Saturday, March 28, 2009

Everything Beautiful, by Simmone Howell

When Riley screws up again, her Dad and Stepmom decide that the best thing to do with her during their planned vacation is to send her to a Christian camp in the outback for a week. This naturally enough does not go down well with atheist and wild grrl Riley. And in her first day or two there, she does her best to not fit in. However, she grows close to wheelchair-bound Dylan and (against her own better judgement) begins to enjoy herself, even as she manages to get in more and more trouble.

Despite some originality in the characters (Howell does a good job of giving everyone a twist that keeps them a step or two away from the stereotypes), the story itself is pretty much by-the-numbers and the conclusion falters badly. The novel gets points for avoiding feel-good observations about paraplegics and any temptation to throw in a cheap redemption scene. But the cost is that the story never quite wraps up and an attempt at spiritual depth towards the end falls flat. But I found the characters interesting and original enough to keep me involved in the story.

Friday, March 27, 2009

No More Us For You, by David Hernandez

Life as a museum guard ought to be fairly boring, but red licorice-loving Carlos has an amusing ability to attract trouble. Add to this some awkward relationship stumbling and a lot of boy-on-boy hazing and trash-talking (the writing is definitely R rated) and you mostly get a fairly uneventful story about a 17 year-old boy for the first half of the book. This changes though when a tragedy strikes out of the blue. Now the book becomes an exploration of survivor guilt and coping with loss. Employing alternate narrators (Carlos and Isabel), we attempt to get two perspectives on the events.

If my summary sounds a bit half-baked (and if it seems a bit odd that I have nothing to say about the narrator [Isabel] of half of the novel), that should give you a sense of the book's flaws. The book lacks direction, preferring to wallow in dialogue that seems to exist mostly to prove its authenticity than to further the story. The boys (Carlos and his male friends) are well drawn-out but the girls are throwaway and never really emerge with clear purposes of their own. This would be forgivable if the story had a point to make, but it never does that either.

My Tiki Girl, by Jennifer McMahon

In Maggie's mind, there is her Before Accident self (where she had friends and a mother that everyone liked) and then there is the After Accident Maggie where she has become "Frankenstein Girl" (hobbling from a leg injury) reeling from the death of her mother. Drowned in self-pity and blaming herself for the loss of her mother, Maggie has shut herself off from her friends. It takes a quirky outcast (Tiki) to bring Mags out of her shell. But the relationship develops into something more, triggering rumors and backlash from their peers. All of this aggravates the problems that Mags has dealing with grief.

Long-ish and slow paced, this story fails to deliver. Aside from an attempt at a cathartic ending, the key problems remain unadressed. Instead, we get a lot of ingredients (angst, dead mom, gender identity, oddball adventures, etc.) but no recipe. The characters are surprisingly thin for such a cerebral story (perhaps because their behavior is so predictable) and the story meanders.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Everything You Want, by Barbara Shoup

When Emma's Dad wins $50 million on Lotto, it seems at first as if everything is coming up roses. But that just isn't how life works. Instead, the sudden influx of wealth complicates things. Emma finds that all of her previous issues (insecurity, lack of focus, fear, etc.) get magnified by the money. Now, she can do anything she wants, but she can't figure out what that is. Add to this an extreme awkwardness with boys, and she has to do some serious soul searching.

This might be interesting territory to go down if you have never watched a rags-to-riches story on VH-1, but otherwise you might already be familiar with the concept that money corrupts. And you might have noticed that it has a tendency to turn character weaknesses into social pathologies. The question you have to ask yourself: do you care? Do you feel sorry for the poor little rich girl or do you (like me) get a bit tired of caring for someone who can't seem to get their life together? It doesn't help, of course, that the parents are not exactly paragons of responsibility either!

Overall, this story goes on too long. You'll get the idea in the first fifty pages that these are people who can't handle wealth. After that reality is established, where does one go with the story? I longed for some serious redemption, but Shoup avoids any real deep sul discovery. As a result, the characters never quite dig themselves out of their wallowing and self-pity. It makes for light escapism, but there isn't much in the lessons learned department.

