Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ultraviolet, by R. J. Anderson

When Alison wakes up in a mental hospital, she doesn't understand at first why she is there. But as her memory comes back to her, it becomes clear that something has gone very wrong. She had a fight with popular girl Tori and somehow Tori seemed to disintegrate in front of her. It would be easy to assume it was an hallucination, but no one can find a trace of Tori and without a body, Alison's story is the only explanation that works. Not that Alison hasn't had issues with seeing things before: she sees sounds, tastes colors, and feels things she shouldn't be able to feel. But despite the recent trauma and her overall fragile state, she's convinced that she's really sane. However, it's not until a visiting researcher tells her about synesthesia that she starts to understand herself. That's when things go seriously weird.

I like the topic of synesthesia and particularly enjoyed Wendy Mass's A Mango-Shaped Space and her treatment of the condition. I also liked the first half of this book -- sort of a I Never Promised You a Rose Garden-One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest mash-up -- for its depiction of a young woman confronting a series of unsympathetic family and professionals. At times Alison seemed overly whiny, but she could kick it when she needs to and that made her interesting and a believable combination of strength and weakness. However, the ending is simply bizarre (quite literally deus ex machina). Until I was well past the 200th page, the book read like realistic fiction, but then a new story mugs and tackles the old one, taking us off into the stars in an extraordinarily flat and tedious ending. Worse than simply hijacking the plot, these last 80 pages completely change the characters, rewriting everything we've come to understand about Alison (and Tori) in the first part. In my mind, a decent book was basically ruined.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wither, by Lauren DeStefano

In the near future, a generation has conquered cancer and most other terminal illnesses, providing themselves with incredible longevity as a result. But it comes at a terrible cost. In subsequent generations, all girls die at twenty and all boys at twenty-five. While the long-lived "first generation" searches for a cure, the world outside has unraveled. Global warming has wrecked havoc with the climate. Rich men kidnap girls and build polygamous communes to try to propagate as many times as they can before they die off. Endless orphans are cared for by younger and younger minders. Innovation has been stifled. Humanity risks its own extinction.

We are plunged into this world through the eyes of Rhine Ellery, a sixteen year-old who has been kidnapped and forced to marry one of these rich "governors," along with two other girls. Unwilling to accept her fate, Rhine resists and plots her escape. But the chances of getting away are slim and the temptations of living in her gilded cage are immense.

It's one of the more drearier dystopian novels yet. So, while this new Chemical Garden Trilogy is well fleshed out in a technical sense, it's a fairly claustrophobic story. The focus is on the three girls and takes place mostly on a single floor of the residence where they are imprisoned. There is plenty of action in the plot, but the story is mostly internalized. The themes (polygamy, teenage pregnancy, desecration of the dead, disease, and abuse) are all downer material. The plot never lets up. So, this is the literary equivalent of a bad trip. If you enjoy that sort of thing, the book is well written, paced appropriately, and has sufficient payoff. However, I'll pass on the sequels in search of a (relatively) happier story.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu

Hazel and Jack have been friends for ages. While Hazel's mother tries to convince her that it would be a really good thing for her to make some new friends and maybe even give other girls a try, Hazel remains committed to Jack. Together, Jack and Hazel use their lively imaginations to turn the surrounding woods into an enchanted forest and to convert an abandoned shack into a mansion. They fight aliens and wizards, and save the day as a team. Hazel knows that only Jack really understands her.

But as they start fifth grade, things change. Jack no longer is as interested in Hazel and their games. He wants to spend his time with the boys. Mom tells her that this is normal, but Hazel knows the truth: it's a curse caused by an evil mirror that distorts your vision and only she can save Jack from the evil Snow Queen!

A strikingly original piece that transcends its genre. The story can of course be read as an homage to the tales of Hans Christian Anderson (The Snow Queen and The Little Match Girl in particular). Alternately, it can be seen as an expansive meditation on change and growth (and the difficulties of adapting to both). Or, perhaps it is a combination of both? In much the same way that fairy tales sometimes serve as fables to guide us through the real world, perhaps the real world is returning the favor in this story.

The good part of this story is that no answer is every really given and interpretation is left up to the reader. That is the strength of the book but also the root of its problem. Being such a thematically complicated book, it is hard to imagine the proper audience for it. The ages of the protagonists and the book's subject suggests a Middle School reader, but that is not a group that will find this tale easy to digest. Instead, I fear that they would find it pretty boring. So, kudos for a sophisticated and beautiful book, but it is one that will have difficulty finding readers.

Notes From the Blender, by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin

Neilly is having the worst day of her life. In one day, she gets dumped by her boyfriend, finds out that her best friend has betrayed her, catches her Mom in a state of undress with some guy in their kitchen, and learns that Mom is about to marry said guy because she's gotten pregnant. So, it's probably no big deal that the son of the guy who knocked up her mother is a scary heavy metalist with the hots for her.

Not that all is honky-dory with Declan (the aforementioned boy into Norwegian death metal). He's still in denial about the death of his mother and finding out his Dad is going to get remarried is totally not what he had in mind. But he has to admit that the chance to pick up a sexy step-sister would be pretty cool! (ew!)

And so, in alternating chapters (presumably alternatingly written by the two authors), we get the story of how two kids from very different social circles found that they had a lot more in common than they ever imagined. And just about everyone discovers that the world is full of amazing coincidences and that they all have a lot to learn from blended families.

Team-written books are the bastard step-children of YA literature. One imagines that they start in some sort of writer's workshop and just take off from there. Far too often they seem like an exercise in who-can-top-the-other? One writer tries to put the other into a corner and they must make larger and larger leaps of logic to move the story forward. Thankfully, this one manages to wrap things up, but there is a jarring difference of styles between the two writers. Declan's character is noticeably more interesting and authentic than the emotionally precocious and unrealistically mature Neilly. Neilly (and her chapters in particular) were less interesting, more hurried attempts to tie up the chaos stirred up in Declan's chapters. I found the unevenness distracting.

Additional note: when deciding to publish an endorsement of your book from a famous YA writer, make sure that they've read your book carefully first (Reinhardt's mention of Finnish Death Metal on the back cover is unintentionally hillarious)!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson

Spending a year in London studying at the Wexford School is a dream-come-true for Rory. Given her Cajun background from the swamps of Louisiana, it seems terribly exotic. But what could have been just a story of an unforgettable year abroad gets a twist of the supernatural when her stay is interrupted by a series of mysterious murders. Someone is replicating the notorious crimes of Jack the Ripper in modern-day London. And Rory appears to be one of the few people who knows who he is. That's when things start to get really weird!

Maureen Johnson doesn't write books with deep literary pretensions, but all of her books are original and interesting. Her heroines tend to be independent adventurers, unafraid of flying from the nest. They will have a romantic interest, but the boy never gets in the way of the story and is usually not terribly instrumental in its resolution. But beyond those broad requirements, each of her stories are unique. This one combines psychological thriller and ghost story, but sets the whole thing in the comfortable YA world of modern-day English boarding school. And unlike other recent YA books that deal with supernatural matters (like Fade, which I despised!), this one is lots of fun. The wisecrack about vampires and werewolves on page 214 is priceless.

Johnson crafts a good story. Excellent pacing, memorable characters, a heroine we root for, all in that familiar school setting. One might argue that the story would have worked just as well without the murders and the ghosts, but it wouldn't have been as much fun. In sum, nothing deep, but a great way to pass a few hours.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You Don't Know About Me, by Brian Meehl

Billy Albright has lived a sheltered life in a Christian cocoon. For sixteen years, his mother and he have traveled around, stirring up religious fervor and launching semi-terrorist attacks on the godless. While Billy suspects that his career as a "Jesus Throated Whac-A-Mole" is a bit out of touch with reality, it takes an unexpected package from his long lost father to pry him loose. But once pried, Billy embarks on an action-packed scavenger hunt across the country, following clues that his father has left him in partial copies of Mark Twain's controversial classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Joined by a professional ballplayer (with a closetful of secrets) named Ruah, Billy seeks the truth about the world and the meaning of faith.

