially jarring when contrasted with the smart writing at the beginning.

So, I'll have to issue a split verdict on this book (and probably upset the book's fans): I really loved the first 2/3 of it and was looking forward to praising it. However, the switch of genre from YA family interrelationship novel to psycho thriller was too abrupt for me (and unwelcome). If you like thrillers than you'll probably like the ending too, but I not only didn't like the switch, I felt that the actual quality of the writing declined in that last section.

That said, the first part holds out so much promise that I will be interested in Weingarten's next book and hope for better luck with it. She does good angsty stuff and I'd like to see more of it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Karma for Beginners, by Jessica Blank

Tessa has spent most of her 14 years being dragged around the country by her Mom, as Mom has searched to find her "soul mate." Now they have ended up in Upstate New York at an ashram where Mom buries herself in worship and Tessa feels bored and forgotten. Enter a handsome 20-year-old mechanic and, before you can say "statutory rape," there's romance brewing. But karma has a way of coming around and getting you. Music from the 70s and 80s features in prominently.

I have reservations about historical novels, especially ones placed in the 80s (as we well know, the 80s rocked seriously, but how lazy is it to be a 30-something writer and placing your YA story in the era we grew up in?) and I'm a bit tired of the child-abandonment theme in YA (lousy parenting is hardly inspiring), so this number has a couple of things going against it. I'll also nail this story for all of the attention it lavishes on (old) music (how excited can anyone -- except for the DJ on my favorite radio station -- get over Neil Young?) and drugs (tripping on LSD is really only interesting if you're the one doing it or so I'm told). So let's switch to what is good.

There's some nice character development in both mother and daughter and the parallel growth (or regression) of both characters is interesting. Their dynamic, while volatile, is more interesting to watch than most YA mother-daughter slug fests. There were plenty of characters I wanted to get to know better, which is frustrating but also the sign of a strong writer.

In the end, I'm not so sure that the story took me anywhere new and I found it dull.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Escape Under the Forever Sky, by Eve Yohalem

Lucy Hoffman lives a life to which very few of us could relate. As the daughter of the US ambassador to Ethiopia, she lives in relative luxury, but is trapped within the walls of the American compound. Let out only occasionally (for school and a tour of the safari), she longs for some freedom and a little adventure. But when she is kidnapped, she gets more of that adventure than she bargained for. Escaping is only her first challenge, as she must now survive somehow in the harsh wilds of Ethiopia.

This is one of those marvelous middle readers that combines some decent adventure and suspense with lots of local color and charm (creating both entertainment and education). To an adult reader, it is fairly obvious that Yohalem is dumping large dollops of personal experience and favorite tales (often haphazardly) into the story, but the narrative moves so quickly that it never bogs the story down. If anything, the story seems a bit intense for the lower end of the 8-12 age range it is being pitched at, but age-appropriateness is not really something I follow too much about. Children will enjoy this book for the suspense and excellent story-telling. I enjoyed it for being both entertaining and enlightening.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hate List, by Jennifer Brown

On May 2, 2008, Valerie's boyfriend Nick gunned down a series of their classmates and teachers in the school cafeteria before shooting Val and himself. Val survived the gunshot, but not the notoriety. In the months that followed, she went from suspect to victim to outcast, and no one (not her parents, her former friends, or even herself) could manage to forgive or even understand what had happened. In painful detail, Brown traces Valerie's path to recovery and her attempt to repair her life.

An extremely dark and depressing story, Brown sets up a formidable obstacle in the shape of a grieving teen and a community that is hell bent on seeing her suffer. And it is all dragged out for quite some bit (over 400 pages) as one horrific thing happens to Val after another. Consider yourself duly warned.

This is good stuff and the story is important. The closing messages about the meaning of hate are inspirational and redeem the suffering in the story, but it is a very long path. I'd argue that the story needed some editing and shortening, that the points were made too often, and that certain digressions (like a wonderful art teacher character who never quite forms into a meaningful addition to the story) could have been left out. Brown also got bored with her characters at times and rushed the story forward (the important ending is itself terribly rushed) leading to an uneven narrative.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Girlfriend Material, by Melissa Kantor

A bit late in the season, but what screams Summer read louder than a teen romance on the beach? In this case, it's Cape Cod and Kate and her mother have fled here from Utah while her Mom sorts out things with Dad. At first, Kate absolutely doesn't want to be here (having been dragged away from her tennis, a writing class, Dad, and her friend). Things don't start off well as their hosts' daughter snubs Kate pretty strongly and Kate is left to spend the days by herself. Gradually, she makes some friends and things improve. The love interest (Adam) helps her mood much more and a youngster taking tennis lessons from her adds some wisdom from the mouth of a babe. As one would expect, it all wraps up nicely in the end with a few minor surprises.