Climbing the Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman

In India in 1941, there are two wars taking place -- WW II is going on in the periphery but closer to home, India is struggling for its independence. When Vidya's father is rendered an invalid from a savage beating, the family is forced to take refuge in the unsympathetic arms of her father's family. In their new home, Vidya must struggle simply for the right to read (the family does not approve of such pursuits by a woman). So, it seems like a lost cause to continue to hope to be given the chance to go to college when she graduates from school (far more likely, she will be forced into marriage). But hope comes from surprising places in this exotic and inspirational tale.

A lot of momentum is lost to exposition and explanation of the culture, but that is to be expected given the unfamiliar locale and customs, and Venkatraman makes up for it with a well-paced story. The characters are interesting and Vidya's ability to overcome her adverse conditions with a combination of luck and perseverance is appealing and rewarding. An interesting story that will appeal especially to people not familiar with the era or the place.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Girl, Barely 15: Flirting for England, by Sue Limb

This prequel to Girl, 15, Charming But Insane, picks up Jess's life a few months earlier (as the title suggests) when a group of French students come to visit on exchange. Jess's surprise at having to host a boy is quickly supplanted by her fantasies of ending up with a Gallic Stud. When Edouard ends up being a mealy geek instead, Jess turns her eyes to one of the other boys. Things get complicated during a weekend camping trip when Jess and her girl friends find themselves in competition for the same young man.

As I noted in my review of Girl, Going on 17: Pants on Fire (the third book in the series), the franchise seemed a bit exhausted, and as I started this one I was pretty much afraid that that was how it was going to go. But after some purely dreadful passages with the girls basically just doing silly gossipy things, they hit the countryside and the story starts getting interesting! Far too soon, however, we're back at school and it goes dreadful dull again. Younger readers may enjoy this book, but most American teens will find them either hopelessly tame or frivolous. For the most part, the joy and fun that was in the original is largely gone (or retread).

I was also rather annoyed at the two attempts to tie in Limb's new characters (Zoe and Chloe -- see forthcoming review of the first book in that series!). Largely pointless, these two passages have nothing to do with Jess's story and seem solely intended to create name recognition and product placement. Shame!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Julep O'Toole: What I Really Want To Do Is Direct, by Trudi Trueit

In this third installment, Julep is unwillingly drafted into a drama club production of Princess and the Pea in order to save her English grade. But she can't stand it. Just as she is about to give up (having fought a losing war against the paper mache trees she is being forced to make for stage crew), she is granted the opportunity to become an assistant director. This changes things immensely, but even Julep isn't prepared for what happens next!

Clever and witty middle reader material about an energetic and adventuresome girl. She had trouble asking for help (probably a problem that readers her age can relate to) but she is resourceful and charming. The series is getting a bit worn out and tired and this latest edition lacks the charm of the first book, but this is well-written entertaining material for the right audience.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My One Hundred Adventures, by Polly Horvath

In one busy Summer, 12-year-old Jane gets roped into helping the minister distribute Bibles, babysitting the horrible Gourd children, and meeting a series of men who used to date her mother (and may or may not be her father). There's her best friend getting dragged off to soccer camp and the lonely Mr Fordyce with his endless berries (and love for all children - even the Gourd kids!). In sum, a array of crazy situations. Jane starts off the Summer wishing for a hundred adventures. And while she doesn't quite manage that many, she does come close!

Another zany Mainelander tale from Horvath. In spirit, this is a close relative of The Canning Season, but with a slightly meaner streak to it (in terms of how the characters treat each other). For this reason mainly, I had a hard time getting through this story. It lacked the lightness of Horvath's other books and its zaniness came across as disjointed ideas instead of the usual cleverness of Horvath's other writings.

Baby, by Joseph Monninger

Baby is at the end of the line. At 15 years old, she's been kicked out of a series of foster homes and she is on her last chance before being sent to Juvie. Yet, this last chance may actually work out! She's been sent to a home in rural New Hampshire and learns to care for a dog sled team (and eventually on how to run the dogs herself). But can she accept good things in her life? Or will she insist on wrecking it all to follow after her boyfriend?