The book, inspired and based loosely on Huck Finn's story, is an attempt to modernize and update Mark Twain. It does this without the controversial language of the original but introduces new controversies about sexual politics and mass culture. It's an ambitious work and frequently interesting, but overall very clumsy. The parallels to Huckleberry Finn are obvious and forced and the political agenda is simplistic and unoriginal. All of which is a shame because the story itself is fun and one wishes that Meehl had just let the story be itself without piling on all the Deep Meaning. I enjoyed the adventures and the interactions of the characters, but every time it felt like the book was trying to teach me something, I turned off. Unfortunately, by the end, that feeling became overwhelming.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

All These Things I've Done, by Gabrielle Zevin

Some seventy years in the future, chocolate and coffee have become illegal and Anya's family is deep in the business of the illicit trade in the substances. It's cost most of the members of Anya's family their lives and now Anya tries alone to look out for her little sister, older and mentally-challenged brother, and her dying grandmother. That's hard to do when your ex-boyfriend tries to rape you and then mysteriously ends up poisoned. And life isn't any less complicated when she falls for the cute son of the assistant district attorney. But Anya takes her loyalty to her family seriously and she'll figure out a way to keep things together, even if the list of her sins continues to grow.

Zevin writes interesting and original books. And while she places this one in a New York City mob family and many of the usual organized crime tropes are present, they are faintly subverted. There are the usual meetings, kissing of cheeks, and big guys with funny names in suits. But Anya herself still hangs out in high school, hides from the popular kids, and dodges trouble with her teachers and principal.

But what has really become Zevin's trademark is her ADD writing style, which is to say that she spends large amounts of efforts setting up a scene and then runs through it quickly. She's excellent at exposition, but not at concluding a story. So, she can send her heroine to prison, filling many pages to set up a prison drama and then just suddenly spring her before any of it plays out. The ending of this book is particularly maddening in this regard as Zevin simply loses interest in the story and wraps up everything in a breathless fifteen pages. I'm not sure if this is intentional or simply a result of Zevin's lack of focus, but it is a bit maddening to be patiently building up the suspense and just toss everything out quickly in the end. And when so many carefully crafted details become superfluous or ignored, it also seems a shameful waste of good writing.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Moonglass, by Jessi Kirby

Ten years ago, Anna's mother died in the ocean. Now, she and her father have returned to live in the town where her parents first met. It's hard to be new in a small town and worse when the locals know more about your parents than you do! But it is also an opportunity to learn about her mother and, as she does so, Anna realizes that learning more means confronting her fears and repressed anger at the loss.

A beautifully-written book which combines the author's love for everything from beach combing, scuba diving, and surfing to cross-country running and how to talk to people who are grieving a loss. The plethora of subjects and the intensity with which Kirby writes about them are infectious.

The story is one attractively constructed package. The characters are strong, realistic, and memorable. The subplots are related and tied back in to the story (everything is addressed, but not necessarily resolved). In sum, the story was complete.

Kirby scored a strong endorsement from Sarah Dessen on the cover of this book. This is actually very appropriate as the style of the writing (wistful and introspective, intense yet quiet) is strongly reminiscent of Dessen's own earlier writing (particularly That Summer and Someone Like You). This is not a story where an awful lot happens and the tale is hardly fresh (grieving for a dead mother is about cliche YA as you can get!), but a good book is really much more about context and character. I loved the book and look forward to reading Kirby's next novel!

Monday, December 05, 2011

Clean, by Amy Reed

In an inpatient drug rehabilitation facility for teens, five kids talk about how they got hooked, why they stayed addicted, and why they finally came in for help. Along the way, they try to understand each other with mixed success. In this carefully-planned story, each major character represents an archetypal addict -- smothered Christopher, abandoned and neglected Eva, physically abused Jason, sexually abused Kelly, and hooked-up-by-her-own-mother Olivia. Through a series of assignments and interactions, we get to understand each of them.

It's well-written and well-researched, the characters say compelling things, and the whole thing is amazingly predictable. You know where this story is going. Everyone starts off obnoxious and gradually melts by the end of the book. The tears are jerked out at the correct moment. All contractual obligations are met. It is, in sum, very sufficient. If you've never read a book on teen substance abuse, this isn't a bad read, but if you're looking for something new and compelling, this isn't the book.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Paper Covers Rock, by Jenny Hubbard

In 1982, at a boy's boarding school in the South, a terrible accident occurs. A boy drowns in the river after a drunken diving stunt gone awry. One of his friends, Alex, spends the next weeks trying to come to grips with what he saw and what he admits to others about the incident. To cope, he confides to his journal, for which he liberally borrows from Herman ("Her-man") Melville's Moby Dick, calling himself "Is-male." Because of fears that a young English professor may have witnessed the accident and thus be a threat to its secrets, Alex gets embroiled in a plot to discredit her and destroy her reputation. But at the same time, he struggles with admiration and infatuation for her, leading to a great deal of confusion about what to do.

An eloquent and well-written novel about fear and self-loathing among teen males, with plenty more implied than actually said. The high style of the writing and the large quantity of unanswered questions will provide ample material for classroom debate. Furthermore, the plentiful classical allusions are guaranteed to bring High School English faculty to orgasm (never mind the tragic English professor!). I can see now the study guides and forced class discussions of "what the author intended" and "why she chose to use certain words." No one could say that it is a bad book (it's superbly executed and beautifully done), but it isn't written to appeal to young readers. In sum, the book reeks of assigned high school reading, more than YA pleasure read.

It isn't so much that I hate literary novels, but books like this are not written for anyone to enjoy and the author doesn't have anything to say to young readers. She's neither interested in entertaining nor enlightening them. She written a clever book that critics will love, but it is a lifeless and joyless thing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Warp Speed, by Lisa Yee

Marley's the kind of boy who likes to maintain a low profile. Choosing the word to describe himself at the start of the school year, he picks "invisible." It's the best way to be, especially if you are a magnet for every bully in the school. Hardly a day goes by when kids aren't punching, kicking, or otherwise taunting Marley.

To cope, Marley has a Star Trek obsession, burying himself in trivia and trying to guide his life through the characters of the show (WWSD? -- what would Spock do?). His friends in the AV club seem to cope similarly: Ramen loves Star Wars and the new kid Max loves Batman. Yet, it's Marley who gets singled out for special attention in the halls and after school. And it's Marley who will surprise the others (and himself most of all) by revealing particular talents no one imagined he has.

It's cute, it's feel good, and it's a quick read, but it's terribly pedantic. Consider this the polar opposite of the book The Misfits that I reviewed earlier this week: The anti-bullying message here is muddled and confused, and in the end ultimately dictated by the author since the characters are too weak to figure it out on their own. Marley, we learn, is too dumb to figure this stuff out for 280 pages, despite the help he gets from several adults and from her current and former friends. Instead, the reader is led by the nose to the correct conclusion in the last 30 odd pages: bullying is best dealt with by confronting it. That's simply not very interesting.

One also wishes that Yee hadn't tried to make her characters fans of real science-fiction shows as it quickly reveals her own ignorance of the genre. Better to have made something up altogether. As is, we're faced with multiple references to Star Trek that sounded about as authentic as the history teacher's "rap" songs. And I found myself cringing as much as the students in that class.

Ten Miles Past Normal, by Frances O'Roark Dowell

When Janie was nine years old, she dreamed of living on a farm. To her surprise, her parents decided that it was just the thing they all needed and decided to take the plunge. But what seemed like so much fun as a young child becomes a major source of embarassment as a teen. Fourteen year-old Janie desperately wants to hide the fact that she's a farm girl. She'd like to be more "normal," but High School doesn't seem to be an easy place at which to do that. She can't find a clique or a club to join. She hides out in the library during lunch. It doesn't help that her schedule's separated her from her Middle School friends.

