Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rose Sees Red, by Cecil Castellucci

Rose has learned to hide from people. When she was forced to choose between her manipulative and controlling "best friend" and her love for dance, she found out how impermanent friendship could be. As a result, she closed up. But a chance encounter with a Soviet girl (it is 1982) who lives next door opens a new world for her. In one wild and magical evening, Rose explores all of the things she might be, if she stopped holding herself back.

The novel is an odd riff on a series of stereotypical icons of the early-80s (MTV, the High School for the Performing Arts, the Cold War, and anti-nuke rallies). I'm of mixed minds about the result.

The story is quite thin and feels more like a writing exercise than a true novel. While there is character growth that would be required in a coming-of-age genre, the story unfolds randomly. The changes of the characters are too obvious, too sudden, and ultimately manipulative. But Rose herself is drawn with great depth and a familiarity which suggests an autobiographical nature to this story. Certainly, Castellucci knows her setting. Despite the rather silly name-dropping of MTV bands that a reasonable New Yorker of the era would have been ashamed of, the feel of the place, the description of East and West meeting, and the lay of New York itself all feel right (and I can speak on that from first-hand experience). But one wonders what a modern teen will make of this historical piece (especially with such a thin plot)?

Plain Kate, by Erin Bow

In a world of charms and superstitions, Kate is a magnet for people's suspicions. Orphaned after the death of her father, a master woodcarver, Kate tries to eke out a living as a carver herself. But her occupation, her physical appearance, and the meddling of a strange white gentleman mark her as a witch. When a deadly fog begins to kill everyone in its path, suspicion falls on Kate and she must flee for her life. While she isn't a witch, she bears no small part in what has happened. Ironically, she may be one of the few people who understands what is going on.

On the road, she is initially befriended by roamers and accompanied by a talking cat. As the danger from the fog spreads, Kate has to figure out a way to break the curse, and this means (more often than not) that she is on her own.

While the story is very much placed in a fantasy world, it is hard not to get distracted by the Russian-sounding names and the very liberal borrowings from Russian folk traditions. It is obvious that Bow does not intend this to be Russia, but rather that the world is inspired by Russian culture (in much the same way that Frank Herbert's Dune is based on Arab desert culture).

The story itself is fast paced and the story is a genuine page-turner. The cat provides decent comic relief and is also an integral part of the adventure (I particularly enjoyed that the cat wasn't much of a swashbuckler, but more obsessed with food and naps - like a real cat). Kate is not a terribly strong heroine, but she's resourceful and relies upon a combination of hard work and a strong moral compass that is basically de rigeur in modern YA fantasy.

One warning: The story's ending will rip your heart out, however, so be careful about reading this in public places!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Real Live Boyfriends, by E. Lockhart

Now entering her senior year, Ruby has gotten some semblance of control over her panic attacks, but her life is still crazy. Mom has switched from a raw diet to all-barbecue (challenging Ruby's vegetarianism). Dad is mourning his dead mother and gone distant. Ruby is making up with some friends (Nora) and breaking for good with others. But most importantly, Ruby is obsessing about whether Noel is her Real Live Boyfriend or not (when Noel comes back from New York, it sure doesn't seem that way!). All of which makes it that much easier for Ruby to end up with Gideon, when he starts showing his interest. But Ruby discovers that that just makes things more complicated!

E. Lockhart continues to amaze me with her breezy and hilarious writing and her deep sympathy for the struggles of adolescence.
I love the Ruby Oliver series. Ruby is funny and endearing, yet feels very realistic (I have to defer to any teens out there to validate that I'm correct about this -- all I know is that I want her combination of spunk and doubt to be realistic!). This particular installment is deeper and a bit darker than its predecessors, but Ruby is growing up and her issues are growing up with her. There's still plenty of laughs (Ruby's parents remain the primary source of amusement for all their neuroses), but there is depth and emotional payoff as well. A gem!