This well-meaning story suffers from two fatal flaws: an unsympathetic heroine and a story that grows increasingly erratic as it progresses. Monninger obvious loves dog sledding (he's written several book on dogs and is a real-life dog sledder) and that is revealed by how well-written those sections are. However, the rest of the book is weak and undeveloped. Everyone seemed overly tolerant of Baby's overly nasty personality and I never saw any real redemption or remorse.

The Good Girl, by Kerry Cohen Hoffman

In Lindsey's family, she is the good one. She takes care of her father, serves as a surrogate mother for her rebellious sister, reassures her mother (who has moved away and started a new family), and keeps silent about her grief for her dead brother. Despite this dramatic challenge, she manages to get good grades, the respect of her teachers, and the admiration of her peers. But inside, she is falling apart. And when she starts stealing things to soothe her pain, the situation quickly reaches a breaking point.

Full of lots of good ideas (and maybe a bit too many explanatory behavioral factors!) this slim book is maddening. It read largely like a abstract, as if Hoffman had started the book and written all of the key parts but never fleshed them out. There is much to like in this book and the character is understandable and sympathetic, but the novel could have been so much more expanded. And in doing so, it would have been a better read because we would have developed a deeper understanding of Lindsey's story and the causes of her issues. The current result looks more like a rush job.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Wild Girls, by Pat Murphy

In 1972, Joan and her family move to California. Joan quickly befriends an eccentric and independent girl who calls herself "Fox," and the two girls dub themselves the "Wild Girls" -- brave and fearless conquerors of nature. But Fox and "Newt" (Joan) are anything but fearless, and struggle with families that are disintegrating around them and afraid of what this means for them. They do, however, share a love of writing and through a Summer course at Berkeley in creative writing, they learn a lot more about themselves as well as how to craft a story.

Obviously autobiographical, I would have normally been prone to dismiss this story as lazy writing (how hard can it be to tell your own life story, peddling it as fiction?) but this one is done terribly well. There are many brilliant observations about human nature, beautifully-written narrative, and just the right amount of angst to make the story and the characters matter. In sum, this is a gorgeous book and a model of what autobiographical YA really should be about (i.e., take stories from your youth and spin them into something substantive that transcends your individual experience). Highly recommended.

Cycler, by Lauren McLaughlin

Jill has a terrible problem that comes around once a month -- she turns into a boy named Jack. And only after spending four days in a boy's body does she get her period (talk about nasty PMS!). But beyond that catchy premise, there's a story about identity as Jill and Jack struggle to find their place in the life of a single body -- a problem only complicated by adolescence, love, and the Senior Prom.

The plot probably sounds gimmicky, but in fact does not disappoint as McLaughlin quickly transcends the novelty and humor to develop a truly interesting story about gender identity and acceptance. I found Jack a bit too stereotypical (although I suspect that women have the same complaints about the heroines that male writers create!) as a teen horndog, but he grows on you. And the story, while carrying a strong message, never sacrifices its entertainment value. Recommended, yet strangely overlooked by most of my peers. Seek it out!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Book of Jude, by Kimberley Heuston

It is the late 1980s and Jude is a mildly over-imaginative teen living in New York in a struggling Mormon family. But she does not do well with change and when her Mom gets a chance to study for a year in Prague, Jude can't imagine a worse situation than losing her Mother for a year, until she learns that the plan is really to have the whole family move to Prague. Not only does this sound worse, it actually is worse as Jude's flights of fancy quickly deteriorate into psychosis and madness as she becomes unable to differentiate between reality and nightmares as the country around her shifts between paranoia and chaos.

Set against the historical events of the Velvet Revolution (for some bizarre reason, the blurb writer cofuses this with the Prague Spring [of 1968]!), Heuston's latest historical novel is an interesting dpearture from the usual mold. Part historical, part I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, this complex story traces stories of change, historical upheaval, religious faith, and mental illness. Staying true to the jumbled mental state of the narrator, the story itself jumps and bounds around from topic to topic. That can make for very frustrated reading as interesting subplots get lost in the haze and the main storyline never really wraps up. However, it feels more realistic this way. My one complaint is that the story could have been much longer and benefitted from fleshing out of the story. That said, Heuston is one of the stronger and more original voices in YA historical fiction today and worth reading.