The only extracurricular activity that attracts her is band jam, where she discovers an affinity with the bass guitar. It is the patience and attentiveness of a boy with the unfortunate name of Monster who teaches her the intricacies of the instrument, but this isn't really a romance (although a few potential romances fizzle out). Instead, goats and civil rights activists play a significant role in the story.

O'Roark Dowell has a tendency to write about young teens in transition and she carries on the theme here. Some of the strongest passages deal with Janie and her best friend Sarah's changing relationship. There's also some nice realistic stuff about the awkwardness of romantic feelings at this age. And in general, the tone is authentic and age appropriate.

However, the story itself is so random and across the board that it's hard to know how to read it. Neither the Civil Rights stuff nor the references to the farm seem related (more of an add-on than an essential part of the story). It seemed like an attempt to dump in a lot of cool ideas and then try to form a story around them as an afterthought.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Misfits, by James Howe

Bobby is a member of the "Gang of Five," a group of four (!) kids who don't fit in and have been subjected to a great deal of teasing because of it. Addie is the outspoken activist, Jim the fey guy who used to wear dresses when he was little, Skeezie needs to work on his personal hygiene, and Bobby is overweight. Outcasts at school because of their quirks, the four friends meet in the afternoons at a diner to plot against the injustices of their world. At first, their target is the student council elections, but when their plans go awry, Bobby makes a suggestion that will change all of their lives, and potentially change things in their school for everyone else as well.

While a cynic might consider the premise of this story to be idealistic (sort of a pay-it-forward for tweens), there is no denying the actual impact of this story in the real world. Thanks to it and the efforts of the author, an anti-bullying message has been promoted across the country, inspiring anti-bullying days and no-names weeks in a number of middle schools.

But beyond the impact of the story in young peoples' lives, the book itself deserves special praise. My usual complaint about books written for middle readers (and I include some of the real classics like Judy Blume in my criticism) is that the authors of books for this age group don't seem to have much respect for their readers, talking down to them and lecturing, connecting dots that a kindergartener could probably figure out on their own. Somehow, no matter how bright the young protagonists of these books, the pearls of wisdom always have to come from adults. Not so here. The adults are far from stupid or cluelessness, but the good ideas and insights come from the kids themselves (and in words that seem authentic and believable). This makes the story so much more effective, because who wants to be preached to by adults when you are thirteen years old?

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, by Joanna Pearson

Janice thinks of herself as an anthropologist of adolescence in her small North Carolina town. In some ways, this is a coping mechanism, giving her the opportunity to observe, with detachment, the behavior of her peers (and thus ignore her own shyness and social awkwardness). However, as she discovers when she attracts the attention of a moody heartthrob, it also creates the impression that she is a snob and an elitist. Realizing in the end that her attitude is the cause of many of her problems, she manages to salvage much of her life with some mental readjustment. A beauty pageant also plays a role in the transformation.

The book tries hard to win you over, but it fails on nearly all fronts. The "anthropological" observations try to be clever and witty, but we've seen this done better (for example, see the Popularity Papers, reviewed in July, or re-read a classic like Speak). The relationships (whether between Janice and her best friend, between Janice and her mother, or between Janice and either of the two boys in her life) are underdeveloped and fall flat. Janice herself is contradictory, frequently switching directions in mid-stream. At first, she resists participating in the beauty pageant yet seems to adapt to it easily enough in the end. This leaves us wondering what Janice wants (or, more to the point, what Pearson wants us to surmise about Janice's desires). In the end, the book doesn't have much to say (and what it does say, we've heard before).

Entwined, by Heather Dixon

After their mother dies, Azalea and her eleven sisters are forced to spend a year in mourning, locked up in the castle, forced to wear black, and (worst of all) forbidden from dancing. But then the children find a secret passage to a magical land where beautiful people dance the night away. Managed by "Mr. Keeper," the girls are told that they can return to dance every night. They do so and it relieves the sadness that they feel at the loss of their mother. But Azalea becomes suspicious of Mr. Keeper. It all seems too good to be true. And before it is too late, she must figure out what is up!

Based on a fairy tale called the "Twelve Dancing Princesses (with which I am not familiar), this retelling fleshes out the story to nearly 500 pages. It moves quickly enough, but isn't all that well-written. Handicapped by my lack of knowledge of the original source material (or, apparently, the "classic" Barbie version!), I relied on the storytelling to lead me through the story. And I found that it just didn't hold up. Instead, I was continuously having to double back and re-read passages to figure out what was going on. This grew frustrating and, as a result, I found the writing tiresome. As a tribute, it might be a formidable work, but as an original story, it is lacking.

We'll Always Have Summer, by Jenny Han

In the third (and probably last) installment of the series, Belly is now in college and she and Jeremiah are dating. As the story opens, there is trouble in paradise: Belly finds out that Jeremiah cheated on her during Spring Break. She confronts him and the incident threatens to sever their relationship. Instead, they reconcile and Jeremiah proposes to Belly. She accepts.

Their families are aghast. Sure, they have always been close, but just about everyone else agrees that they are far too young. Belly and Jeremiah decide stubbornly that they will go ahead, with or without the approval of their families.

Jeremiah's older brother Conrad has his own reasons to object: he's never gotten over his own relationship with Belly. As the days to the wedding approach, Belly herself realizes that she still has feelings for Conrad. The resulting love triangle plays out much as expected, but is no less poignant in its predictability.

While I am not a big fan of series literature and romances usually fall flat (more because I am old and jaded, and less so because of the usual excuse of my gender), Han's trilogy is an outstanding exception. She has a beautiful way of plucking heartstrings and she does so through honest observations. All three of the books in this series are mature, well-written studies of feelings and emotions that ring true for all ages (both the adolescents and the adults seem real and vibrant). Yes, it may be easy to write a nostalgic piece about young love on the beach, but there is an unusual amount of substance and honesty here about what love really does to us. For anyone who has loved another enough to consider marriage, there are moments here that feel familiar.

If I have a complaint, it is a minor one: the epilogue seemed unnecessary and more like a desperate bid to have a happy ending, when a melancholy conclusion would have done just fine.

Choker, by Elizabeth Woods

Back when she was little, Cara had a best friend named Zoe to hang out with. The girls got into trouble a few times and Cara's parents never approved of Zoe, but at least Cara had someone.

When Cara and her family moved away, Cara was all alone. It was hard resettling and Cara's general nervous disposition didn't help (an accident in the lunchroom earns her the nickname "choker" and the mockery of her peers). But just when Cara feels it can't get any worse, Zoe appears on her doorstep and begs Cara to let her secretly stay over. Zoe has run away from home and needs her old friend to take her in.

Zoe's obviously hiding something and not telling the whole truth, but at first Cara could care less. Her friend is back and she is no longer alone. Having Zoe back, Cara again feels some degree of self-confidence. But when Cara's tormentors start to disappear and show up dead, Cara becomes suspicious of Zoe's behavior. Too late, she realizes that her old friend may be a danger to her.

Full of frightening imagery, this psychological thriller will make your skin crawl. I found the pacing a bit too slow and drawn out, but I was definitely glued to the book and wanted to know how it would end. A shocking twist towards the end threw me sufficiently off-balance that it was worth while. Kudos to Woods for creating the creepiest book of 2011!

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Summer I Learned To Fly, by Dana Reinhardt

Drew (or "Birdie" as her mother calls her) is burdened with a boy's name, an obsessed and entrepreneurial mother, and an unusual pet -- a rat named Hum. She doesn't really have any friends, so Hum is most of her life and working at her Mom's cheese shop with Swoozie (an ex-pat Wisconsinite) and Nick (surfer dude and mechanic extraordinaire) is the rest. Enter Emmett, the boy with a mysterious scar on his face, an evasive response to most questions, a strikingly deep knowledge of rats, and a plan that will take Drew away on the most amazing trip in her thirteenth summer.