The Things A Brother Knows, by Dana Reinhardt

When Levi's brother Boaz comes home from the War, everyone is terribly excited. He's an honest American hero. A Marine. (Admittedly, his family is most happy that he's alive) But something about him is not right. He stays in his room. He studies maps. When he finally emerges, he claims that he is going to hike the Appalachian Trail to unwind and relax. But Levi figures out the truth: Boaz is heading out on a hike alright, but it's in an entirely different direction. So, Levi tracks him and forces Boaz to let him tag along on his quest. What results is a road story on foot, where Levi gets a chance to learn what his brother has been through in the past years.

War novels don't usually hold much appeal for me -- they either wallow in patriotism or have some other sort of political axe to grind. This novel, however, transcends the genre. Yes, I was occasionally reminded of Born on the Fourth of July or The Deer Hunter, but this is really a story about two brothers - both on the cusp of manhood - learning to relate to each other as adults. As a younger brother myself, I found the story very easy to relate to (even if neither I nor my bro have any real military experience). The ending is bit too feel-good for my tastes, but there is such strong material that I almost needed that lightening of the mood at the end to make it through.

Reinhardt has turned out to be a versatile storyteller. From Harmless (with its shocking, but ultimately After School Special-preachiness) to the chicklit of A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life to this current definitely masculine self-realization, she has a keen ear and eye to the universal search for self. Her topics are potentially provocative, but handled in a unique and fascinating manner.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

This Gorgeous Game, by Donna Freitas

When Olivia discovers that she has won the first prize in Father Mark Brendan's literary challenge, she is ecstatic. There is the recognition and the cash prize, but most of all, there is the chance to study directly under Father Mark, a contemporary literary legend. At first, Father Mark's undivided attention is flattering, but soon Olivia begins to find it suffocating as the man doesn't seem to ever leave her alone. And while it makes no sense to her, she can't escape the feeling that his attention seems less-than-innocent.

A genuinely creepy story about inappropriate sexual attentions. Freitas faces a difficult challenge: presenting Olivia's inability to cope with Father Mark as believable yet not also portray her at the same time as pitiful or weak. To pull this off, first we have to believe that Olivia is a true believer in her faith. Freitas does a good job of showing how Olivia can be worldly yet faithful and obedient. The next step is that we need to believe that someone in her shoes could ever see Father Mark as not being a smarmy perv. This doesn't work out as well, as we don't get to see much of him before he starts getting all creepy. The result is a story that is only partly pulled off.

I'm a big fan of books that can tell a story about religion with a straight face and respect. Given the subject matter here, it would have been very easy to just blackball the entire Catholic Church. It also would have been a cheap shot. And so, I really appreciated the way that Frietas validated Olivia's faith (and the faith of her family and friends) in the face of such a horrible case of abuse of power. That takes sensitivity and is worthy of praise.

The Fool's Girl, by Celia Rees

Young Violetta, accompanied by her former court jester Feste, is on the run from traitors who gave her kingdom of Illyria over to the Venetians. She's out for revenge, or at the least to right the wrongs which have been committed. After many struggles (told mostly in flashback), she has made it to London, where she encounters rising theatrical sensation William Shakespeare. But this is a rather different Will Shakespeare than most of us might think of -- he's resourceful and buried in political intrigue. In this story, which combines Italian political intrigue, Elizabethan mores, and Reformist politics, the play is hardly the thing!

This richly detailed riff on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night deserves major props for creativity, research, strong vivid characters, and fashioning a fantastic mix of adventure and magic. I am a bit reluctant to read stories that re-imagine famous historical figures, but this novel is an obvious labor of love (and far removed from any cheap exploitation). If there is a real criticism to lobby, it is for a muddled love story and way too many characters. But you can enjoy this book on so many levels: as historical fiction, loving homage to Elizabethan theater, or just plain rollicking fun adventure.

Scumble, by Ingrid Law

As anyone who has read Savvy knows, when you turn thirteen, you get to find out what your special power is going to be. Some people get good ones (like being able to turn invisible) while others get doozies. When Ledge has his birthday, he's really hoping that he'll gain the superhuman speed that will allow him to outrace everyone in a marathon, but that's not how everything turns out. Instead, his particular savvy appears to be the ability to make things fall apart!

