Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Dark Divine, by Bree Despain

Grace Divine has a hard time maintaining her reputation as the pastor's daughter. Folks talk and eyes are always on her. So, when bad boy Daniel shows up again, it is not all that surprising that Grace's older brother Jude makes Grace promise to keep her distance. But the thing about promises is that they are so hard to keep! As could be predicted, it doesn't take long for Grace and Daniel to hook up, but the level of familial hostility they encounter suggests that something serious is up. It's about then that the bodies begin to pile up and you know that this is no simple forbidden teen romance, but rather one of those supernatural thrillers where "immortal soul" and "prom dress" feature in equal importance.

Yes, I have found myself digesting a werewolf romance novel. Worse, it's the first installment of a series! If anyone has some spare silver weaponry nearby to cure, let me know.

But seriously, how was it? Not bad, if you get beyond the sheer exploitative value of this new franchise. There's nothing even vaguely original here and the plot's silly, but if you want a hot romance mixed with supernatural powers, this is basically your number. And for those who thought that the Twilight franchise (and Bella in particular) was an insult to intelligent young women, you probably want to give this one a pass. But if you like cute heroic boys who have nothing better to do than to lock you in "hard, but soft" ... err... kisses, then this is the place!

Mostly Good Girls, by Leila Sales

Violet has always been a little jealous of her best friend Katie. Katie is effortlessly perfect: great grades, great looks, and wealthy. In contrast, Violet has always had to struggle to make it. But in their junior year, Violet finds that -- with a lot of hard work -- she can do a "mostly good" job. Meanwhile, Katie seems to have lost all interest in playing by the rules and is losing her veneer of perfection. The changes begin to drive the two girls apart.

It's a nicely written story about the girls and their friendship, but it doesn't really go anywhere until within 100 pages of the end when a plot finally develops out of the story. The tension is brief and resolved quickly and seems secondary. The meat of the story is really the relationship between Violet and Katie. So, if you like girl-bonding, this is a very satisfying read in terms of content, detail, and realism. But my sense was that Sales only seemed to realize the important of telling a story late in the process and I found the book insubstantial.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A. S. King

In the aftermath of the death of her best friend Charlie, Vera reflects on their times together and tries to cope with her grief and guilt. This is all complicated by her recovering alcoholic father and his tendencies towards denial. A school bully also stirs things up.

Dark and worldly, King pulls no punches in showing a landscape of teenage and adult hypocrisy. And she does an equally capable job of producing a strong heroine who can rise above it all and become reborn. Vera is caustic (like the best YA heroines) but insightful and revealing. She rather reminded me of Melinda from Speak (still one of my all-time faves). Vera struggles a lot and can be annoyingly indecisive, but her growth is rewarding and affirming.

King has a strikingly original voice. Certainly, this book's Printz Honor was deserved, but this doesn't mean that the book is particularly easy to consume. The narrative is purposely disjointed, jumping back and forth in time and voice. The result is artistic, but not always enjoyable. You'll have to decide for yourself whether it works for you.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Year Money Grew On Trees, by Aaron Hawkins

When thirteen year-old Jackson is offered a chance to farm his neighbor's apple orchard, he can't believe his luck. Her offer (the deed to the orchard itself if he does well, plus the proceeds of the apples he sells minus $8000) seems generous. Jackson however knows nothing about apple farming and he quickly discovers it is a lot of work! But with the help of his sisters and his cousins, the kids find a way through their troubles. The resulting story of hard work, honesty, and learning to appreciate the fruit (!) of one's labor is appealing and heart warming.

One could certainly offer a few complaints that the kids are almost too good to be true (the Waltons do Johnny Appleseed) and the message of clean living can be a bit saccharine. A more significant literary criticism would be that Jackson starts off so mature and grown up that it doesn't seem like he has much room left to grow (so the dramatic arc is a bit stunted). Finally, you can lodge a reasonable complaint that all of their challenges and problems are a bit too easily resolved. But all that would be missing the joy of a story where you really are rooting for the kids. This is good clean fun (and maybe a bit too idyllic), but it is a satisfying story.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Unidentified, by Rae Mariz

Strangely apropos of recent local politics....

Katey and her classmates live in a world which, while quite different from ours, will seem eerily familiar. In their universe, teens "play" their way through school, scoring points on video games to learn their lessons, while being carefully monitored by the corporations that pay for their education. Internal social networking sites monitor their every thought and the sponsors spend considerable effort to use their thoughts and preferences to fine tune their marketing efforts. The kids, bribed by constant corporate giveaways and encouraged to form their cliques to promote sales for the sponsors, live enthralled by the sparkly world presented to them (part actual education and part advertisement). However, a rebel group of students are trying to subvert the paradigm and Katey (always something of an outsider) finds herself recruited by both the rebels and by the school's sponsors/administrators.