The result is a charming and quirky romance about a moment when a shy girl left her comfort zone and made tentative steps to adulthood. Birdie, speaking as an eighteen year-old narrator of this story of her childhood, is endearing and insightful and imbues her story in a warm nostalgic glow. This is tear-jerking stuff and a perfect example of the types of things for which I am a complete sucker. In this respect, it is very much YA-for-adults (not just in topic, but also in its no-BS tone about human relationships between adults, children, and one another), but it is also a pretty story about a strong girl who learns how to unfold her wings. I can't say whether young readers will appreciate the beauty and honesty of the moment that Reinhardt captures, but I certainly did!

Hidden, by Helen Frost

When she was eight years old, Wren was kidnapped by a car thief who didn't notice that she was in the back seat of the car he was stealing. Scared, she hid and survived for several days before escaping. And while her feat required a lot of quick thinking, she was helped at the time by a girl of her age named Darra (who was also the thief's daughter). Darra secretly slipped her food and kept her existence a secret from her Dad. But when Wren escaped, the police came and arrested Darra's father, for which she blamed Wren.

The two girls never met up again, until five years later, when they end up - by chance - at the same summer camp. At first, they ignore each other, suppressing memories of what happened and pretending that they don't know each other. But the pain of it all is too much, and unsettled scores rise to the surface. Once aired, the two girls find common ground for an unusual friendship.

Told in alternating viewpoints through two distinct styles of free verse, this is a short but ambitious literary project. There are instructions on the end of the book for how to read the verses for hidden meaning and it is well-worth reading the book twice (once straight through and the second time following the author's instructions). It's clever but not the sort of thing that a lot of young readers will really care about. The verse itself is fairly bland and lacks intrinsic value. The idea for the story is interesting, but the end product is not so impressive.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Small Town Sinners, by Melissa Walker

As the youth pastor's daughter in her town's major church, Lacey is a fervent believer in it and her congregation's good works. The highlight of which has always been the annual "Hell House" (a melodramatic morality play used to acquire converts) that her church's teen group puts on to show the downfalls of sin. And while Lacey has come to see its flaws as she has grown older, she still longs to be a star and help save souls.

However, things are starting to change. A childhood friend named Ty moves back to town. He has secrets and hides his past but still makes her question her faith, with his ideas and statements. And around Lacey, things are happening that challenge her assumptions about moral questions being so cut and dried. Turning to her parents doesn't help. They don't have answers and even try to dissuade her from asking her questions. So she finds herself striking out on her own.

When it comes to teens and religion in YA, this theme of independent youth challenging rigid paternalistic faith structures is a common approach. And the idea of using an outsider bad boy to trigger the crisis of faith is a similarly familiar approach (think Footloose for example). The problem that most of these stories have is that the heroine's faith is usually a paper tiger -- easily challenged with a bit of common sense and then summarily vanquished. That's an easy out and certainly an issue in this book. Walker is obviously not a fellow-traveler of Evangelicals and shows that she can't accept that people would actually believe this stuff. But she also has the good sense to respect that her characters' faith would be difficult to dislodge. And so, while Lacey is shown questioning her faith, she does not simply toss it aside. That makes this story stronger than most.

However, I'm still seeking a book abnout teens and religion that does not walk us through the process of how the characters reach the conclusion which the author has already decided that they should have. In my mind, Walker's antipathy to Evangelicals is almost as bad as the Christian Inpirational novels that I occasionally pick up. It's a disservice to readers to portray religious faith as something so easy to resolve. So, you can put this in my want-to-read category: a book about a young person seeking faith who finds it in the end, but where the particular direction the book will take is not a foregone conclusion from page one. (My other big literary wish, of course, is the warrior princess who enjoys embroidery and slaughtering her enemies with a kick-ass sword!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sean Griswold's Head, by Lindsey Leavitt

When Payton discovers that her father has MS, the shock that he is sick isn't nearly as great as her surprise at learning that she's been kept in the dark about this for the past six months. Even her older brothers have known about it the whole time. However, her family has kept it a secret because they felt she was overly sensitive and wouldn't be able to handle the truth.

In shock and in anger, she gives her family the silent treatment. Her reward for this is getting sent to her High School guidance counselor for talk therapy. There, it is her counselor's idea that she needs to find something to focus on to journal about and sort out her feelings about her father's illness. But Payton finds it difficult to choose a worthy subject to center upon. In desperation, she chooses to focus on the back of the head of Sean Griswold, a boy who sits in front of her in biology class. Her first entries are silly and frivolous, but gradually she starts learning more and more about her subject until Payton realizes that she is falling in love.

An above average romance for younger teens. It gets some gravity from its topics of death, dying, and grief, but at its heart there's the romance, which doesn't have a lot of steam (the younger target audience probably doesn't need much -- it's all in the anticipation!). The subject of Payton leaning to cope with her father's illness is also handled pedantically (but again that's probably a requirement of the target audience). So where the story really shines is in Payton's appealing personality and some funny situations.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Shine, by Lauren Myracle

Over the past couple of years, Cal has shut herself off from her friends and become a loner. However, when an old friend Patrick is found badly beaten, bound to a gas pump, and with the nozzle shoved down his throat, Cal finds she can't continue to be shut down. The brutality of the crime (far too easily blamed by the police on out-of-towners) drives her to try to uncover the culprit. But as she starts to poke around, she quickly learns how far people will go to hide the truth and how much the people of her town have to fear. Rather than discourage her, the search emboldens Cal to dredge up the facts of what happened, even as it threatens to reveal her own truths to the world.

A surprisingly complex story of rural America. This isn't the simpleton hillbilly America of so many novels, nor is it an innocent and sweet place. Myracle's country, instead, is a world where meth production and consumption has invaded, driven by the despair of a world without jobs or future. It's a place where people cover up the truth because they realize that there is no point in knowing it. It's a grim world with its own sense of justice and reciprocity.

The book is impressive. The explanation for what happened to Patrick (and why it happened) is only arrived at through an honest (and painfully slow) unraveling of layer upon layer of smaller hidden truths. The pacer is pitch perfect. On only on a few occasions did I find myself ahead of the narrator in figuring things out. That kept me hooked and made the reading (aside from a fairly slow start) into an addiction.

If there is a fault, it is the nature of the story. I found myself disliking the characters so intensely that I began to not care what happened to them. That again is actually a credit to Myracle's writing. The characters are so well-formed that my dislike came because of who they were not because of how they were drawn up. So, while the story and its characters disgusted me, I still found myself drawn in.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

When Jacob's grandfather is killed, Jacob seems to be the only person who realizes the truth that grandpa was killed by monsters. Jacob himself doesn't want to believe it. He had always been skeptical about his grandfather's stories about evil creatures.

Grandfather was always telling stories. About the boy made up of bees, or the girl who floated in the air, or the invisible boy, or the large bird who took care of all the "peculiar" children when grandpa was still a child himself. But Jacob's own experience convinces him that these stories, which always seemed like fairy tales, must have an element of truth. And now Jacob wants to figure out what that truth was.

Along with his father, he travels to an isolated Welsh island and finds the ruins of the orphanage where grandfather lived. And, while the initial search is fruitless, Jacob eventually finds clues of what happened to the peculiar children, and what dangers lie ahead.

The most striking thing about this book is not so much the story, as its presentation. Through some friends who collect antique photos, Riggs has found several dozen unusual anonymous photographs and created a story that links all of them together. Spread throughout the book, these reproduced images are creepy and yet also beautiful. As a collector myself, this was an innately appealing concept and I enjoyed the design immensely.

Beyond the artistry and the sheer great look of this book, the story is also fun. More time could have been spent describing and developing the peculiar children themselves (who remind me a bit of the teen X-Men), but Riggs has a story to tell and he moves that along quite well. There isn't tremendous emotional depth here, but it's still a decent fantasy-adventure read.