Now, he must find a way to control his power (and learn to "scumble" it) or else risk having to spend his life living in isolation because his powers are too destructive and dangerous. And with dark days fallen on his family's ranch and the local community, Ledge really has chosen a fine time to be causing trouble!

"Savvies" are of course a wonderful metaphor for puberty and coming of age. Just as in the first book, Law does a fantastic job of exploring the anxieties of pre-adolescents as they look forward to the changes in their lives to come. It's not an entirely original plot device of course, but I think Law does it with great gentleness and insight which is certain to make this story a crowd-pleaser.

I was less thrilled by the story itself this time around. Much of it didn't make much sense. It is entirely possible that it doesn't need to make sense since this is fantasy, but I found the logical gaps in the story distracting (Why doesn't ledge want his family to know that Sarah Jane has smuggled herself into the wedding? Why doesn't he enlist his Mom's help is getting Sarah Jane to stop creating trouble? And so on). It seemed to me like it would have been easier to spin the story from simpler stuff and more plausible motivations.

Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord

When Tess's best friend moves away, it leaves a gap in her life and threatens the ability of her small Maine island to keep its school. Short the requisite number of children to keep their island school open, the folks decide to foster a group of children to raise their numbers. The result is the arrival of Aaron, a slightly older boy who has been kicked around a bit and has the cynicism to show for it. Tess and her family really want to provide Aaron with the home he hasn't had, but they are in way over their depth. Still, Tess's optimism and superstitions seem to serve them well.

A fairly brisk and pleasant read. Unlike Rules, there is less of an agenda in this novel and more storytelling. Tess is very engaging and strong. She doesn't always make the best decisions, but she is appealing. Some of the storylines falter a bit (Tess's loneliness, conflicts with the local bully), but the overall message that home is what you make of it is pleasing and all of the local color makes for decent entertainment.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Girl Parts, by John M. Cusick

David Sun's parents are worried that he seems disassociated and anti-social, so they decide to get him a companion -- a girl robot named Rose who is programmed to be friendly and accommodating, and to teach him how to relate to others. David is actually something of a jerk and he's mostly interested in figuring out a way to break through Rose's "intimacy clock" (which predetermines how far he can get with her). What no one counts on is that Rose is a very special robot and, as she gains awareness of herself, she begins to see through the game she's been set up for.

Enter Charlie, a boy from the other side of the lake...and the tracks. He's everything that David isn't and offers Rose a chance at gaining agency and a sense of control. But there are forces that want to maintain things the way they are, and this story has tragedy written all over it.

Sort of a Short Circuit meets Better Off Dead (to use two 80s movies examples), Cusick (no relation to the actor) has taken science fiction and mixed it with guy stuff, mostly with an eye for what female readers will be interested in. The guys are sensitive and clueless, the girls desperate and frustrated, and the metaphors transparent. Cusick has a lot of fun things to say about interpersonal relationships, but he goes at it with a sledgehammer. Rose's struggles to get over the boy she was first programmed for, her longing to be like other (real) girls conflicted with her need to be herself, and her desire for agency will all ring true for readers, but it all seems terribly calculated. And that feeling of being set up left me feeling manipulated. Kudos for the creativity, but the polemics needed to be a bit less obvious.

Extraordinary, by Nancy Werlin

When Phoebe Rothschild befriends an odd girl named Mallory at school, she has no idea of what she is getting herself into. While Mallory appears quite vulnerable, she is in fact a changeling, a faerie who has come to trick Phoebe into undoing a curse set in motion generations ago. The danger heightens as Mallory is joined by her brother Ryland, with whom Phoebe becomes enamored.