The formulaic nature of the book is, of course, part of its charm. You don't pick up a book like this expecting to be surprised. Not that there aren't a few of those: Kate's got a nice literary thing going (strangely enough, with Hemingway -- not usually the focus of teen girls) and the tennis student is a surprisingly strong character. Still, this is a book that needed heavier editing: the mother-daughter interaction barely reaches out of stereotypes, the subplot about the parental marital difficulties is weak, Kate's relationships with just about everyone (sister, best friend, new friends, and even boyfriend) are sketchy and undeveloped. The other characters (and the plot itself) works best as an instrument to allow Kate to narrate to us. And she's a fantastically dry and cynical narrator. I laughed several times. For a bit of warm Summery feeling, this book is the right sort of material.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pure, by Terra Elan McVoy

It was so easy for Tabitha to decide to wear a purity ring and make a pledge to keep her body chaste until marriage. The preacher who led the rally was persuasive and her friends were all doing it. But in retrospect, Tabitha isn't so sure now what it was supposed to mean. She has no intention of breaking her vow, but when she finds out that one of her friends did and that now her other friends have shunned the vow-breaker, Tabitha begins to question what the right thing to do. The answer isn't easy to figure out because Tabitha wants to be both moral and loyal, kind and forgiving, but true to her values.

A few reviews back, I said I was laying down a gauntlet for a YA writer to address conscience and religious faith in a mature and respectful fashion. Had I realized that the challenge would be answered so quickly (and in fact was already sitting in my to-read pile), I would have just hurried off to read this book! McVoy really hits the subject soundly and firmly. Tabitha (by her own admission) is no Bible-thumper but she struggles with what her faith tells her. A significant part of this story is devoted to her search for the Truth, which she gets help on from her pastor, her parents, her friends, and some independent research. None of this is ever mocked (or glorified). Instead, it is a fact of her life -- an integral part of her character. And, if organized religion makes you uncomfortable, you needn't be bothered too much by this element of the story because it is hardly shoved down your throat.

Now, that element of the story itself was wonderful, but there is so much more going on here. The entire culture of the promise rings was new territory for me, so I found it fascinating. There's some great dynamics between Tabitha and her friends and you really feel for these young women as each of them struggle with their consciences and with their conflicts. As a guy, I'll admit that the digressions about shopping and make-up made my eyes glaze over, but even these have a distinct point in the story (and I loved the fact that Tabitha's Dad actually has a talent for picking out clothes -- how often do you see a non-clueless father in YA?).

There are a lot of other elements to this story and I imagine that this would make an excellent book for discussion. That in itself should be considered a mark of approval.

The gratuitous mention of Quakers on page 242 does no harm either.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

September Sisters, by Jillian Cantor

As this story opens, Abby's father is about to tell her the fate of her younger sister who disappeared two years ago. But before we can find out, the story jumps back to the moment of her sister's disappearance and walks us through what has happened in the interim. As a result, we have the knowledge that there will be resolution of this story to come (but we simply do not know what it is). The result is a heavy gloom over this story of loss, grieving, and a family coming apart.

The way the story unfolds will not surprise anyone. Abby's mother falls into madness, her father grows protective and clingy, her friends drift away, and Abby herself fights loneliness and abandonment. A lone bright spot is the boy who moves in next door and provides a brief romantic spark.

The book is well-written, but hardly original. To its credit, the book doesn't drag nearly as much as it probably should (having stretched this story out over 350 pages), but it just doesn't have much to say. What was the point of the story? Did we learn anything new about grief? Or about the process of healing? Were we entertained? The truth is that this story has been told before. Telling it again, without anything new to add seems like an empty exercise.

Sister Wife, by Shelley Hrdlitschka

Following the long tradition of books written about teenage girls growing up in polygamist religious sects, this is a story of three young women who struggled with their faith and (moreover) with the restrictions with which they live. There are the usual stereotypes -- the greedy and corrupt leader, the angry father, the weak mother, and (of course) the doubting (and unbelievably worldly) young women. Two twists make this novel a little different: it is told by three different narrators (the doubting Celeste who wants to marry a boy her own age, her younger sister and fervent believer Nanette, and the worldly outsider Tavianna); and there is a subplot about a pagan worshipper who erects stone statues and imparts the (author's obviously) preferred spiritual alternative.

To set the record straight, I would certainly have a bone to pick with a polygamist faith, but these types of books are so intolerant of organized religion altogether that they are hard to read. No attempt is ever made to understand the faith (Nanette's beliefs are largely ridiculed as naivete). Instead, we just get an endless history of injustices and hypocrisy which are portrayed as the pillars of the faith. As this religion is described, it is nearly impossible to imagine why anyone would follow these beliefs. A straw man villain is a terrible cop out.

I will lay down a literary gauntlet: I want to see a YA novel that takes a perfectly reasonable faith and portrays why people like it, avoids any opium-of-the-masses or aren't-these-folks-so-dumb-and-gullible plot lines, and shows a young person struggling with that faith for real. We're talking nice subtle crisis of faith stuff. I'd bet big money that young people (and adults) would really relate to a story like that. The closest I've seen so far is the novel Converting Kate, which easily left this exploitative book in the dust!