The Mermaid's Mirror, by L. K. Madigan

Lena loves to be by the ocean and dreams of learning to surf. However, for some reason, her father (a legendarily good ex-surfer himself) won't let her try it. But that is just the beginning of the mysteries. There's also the disappearance of her mother when she was younger (which neither her father nor step mother will discuss), a deranged man who wanders the beach looking for someone, and sightings out in the water of strange creatures that look surprisingly human. But as Lena finds out the answers to these mysteries, it forces her to make decisions about her future that have no good solution.

A surprisingly limp telling of the typical YA mermaid tale. It lacks the humor of Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings or the warm appeal of The Tail of Emily Windsnap. Instead, we get a familiar story of a half-human, half-mer child who seeks out her absent mother. As if that wasn't uninspiring enough, dramatic points bob up to the surface in this story and then sink to the bottom with little notice. At least two separate romances are introduced but left undeveloped. The end result is a story that covers the bases, but never really engages any particular theme.

Through Her Eyes, by Jennifer Archer

Tansy, her mother, and her grandfather move every year or two, so that Mom can live amidst the setting for her next novel. Mom claims that she needs to be immersed in order to write, but Tansy suspects that Mom is afraid of setting down roots. Regardless of the reason, they have lived in many different places, including Nashville, Seattle, and Boston. This time, they end up in small Cedar Canyon, Texas, which happens to also be her grandfather's hometown. While that ought to please grandpa, senility has made him largely uncommunicative. Still, it certainly seems like he isn't too happy to be back home.

For Tansy, small-town Texas certainly isn't a terribly friendly place to live. Most of the kids ignore her, except for a strange but precocious girl several years too young for her grade. But Tansy's social life is only peripheral to this story, because there are strange things afoot! The house they are living in is rumored to be haunted and Tansy has noticed a fair share of unexplained phenomena (seeing people from the past through the viewfinder of her camera, hearing a nightingale's call (even though they are not native to North America), and eventually finding a way to actually enter the world of old photographs). It all points to a horrible event in the past that must be resolved if the hauntings are to cease.

This is a busy supernatural thriller, and poorly paced. While it takes a while to sort everything out, the story meanders so slowly that you find yourself well ahead of the characters. The result of this is that I found myself getting bored waiting for them to figure out what had already become clear to me. More pruning to make the story taut would have helped. The conclusion gets pretty muddy as well, but here it seems intended to leave the ending ambiguous. That didn't work for me either. Overall, I found this a pretty average read.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

I Am J, by Cris Beam

J has always known he was a boy, even if his body didn't agree with him. When his mother wanted him to wear dresses, he knew something just felt wrong. And as he hit adolescence, those feelings grew stronger and more complex, even as his body changed in the wrong way.

Now, in his senior year, J reaches a crisis point where he has become tired of being accused of being a dyke by his classmates. He can no longer hide his feelings from his parents. So, he learns how to bind his breasts to hide them, and attempts to strike out on his own as a boy. He practices talking and walking like a boy. He picks up a girl, but finds that the fear of revealing the truth about himself drives a wedge between them. And he dreams of starting hormone treatment to start the physical transition. Along the way, he is confronted by confused and angry friends and family, and realizes that if he's going to actually do this, he may need to do it on his own.

In touching and insightful detail, Beam shows us the inside of an adolescent transgender mind and gives us a taste of the trans community. It's complicated and, while the plot itself hardly moves, the complex mix of frustration, anger, hurt, hope, and naivete that make up J's world is unique enough to make the path interesting. Beam is able to draw effectively on her experience working with trans teens and acknowledges that J's character contains numerous pieces of her clients and friends. In fact, the true love and devotion that the author feels for the trans community shines through on every page of this sympathetic portrait.

At the same time that I was impressed at the groundbreaking nature of this work (that goes far beyond existing novels like Luna or Debbie Harry Sings In French) I was frustrated by Beam's decision to tell this very personal story in the third person. By doing so, the reader is constantly kept at arm's length away from J, and we are forced to learn about his world in only maddeningly brief glances. I suspect that she chose to write the book that way because she lacked the confidence to truly immerse herself in J's mind, but the effort could have paid off so well!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Another dystopia (what is the fascination with these things?).

In this one, Chicago has been turned into a camp of competing factions -- Abnegation (self-sacrificing), Candor (honest), Erudite (intellectual), Amity (peaceful), and Dauntless (warring). At the age of 16, each child must choose where they want to live. Beatrice, raised in an Abnegation home, has never felt worthy enough to stay and struggles with her decision. She chooses to become Dauntless. The initiation process is far from easy and a bulk of this book is devoted to that difficult process.

However, there are other forces at play and far more serious stakes. The factions are restless and struggling for control. Beatrice (renaming herself as "Tris") has an important role to play. Her rootless feelings are actually a result of her status as an outsider to all of the factions -- a "divergent" one -- a position that she must keep secret. It may well be the key to saving her people but could easily get her killed.

This is a fairly creative set-up. While one could complain about the simplistic nature of carving out such absolute "factions," it's well-implemented. The book itself doesn't break much new ground though. There's the high degree of brutality and violence that has become a trademark of the genre (e.g., Hunger Games or Ship Breaker). There's the appealing but ultimately egocentric idea that adults are worthless for saving the world and that only a team of adolescents can pull it off. In other words, stuff we've seen before. The novel does have some interesting things to say about violence, parents, and fear, but in the end, it's mostly a gorefest. This is seen most clearly in the token romances in the story, which are never allowed to interfere too much with the action. Once the troops fall under mind control (in a sequence lifted shamelessly from the movie I Robot), we just sit back and watch the body count climb. Movie options and the sequel (due in May 2012) are a foregone conclusion.

Friday, September 30, 2011

She Loves You, She Loves You Not, by Julie Anne Peters

When Alyssa's father discovers that she is a lesbian, he throws her out of the house and she has to go live with her estranged mother in a small town in Colorado. Traumatized by the events that have led up to her exile (which include a powerful and ultimately obsessional relationship with a girl two years younger) and feeling alone and abandoned by family and friends, she tries to adapt to her new surroundings. In doing so, she discovers that her understandings of her own family and herself are not nearly as clear as she once thought, and that the path to recovery will take her to very different places.

Peters has made a great career out of writing insightful books about adolescent LGBTs. While they share that theme in common, each novel is strikingly unique. Her characters are thoughtful and introspective, but believably immature. Sexual orientation is core to the stories and she does a great job of illustrating both universal truths about all teens as well as the unique issues that young people face if they are gay. And so, this story shows us how the interference of adults (and the homophobia of society itself) complicates the already volatile nature of adolescent romance. How young gays struggle with their identity, not yet certain of which way they want to be (and thus mess with each other's heads as a result) becomes a story which is neither superficial nor didactic polemic. Instead, homosexuality is essential to the story that is ultimately not about sexual orientation at all.

The book does have some rough spots. We have numerous subplots (Alyssa's relationship with her parents and her step-mother, romantic betrayals both between children and between adults, some natural disasters, several road accidents, and a little workplace drama). As usual, these seem distracting from the story, as if Peters wasn't too sure where any of them were going when she wrote them in, and then couldn't bring herself to prune them out later. The stylistic device of doing flashbacks in second-person narration is awkward as well. Still, the overall sensitivity and sympathy of the story make this a great book for readers, regardless of which way they swing.

Flip, by Martyn Bedford

When Alex wakes up one morning, he notices that things are definitely wrong (wrong bed, wrong room) and when he looks in the mirror he has the biggest shock of all -- he's in the wrong body! Somehow, he's become another boy altogether -- Philip "Flip" Garamond. And the two of them couldn't be any more different: Flip is apparently a rap-loving jock with a lot of friends and a way with the women, while Alex is a shy nerd. Trying to maintain the pretense of being Flip on the outside while still being Alex inside is difficult to do, but no one will believe Alex that he isn't Flip. To them, their old chum Flip is just acting a bit peculiar.