What starts off as a pretty heavy-handed fable about the dangers of materialism becomes over its course a nicely nuanced critique of the insidious influence of commercialism into public education (perhaps, the dream of our current Governor here in WI?). While obviously exaggerated, it would be hard to deny the extent to which most of the situations described in this alternate reality have some basis in our own, whether it is privacy concerns on social networks, corporate sponsorship in our classrooms, commercialization and co option of teen culture, and so on. I'd like to think that this book would make a very interesting catalyst for a hearty teen discussion about these issues.

Beyond its polemical nature, the story probably suffers a bit. The characters are thinly drawn and the narrative is cumbersome (slow at first and rushed at the end). So, as straight fiction, the book could be considered a bit weak. But I keep coming back to the message and its value as a sensationalized way to open a discourse on some serious non-fictional discussion.

Sharp eyes will notice that the UPC symbol on the cover is the book's actual code.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Grace, by Elizabeth Scott

In a dystopian totalitarian world, Grace is a fallen "Angel" (a young woman raised to be a suicide bomber to help her People strike back at the state). She was sent from her village in the Hills to eliminate the Minister of Culture. Once in place, however, she loses her will and ends up fleeing for her life. Exiled by her home as a failure and hunted by the regime as an enemy of the state, she flees for the border. Helping her escape on a train to the border is a young man with issues of his own. During their long trip, she reflects upon her life, her calling, and her reasons for failing to fulfill her mission.

While well-enough written, the story is thin and consists mostly of recycled stereotypes of totalitarian regimes, recycling the many horrors which should be familiar to anyone who has taken World Civ. As such, it isn't really clear what this particular piece adds to the cannon. For a better version of the same story, consider Ayn Rand's We the Living, Zamyatkin's We, or (of course) George Orwell's 1984. The point being that the basic theme here (totalitarianism sucks, but the human desire to survive is more powerful than any regime) has been done before.

The Ruby Notebook, by Laura Resau

In this "companion" (i.e., sequel) to The Indigo Notebook, it is a year later and Zeeta and her mother have moved from Ecuador to Provence. Zeeta is looking forward to being reunited with Wendell after a year apart, but she is also worried. Even though they have stayed in touch through daily emails and phone calls, a lot has changed in the past year (and it isn't just that the color of her notebooks that have changed!). In her mind, it seems like she is an entirely different person. Complicating matters, she's met a new boy and, while she isn't sure how she feels about him, it makes her wonder if Wendell is really the love of her life or just a phase from another time and place.

Various mysteries involving pigeons, fountains, and secret societies also figure in, as well as a "ghost" who keeps slipping special mementos into Zeeta's bag.

This fairly busy story shows much of the same love for cultural detail that is found in Resau's other books, but with a twist. In previous reviews, I chided her for always writing about the same things (indigenous subcultures in Latin America), but by switching to France, she's attempting to prove that she's far more versatile. While I can claim no credit for her change of scene, I will give her serious props for stretching herself. That said, however, I found the actual result a bit disappointing. She obviously knows the region, but not as well. And she lacks the obvious affection for France that she holds for Mexico. The result lacks the warmth that was so noticeable and noteworthy in her previous novels.

The current volume is also a more somber affair that plods fairly heavily through Zeeta's doubts and fears (focusing on her "ghost" and the search for it), before finally taking off in the last 100 pages or so with an unrelated (but much zestier) adventure.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

7 Souls, by Barnabas Miller and Jordan Orlando

Mary's 17th birthday starts off very strangely, waking up naked in a display bed at the downtown Crate & Barrel shop. Her day goes decidedly downhill from there, as just about everyone ignores her, her boyfriend dumps her, and she ends up dead at the end of the day. But then things get plain weird as she finds herself taking possession of other people's bodies and slowly unravels what happened and why it did. By the end, she will be well enveloped in the world of brand name consumption, bad role-modeling, and Egyptian curses -- a combination which can only make sense in a book like this.

The story suffers a great deal from its general incoherency. As it careens from weird point to even weirder point, I kept hoping that an explanation would finally pop up that made sense. I didn't even mind when the plot shifted to supernatural explanations, but in the end things just don't make any sense and I'm not sure the authors ever intended them to do so. Rather, it's much more fun to just let the characters play Gossip Girl schtick (by which I mean pointless material consumption with no consequences or parental supervision) and throw in a lot of ultimately meaningless action.

I'd give this a miss. Miller is apparently a former hack for Alloy Entertainment. I think that basically says everything you need to know about this book.