The Girl Who Could Fly, by Victoria Forester

In Lowland County, things are done pretty much as they always have been done. So, when Piper McCloud starts floating around and then starts to actually fly, the McClouds are fit to be tied. They do their best to keep things a secret, but when all is revealed, the government shows up and everyone agrees that it is best if Piper goes off to a special institute for special children. This institute, while first seeming like a paradise to Piper, reveals its true colors as a prison where each child's special talents is driven out of them. Once they realize what is going on, she and the other children become determined to find a way to preserve their talents and escape.

While vaguely reminescent of the X-Men franchise (or the first movie at the least), this is a gentler story - geared more to middle readers. It's a pleasant read but rather derivative -- a secret base in the arctic, an evil matron, a child named Boris Yeltsinov (!), the silly simple-minded country bumpkins, and so on. Some of this is for satirical purposes, but it also seems lazy. The characters are flat, the story formulaic, and the most interesting subplots (the mysterious J, for example) are left unfinished. It's a fair enough read, but nothing spectacular.

I also share the opinion of a blog I read (and I apologize that I don't remeber which one) that complained about the portrayal of Piper's parents and the people of Lowland County. It is a tiring (and offensive) act to depict rural people as simple-minded and prejudiced. Rather it says an awful lot about the prejudices and narrow-mindedness of the writer. Satire has its place, but this is just mean.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Say the Word, by Jeannine Garsee

Shawna was abandoned by her mother at the age of 7, when Mom ran off with her lesbian lover. Eleven years later, when Mom is dying, Shawna gets an opportunity to see her before she dies and begins to discover what happened to her mother after she left them. But this attempt at reconciliation is quickly overshadowed by her father's moves to seek revenge for the abandonment. As Dad's actions threaten the safety and sanity of everyone around them, Shawna slowly begins to realize the things that have been happening around her are not right, and that she must take a stand.

The fact that the book is inevitably hurtling towards a happy(-ish) conclusion is about the only thing that kept me going through this masochistic love fest. The father is a horrible person and the daughter is not much better. Page after page of selfishness and meanness is barely mitigated by Shawna's incessant crying and self-pity (woe is me! woe is me! My Mom was a terrible dyke and hated me!). Give me a break! By 150 pages in, I was developing a true hatred for Shawna. What kept me going to the end was a need to see her (1) grow up; (2) lose her homophobia; (3) get a clue; and (4) become a decent person. I'll ruin the ending slightly by saying that she sort of does these things...but really, there's making your heroine a bit flawed to make her interesting and there's creating a mean nasty witch who almost deserves her nasty abusive father. (Wow! I obviously have issues, here, don't I?)

That said, I read the entire book, so I obviously didn't hate the story (I just hated the characters). I'm not sure I learned much from reading it, but it certainly sucked me in. The author apparently intends the focus to be on how Shawna struggles between trying to be pleasing and containing her anger (and I certainly got that Shawna has anger management issues), but I think the story had a lot more to say about how people who refuse to listen to each other create their own misery. If the reader can pick up that message, they'll have gotten something useful from it. What you will have to put up with is an anwful lot of yelling, a bunch of angry people, and some real nastiness.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Return to Sender, by Julia Alvarez

When Tyler's father is injured, his parents start talking about selling the farm, which worries Tyler because he has had too much loss lately (his grandfather has recently passed away and his older brother is leaving for college). Instead, his parents hire three Mexican men to help. The men turn out to be a godsend ("angels" as Tyler's Mom refers to them) but bring along with them three young girls (the eldest of which, Mari, is 11 years old, the same age as Tyler). At first, Tyler doesn't want to have anything to do with them and when he finds out that the men are illegal aliens, Tyler grows upset that his parents are breaking the law. But as time passes, Tyler gets to know them better and develops a close friendship with Mari.

Alvarez's political agenda hangs heavy over this book. The book's title itself is an allusion to a US campaign to crack down on illegals during the mid-2000s and the entire structure of the book is engineered to criticize that policy. Whatever your feelings may be on the subject of immigration, the doctrinaire nature of the storytelling was very distracting to me. Truth be told, I rarely have much patience for books with an axe to grind. It seems to me that there are really only two possibilities -- you are either preaching to the choir or you are offending someone (who probably won't finish the book anyway!). Either way, it is condescending to the reader, especially in a story geared towards younger teens as this one is. Save the politics for older readers who can engage the issues intelligently!

Putting that complaint aside, the story itself holds up reasonably well. The side characters are a bit weak (many of them are there to serve political aims) but Tyler and Mari are nicely developed. I especially liked that their friendship remain platonic and the author didn't feel the need to create a romantic spark. The bilingual narrative is unobtrusive and adds nice color to the story. The plot itself moves along at a brisk pace and is quite entertaining.