Time is running out. As Alex learns more about what has happened to him (and Flip), it becomes clear that if it is ever going to be possible to switch back, it will have to be soon. However, the process is anything but clear (and maybe even impossible?). So Alex must hurry to figure it out or risk being trapped forever in the wrong body.

There's no major emotional lesson here, but plenty of good mind-twisting suspense and adventure. Bedford has excellent pacing and the story keeps you entertained and enthralled. I was definitely sucked in and found it to be a good read.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Close to Famous, by Joan Bauer

Foster and her mother are fleeing from Mom's ex-boyfriend (an abusive Elvis impersonator) when they end up in Culpepper, West Virginia. The town's seen better days (the local jam and jelly factory has been shut down and the only large amployer in town is a prison), but they find a home there.

Foster has a lot of things working against her (her codependent mothetr, illiteracy, and a fear of failure), but she also has perseverence, a strong memory, and incredible baking skills. So, it's her way in a kitchen (and the baked goods she produces) that will make a difference in her world. As she improves her own lot, she also inspires a boy who dreams of becoming a documentary filmmaker and an actress who has slipped into life as a recluse.

Bauer has a great formula, taking young women with a particular talent and showing take that skill places. Previously, we've seen it in waitressing (Hope Was Here), pumpkin growing (Squashed), and shoe sales (Rules of the Road), among others. It's a narrative that provides ample opportunity to show growth and achieve a feel-good ending. And it tends to work best when the story fixates on the plot.

Unfortunately, it's a lack of focus which really does this in. Bauer is fond of subplots and this book is drowning in them. In fact, it really isn't clear what is the main story. Is it Foster's culinary talent (hard to see it when there's no contest or climax to the baking story)? Is it Foster's struggle with literacy (that one's left unfinished and unresolved)? Throw in crazy Elvis dude, the manic actress, and the boy and it all feels rather random and unplotted.

Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have) by Sarah Mlynowski

When April's father announces that he's gotten a new job in Cleveland and that they are going to have to move away from Connecticut in the next few days, April is devastated. She's just gotten up the nerve to have sex with her boyfriend Noah and there's also a lifetime of friends that she will miss. But her best friend Vi has another idea: April can come stay with her. The problem: Vi's mother is going to be gone as well so the girls will be alone in the house. While it seems impossible at first, April manages to convince her father that she'll be properly chaperoned and the girls embark on a teen's dream of home alone and unsupervised parties.

However, the independence is not anything like April imagined. She has to struggle to sort through her life (learning to cook, start a dishwasher, etc.) and makes plenty of mistakes along the way. While she makes some bad decisions, she also learns that she can live with the consequences. What she doesn't count on is how lonely it is to live on your own.

This is a book to give any parent the chills to imagine, but moving beyond the premise, there's a nice story here about growth, making a few mistakes, but overall owning your life. It could have all turned out a lot worse, but there are enough downturns to be realistic without melodrama. Things do wrap up a bit too sweetly in the girl (with life's problems solved through girl bonding and donuts) but you root for these kids and their path to self-realization. Fun!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bumped, by Megan McCafferty

In the near future, a virus has turned the majority of people sterile by the time they turn eighteen. Now, only teenagers can have children. And that has had two important consequences: becoming a pregnant teen has become both cool and the economic value of pregnancy has given young girls a new (and mostly false) sense of agency (with no small irony, being a professional surrogate mother is now so lucrative that girls do it to put themselves through college!).

Enter Melody and her twin sister Harmony. Separated at birth, Melody has grown up in this pro-natal culture and dreams of signing a major contract as a professional surrogate. Harmony, in contrast, has been raised in a religious commune where girls marry in their early teens to fulfill their child-bearing duties before they are too old. Both young women have totally swallowed the myths of their culture, but meeting each other opens their eyes a bit. And a case of mistaken identity (which is both humorous and tragic) that causes the two of them to swap roles sends both girls in very different and unexpected trajectories.

McCafferty is probably best known for her light beach-readers, so the cutting nature of this dystopia will surprise her fans. While she certainly has a few harebrained ideas, McCafferty's story provides some wonderful observations about popular culture, the commodification of bodies, and the similarities between our culture's worship of youth and of motherhood. It's an edgy idea and if it sparks some thought about the way that the glamor of youth and motherhood are basically sold the same way to children, so much the better.

As for the writing, the story starts a bit slow and the slang used in the book is a bit hard to digest at first, but it has a wonderful irony to it that hooked me (although digs against social networking will probably not age well). The characters themselves are not terribly interesting and things wrap a bit too fast towards the end (with the exception of the inevitable loose end that was left for the equally inevitable sequel), but this is a story about an alternative reality more than a book about characters or even plot. Decent social satire.

Miles From Ordinary, by Carol Lynch Williams

Given how crazy Mom is, it falls on Lacey to protect her mother from flying off the rails. Sometimes, Mom is OK, but if Lacey isn't careful, Mom will go and do something nutty (like spend all of their money on food to survive an impending war or she'll wander half-naked into other people's homes). Aunt Linda used to help out some, but after fourteen years, Lacey has come to understand that she's the only one who can take care of Mom.

All of that may change on a special day when Mom is trying out working her first day as a cashier at the Winn Dixie. Lacey hopes that this may give her Mom a sense of purpose and some focus with which to straighten out. Lacey, meanwhile, is on her first day of volunteering at the library, which may give her an outlet away from Mom. Things don't go well, but in the midst of the crisis that develops, Lacey befriends a boy who may inspire Lacey to take some hesitant initial steps towards changing the downward trajectory of her life.

I'm not a fan of kids-in-peril stories and this novel takes the parts of that genre that I despise most (hapless adults, abusive manic-depressive mothers, and codependent families) and puts them on steroids. Reading a story like this basically begs the question: why? Why write a story like this? Is it supposed to be inspirational? I'm tempted, instead, to see it as exploitative.

I kept hoping for some relief from the continuous dark grind, but what I got was 195 pages of child abuse (with the slight possibility that an adult might come through in the end to look out for Lacey). The whole experience is made more painful by a broken timeline, heavy on flashback. This is probably intended to make the grind easier to bear, but it mostly makes us passive recipients of the horrible things which we already know will come. The supporting characters (the boy, the aunt, etc.) are largely throwaway. Gratuitous animal death appears as well. What's to like?

Friday, September 02, 2011

I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

When Emily humiliates herself singing "I'll Be There" at church and Sam happens to witness the event, a string of events ensues that would defy reason, except for the careful chronicling of author Holly Goldberg Sloan.

Sam (and his little brother Riddle) have spent their lives being dragged around by their mentally unstable outlaw father Clarence. Having never known any other sort of life, the hardships that they endure seem normal. That is, until Sam's chance meeting with Emily introduces the boys to a possible alternative life. But as the story patiently explains, everyone has different motivations and conflicting needs, and these can have entirely unexpected consequences.

This story's unusual calling card are all of its digressions. The tale itself might have been told in a third of its pages, except for Sloan's practice of backing up and letting each new character essentially tell their life story. In some hands this might be quite annoying as it inevitably leads to delayed gratification for the resolution of the latest plot twist. But here, each detail is somehow important to the plot and it all comes together in the end. Moreover, you know it will all come together in the end, so you just ride this slow train and enjoy the scenery along the way.

While I enjoyed reading the book, I am unclear who is the intended audience. As an adult reader, the maturity of many of the situations (and the adult details of many of the characters) was a draw. But how much patience would a younger reader have for taking in all the details of someone's failed marriage or career frustrations? And as a story so long on action (and low on emotions or feelings), it really seemed better written for younger readers. So, I'd argue that it is a book for younger readers, but like a children's movie, there's plenty here for the adults to enjoy. That would work in a film, but in a book it seems a bit more muddled.