Werlin is a very diverse talent. The novel, most similar to her previous Impossible, will seem light years removed from thriller Double Helix or the critically-acclaimed child-endangerment Rules of Survival. Her writing is superb, but she can be terribly verbose and I find her actual storytelling to be hit or miss. Impossible was a compelling novel that fleshed out one of the great verses of English literature. This current novel is based on much less compelling material. The resulting story is poorly paced and overwhelming, lacking characters with which I could connect. There are no major technical problems with this story, but I just wasn't grabbed by the book.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Radiance, by Alyson Noel

Riley is stuck in the Afterlife in a place known as Here and in a moment called Now. Only twelve years old, she feels that she's been robbed of her life, but she's in for a surprise: no one really cares and, here in the Afterlife, she's expected to work. To atone for the mistakes of her life, she is assigned the job of soul catcher -- a person who convinces reluctant souls to finish their journey. Her first job is to entice the "Radiant Boy" to cross over -- a challenge which has defeated many of her predecessors. To help her with this task, she is assigned a guide named Bodhi (who she immediately dislikes due to her nerdy appearance).

This short book, the first in a new series, left me unmoved and unengaged. The major problem is that the characters didn't feel right to me. Riley talks and acts much too mature for a tween and Bodhi never really moved much beyond being pompous and distant. The lack of realism in the characters is not helped by the story itself. The challenges that the characters face are very hyped, but resolved surprisingly quickly (as if Noel had no interest in really telling the story). Between the lack of suspense and the lack of chemistry in the characters, there isn't much to invest in here, and certainly not enough to make one want to pick up the next installment.

Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings, by Helene Boudreau

A year ago, Jade's mother drowned, leaving her all alone with Dad. All of which makes it ever so much more awkward when she gets her first period at the mall after she's run out of money. But having to endure buying feminine hygiene products with her Dad is only the beginning of her surprises. Soaking in the tub shortly after her initial ordeal, her legs turn into fins!

It turns out that her mother was actually a mermaid and Jade has inherited some of the same genes. It also appears that Mom did not drown a year ago, but was actually kidnapped by a group of mer-convicts. Jade and her Dad have to figure out a way to save her without letting anyone know the true situation with Jade and her Mom. This proves challenging as Jade has to keep coming up with excuses to avoid her best friend Cori and also stop her endless (and embarassing) run-ins with cute boy Luke.

It's pretty hard to do much that's new with the mermaid genre and this book doesn't even try, recycling several ideas from other books. Similarly, it breaks no new ground in the younger teen romance department. But it is nonetheless an enjoyable read. The adventure can get a bit intense and doesn't mesh so well with the romance side of the story, but the book has a decent pace and a satisfying conclusion that ties most everything up (while leaving room for a sequel). People who like other mermaid stories (e.g., The Tail of Emily Windsnap, etc.) will enjoy this book.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Finally, by Wendy Mass

From the first time that her parents told her that she had to wait until she was twelve, Rory has been working on a list of great and small things that she'll be able to do when she turns twelve. So, when that birthday finally rolls around, she can't wait to get started.

Things don't go quite as well as planned. For one thing, Rory seems to be awfully accident-prone. She gets her first cell phone, only to lose it within fifteen minutes. She tries coffee for the first time, without realizing how strong it is and spends the next couple of hours on a hyperactive caffeine buzz (she appears to be a bit ADD as is). Just about every thing with which she comes into contact (make-up, earrings, etc.) sets off an allergic reaction. Despite these mishaps, she has a kind heart and a great deal of intuition that have her helping out people right and left, so she's a very winning heroine who will endear herself to readers.

Wendy Mass has written a number of lovely, funny, and often touching books, which mix magic with middle grade sensibilities. This one, however, seemed much less fun, more preachy, and less cohesive than her other books. Young readers might enjoy Rory's mishaps, but I found their sheer randomness distracting. The point of the story seemed to be that you should be careful what you wish for, since almost every one of her wishes backfired, but there wasn't much of an alternative presented. The ending, which sought to tie it all together through a mixture of the supernatural and a string of amazing coincidences worthy of a Bollywood movie, came off as a cheap wrap-up. In comparison to the book I finished before this (You Wish), this one seemed like a very pale imitation of what you can do with a little magic and a lot of message.