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.