I'm Not Her, by Janet Gurtler

Tess lacks the popularity, good looks, and confidence of her older sister Kristina. She's a wallflower and utterly ignored by her sister's friends (unless they are drunk guys hitting on her). However the fates change suddenly when Kristina is diagnosed with bone cancer. Now, as Kristina struggles with chemo and withdraws into self-pity, it is Tess who takes center stage at school as she becomes the point of contact with the outside world. And as their parents start to come unglued, it is Tess who surprises everyone (not least herself) by stepping forward and being the strong one.

The story could so easily fall into melodrama, but even as one trauma after another piles up, the story somehow never grows to be too much. The ending is bittersweet and some of the losses are completely unexpected and will hit you in the gut. However, the messages of the story (standing up for yourself, staying loyal to your family) are presented powerfully. It's a heartwarming story of sisterly devotion presented in a satisfying fashion.

Fixing Delilah, by Sarah Ockler

Delilah is going through a rough patch. Her Mom is too busy to notice until Delilah gets caught shoplifting and skips out on her curfew to be with her dead-end boyfriend. But all of this gets swept aside when they receive the news that Delilah's maternal grandmother has died -- the same grandmother that Delilah hasn't been allowed to see for the past eight years. And so the summer of Delilah's seventeenth year is now suddenly full with returning to her grandma's town, helping her mother and aunt clean the house to sell it, and confronting the ghosts of her and her family's past.

One review on the book jacket compared this book to Sarah Dessen's writing and I can see the parallels. For example, we have the distant and self-absorbed mother who makes the daughter's interest in others look like Mother Theresa. But the similarities are superficial (the boy interest is nowhere near as prominent and the heroine is not nearly as introspective).

It will come as no surprise that the mother and daughter will eventually reconcile and provide decent reader catharsis in the process. The similarly predictable trajectory of the love interest is less satisfying: while the boy-loses-girl moment felt honest (and maybe a bit harrowing), their reconciliation seemed forced. And while the book is good at piling up conflict and challenges, the ending is overall a bit too happy and rosy for my taste.

Overall, it's the unevenness of this book that did me in. The middle sags and key moments (first kiss, for example) get lost in the midst of endless mood setting and exposition. The strong climax is weakened by the lame ending. It's a mixed bag.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson

In 1927, fifty-eight delicately-built and life-sized dolls were sent from Japan to the United States as "friendship ambassadors" to reciprocate an earlier gift from the US to Japan, and to facilitate greater cultural understanding between the two countries. In this novel, Kirby imagines how one of those dolls might have changed the lives of four girls over the years. The doll (Miss Kanagawa) comes to life at optimum moments to affect the children and guide them towards making correct life decisions.

It could be a bit creepy to imagine an animate doll (and the idea isn't entirely original), but the question of the doll's consciousness is kept vague and isn't terribly crucial to the story. Instead, we can almost imagine that each of the doll's young interlopers reached their epiphany on their own. The result is that Miss Kanagawa becomes a conduit for telling this more general story about friendship and loyalty (thus, the story reminded me more of violin in The Red Violin than Chuckie in Child's Play II!). Each episode is a moving story and they are surprisingly well-connected to each other. The ending is a bit anti-climactic but doesn't detract from the story.

One of the real strengths of this book is the strong basis of the story in historical fact. The settings are familiar and well-worn (Dust Bowl refugees, Depression survivors, New York Society figures, etc.) and one could have wished for a wider spread of years (why not put a story in the 50s or 60s?), but Larson does well with what she picks to cover and the stories will entice young readers to learn more. The historical notes at the end are particularly well-written and noteworthy.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Angry Young Man, by Chris Lynch

Robert has a lot on his shoulders. His Mom struggles to make ends meet and provide food on the table for her boys. Robert has this to worry about and also his younger brother, who seems a bit bipolar and has trouble putting things in perspective. Xan (the brother) is obsessed with social justice and wants to right the wrongs of the world. Robert tries to give him perspective and keep it together. But as Xan gets sucked under the spell of a charismatic nihilist, Robert discovers that he is not so immune himself from the charms of anger. The results are explosive and nearly tragic.

Lynch's novel Inexcusable was a near miss for me, with its over-simplification of male violence and pendantic storyline. This, however, is another story. Lynch does a fantastic job of capturing fraternal bonds and the guilt and loyalty (or is it guilty loyalty?) that underlies the relationship between brothers that have faced adversity and not come through it as well as social norms dictate that they should. There's aching familiarity to this story, even if the violence is alien territory.

Seldom do I find books about young men that ring true (too many hang on the moments of libido for comic value) but this one really grew on me, even if the story was disturbing and a turn off. I give serious props to Lynch for presenting a story so authentic! It's not a pretty sight, but the love that these boys feel for each other will touch you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How I Stole Johnny Depp's Alien Girlfriend, by Gary Ghislain

David is a shy fourteen year old who fantasizes about girls, but has trouble relating to them. He lives with his father, a psychologist who specializes in troubled teens, one of which is the mesmerizing Zelda, on whom David develops a serious crush. The trouble is that Zelda is criminally violent and convinced that she is an alien sent to abduct her "chosen one" (Johnny Depp) and return him to her planet to be her slave. But David is as obsessed with spending time with Zelda as Zelda is with kicking policemen and stealing away Jack Sparrow. And so an unlikely alliance forms with David helping Zelda escape and joining forces to help her complete her mission. Much mayhem ensues and the plot veers from the barely believable to the totally insane.

It's a cute and quirky story, but not nearly as funny as the title implied (or I was hoping for). There are occasional wise cracks and situations that will prompt a chuckle, but the story falls into silliness a bit faster than humor. Written by an ex-pat in France, it's got that weird Gaullist sense (these are, after all, the folks who find Jerry Lewis amusing). It's also a bit disturbing the way that the female characters walk over David. I imagine it was supposed to be funny to watch how helpless David is against feminine wiles, but it just seemed perverse (as if placing women on pedestals was somehow amusing). Overall, a promising premise with a dud delivery.

Across the Universe, by Beth Revis

When Amy's parents decide to join the mission to Centauri (which will take hundreds of years and require them to be cryogenically frozen), Amy is offered the chance to stay behind on Earth. Fatefully, she decides to come along. Deep in the future, Amy awakens to discover that an accident has caused her to be unfrozen early. But that is the least of her worries. Something has gone terribly wrong since the ship left Earth and it is now being commanded by a dictator who has enslaved the support crew with drugs. Worse, someone is murdering the frozen crew before they can reach their destination.

Billed as "entirely original" on the jacket, people who know their sci-fi will recognize Ben Bova's Exiled from Earth series here (and a few allusions to some other classics). But even if Revis owes a debt or two, she spins an exciting story. It gets a bit complicated and runs long (the last ten pages in particular were unnecessary and needed to be excised), but the characters are interesting. The plot is well-paced and the mysteries are unraveled at a good pace. Nothing extraordinary but it is decent science fiction and a good read.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Forgotten, by Cat Patrick

London has amnesia and manages to forget everything that's happened during the day when she goes to sleep every night. To cope with this, she leaves herself notes that brief her on what has just happened. So far, so Memento (a totally cool movie from the 90s with a chunk of the cast of The Matrix in it), but the weirder part is that what London does remember comes from the future. So, while she can't remember anything that has happened, she knows what will take place soon.

The situation becomes complicated when London meets a boy (Luke) who she can't identify (given her ability to know the future, this can only mean that he doesn't have one, which is odd since she's madly in love with him). Luke's existence is more than some sort of paradox -- he's triggering other sorts of memories in London's mind, some of which are quite disturbing.

The premise of this unusual story can be a bit hard to get your head around (and it suffers from a few logical inconsistencies), but once you let go and just start trusting the author, it takes off nicely. I was less thrilled with the rushed ending, but up until the last twenty pages or so, I really liked the way that the story unfolded, with a lot of twists and good pacing. And for such an ambitious premise, Patrick really does a great job of putting it together.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Last Little Blue Envelope, by Maureen Johnson

(If you haven't read Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes yet, you might want to do that before reading this sequel or its review! You have been warned!)

I'm not a big fan of sequels, but I think that this was one I was really looking forward to read, precisely because the idea of a sequel was never in the cards when the first book appeared. Instead, we were left with such an ending that the average reader was simply dying to have the story get concluded. After trudging across Europe through twelve envelopes with our heroine, it was a major annoyance that the thirteenth and final letter had been stolen and we ended up (much like our heroine Ginny) without any real sense of closure (fairy tale substitite endings aside!). I accepted that it was life and was prepared to move on, but was ecstatic when I read that there was a sequel and that the lost letter had been found!!

In this sequel, a few months have passed and Ginny is working on her college admission essay without a lot of success. She wants to recount the story of her trip and the twelve envelopes, but is suffering a major case of writer's block that gets in the way. In the midst of that frustration, she receives an email from a stranger named Oliver who has recovered the stolen letters. He offers to return them, but there's a catch: the last letter mentions a piece of Aunt Peg's artwork (potentially worth a fortune) and how to locate it. Oliver wants a piece of the action and won't turn over the letter unless Ginny agrees to take another trip through Europe on one final scavenger hunt. Against any rational advice, Ginny agrees to do so.

Along with old flame Keith (and his new girlfriend Ellis), Ginny and Oliver travel through some familiar territory and some new stomping grounds in search of Aunt Peg's artwork and some closure to a hard-earned quest. The results are at once predictable (Ginny and Oliver will naturally hit it off despite their awkward start) and fun (even old places look different a second time around).

The sequel, with its lovely detail and eye for color, will appeal to armchair travelers (Johnson has obviously collected her fair share of travel yarns) and the romantic elements have a suitable level of involvement to snag the reader. Mostly, though, this novel improves upon its predecessor as it closes with less convenient solutions and more open-ended conclusions. Yes, Ginny lives a fairly charmed life (worthy of a Meg Cabot novel), but things here are left more realistic than before. At the very least, Ginny has moved beyond her late aunt (and even her childhood) and is ready to impart on more mature adventures. The demand (and temptation) for a third installment are substantially reduced.

Friday, July 29, 2011

This Girl Is Different, by J J Johnson

As a social experiment, after being home schooled for many years, Evie convinces her mother to let her attend public school for her final year. Her mother reluctantly agrees and things get off to an auspicious start when Evie meets two of her future classmates, Rajas and Jacinda a few days before classes start. Evie and Jacinda become close friends and Evie develops a serious crush on Rajas.

From being homeschooled by her independent and freethinking mother, Evie has developed a tendency towards being outspoken and she rebels against the cliques and social norms of the school. This hurts her ability to make friends but pales in comparison to the trouble she starts when she starts speaking out against the teachers! A plan to out an abusive gym teacher and a sleazy social studies teacher who is hitting on students backfires horribly and Evie finds herself in deep trouble.

The book can get a bit preachy at times, but Evie is a spirited and spunky character with a lot of appeal. The writing is sharp and fresh and more original than most of the stuff that is out there. I found that the ending dragged on a bit and fell into melodrama, but I liked Evie and her mother so much that I was willing to give the book some slack.

I especially wanted to give a special shout out to some very well written sex scenes. In my experience, sex in YA books fall into two categories: hot sweaty stuff worthy of a Harlequin novel and Judy Blume-style how-to's with lots of encouraging commentary about how wonderful/natural/beautiful it all is. Neither approach has ever struck me as meaningful. Johnson takes an entirely different approach: portraying the hormonal rush and the intense desire (coupled by regret and fear) that all gets mixed together. Nearly thirty years later, that's how I remember it and I think it's more honest than most other authors I have read. The feelings that Evie describes sounded painfully authentic to me. Serious props to Johnson for doing such a brilliant job!

In sum, this author is different and I loved her voice!

Somebody Everybody Listens To, by Suzanne Supplee

Like the ungrammatical title of this novel, Retta has some rough edges, but she's got a dream and the talent to support it. She plans to get out of her small town in Tennessee and make it in Nashville as a singer.

It's a well-worn cliche -- small town girl comes to the big city, suffers her fair share of set-backs and minor successes and gradually starts coming out on top. To make sure that we truly appreciate how cliche it is, each chapter is prefaced with a brief biography of a real country musician legend. The overall result is a tribute to the struggles that artists (and country singers in particular) have borne to become the stars that they became.

It is old territory, but even a classic story can be fun to read again when it is well-written. The trip becomes even more enjoyable when you have good company and Retta (despite perhaps a few improbably good twists of luck) is a fine nuanced character. She works hard, has sharp instincts, and a general basic decency, and the reader will be prone to find her sympathetic. Supplee thankfully avoids the temptation to introduce a romantic thread and instead keeps the story focused on Retta and Retta alone. This is a smart decision and allows us to focus on her efforts and her successes.

Another strength of this novel is Supplee's respect for the locale and the people. A story placed in such a colorful town as Nashville could easily have been exaggerated with stereotypes. Supplee doesn't fall into that trap and gets the cultural details (including the accents) down. The folks in the story are not dumb hicks and instead leap off the page like real people.

In sum, this is a bit of literary comfort food with decent presentation and down home charm.

Like Mandarin, by Kirsten Hubbard

Out in Washokey, Wyoming, everyone knows everyone else's business and life is as dull as it is usually portrayed in any stereotypical YA novel about rural America. Grace Carpenter is a loner, an A-grade student, promoted ahead of her peers and poised for greatness. Aside from her invisible social standing, Grace is a success, but not in the eyes of her mother. Mom hasn't really respected any of Grace's accomplishments since Grace purposely threw the Little Miss Washokey beauty pageant at age seven. Now it is Grace's little sister who bears Mom's hope and attentions.

All of this is OK with Grace. She's at peace with her lack of social standing and with the maternal neglect. To compensate, she has a budding love for geology (with a decent rock collection to boot) and her own ambitions, one of which is to become a bit more like local bad girl Mandarin Ramey. Since Mandarin arrived in town (coincidentally during that ill-fated beauty contest), Grace has idolized her silently from afar. In Grace's eyes, Mandarin is sure of herself, unafraid of the judgement of others, and utterly fearless -- all traits that Grace knows she lacks. If only she could be a little like Mandarin.

So, when Grace gets asked by her guidance counselor one day if she would be willing to tutor Mandarin, Grace is both exhilarated and terrified. At least, she will get a chance to know this local mystery and get to the bottom of all of the rumors about Mandarin. But as the two girls get to know each other, Grace finds that Mandarin isn't quite what she expected. And she grows to realize that becoming like Mandarin isn't what she should be aspiring to at all -- she should be aspiring to be more like herself.

This is a truly stunning novel, even if it is familiar territory. Certainly the mystery girl and the wallflower who idolize her has been done before. Hubbard's take on Wyoming will break no threshold for originality either. But the writing is simply breathtaking. Pick any page in this book and read a few lines -- the quality of the prose will blow you away. Characters "dance away into the throng" of the other kids at school; the men in town have "always found ways to get themselves killed. Often explosively"; Grace longs to escape it all and have "something to break up the monotony, [and not] fade into the hills like one of those solitary ghost-people, who spent their days listening to the wildwinds batter their corrugated shacks." Poetry!

And it isn't just the writing, of course. The characters are well-developed and intelligent. Their relationships are complex. The story itself is unpredictable yet flows naturally and believably. The cliches of drunken parties, geeky lab partners, clueless mothers, and so on are all present, but Hubbard waste no times on them (they are simply part of the landscape, placed in the story to make the scenery look familiar). Instead, she keeps the focus tightly on Grace and Mandarin's relationship and lets it unwind in a way that leaves the reader completely hooked to the end.