Monday, February 27, 2012

Small As An Elephant, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

When Jack emerges from his tent, he discovers that he is all alone. During the night, his mother has disappeared, abandoning him in Acadia National Park. At first, he figures that she has just gone off on an errand, but when she doesn't return and days start to pass, he realizes that he is going to have to survive on his own. And, while he is only eleven years old, he turns out to have plenty of experience at getting by. So, he strikes out across Maine, trying to find his mother and avoid being picked up.

Ah! The ol' abandoned child motif! One of my least favorite genres (second only to the child-avoiding-being-helped subgenre)! By all rights, I should despise this book. But the story benefits from two things: a nice elephant theme throughout (facts about pachyderms preface each chapter and are coupled with Jack's obsession with the animals) and the amazing (but believable) resourcefulness of the kid himself. Still, this is a genre that can only end up one of two ways (and it isn't very hard to figure out which way it will go). In the end, a breezy read but unremarkable.

Incredibly Alice, by Phyllis Renolds Naylor

In this 26th installment of the Alice McKinley series, she's finally graduating from High School and turning eighteen. For her last months of school there are a fresh set of challenges: she emerges out of backstage to try acting in the school play, she gets accepted to college (but not the school of her choice), her friend Jill has gotten pregnant and married, and she laments the end of childhood.

As usual, Naylor keeps everything clean and upbeat. There's a few requisite Judy Blume moments with racier topics (genital plastic surgery being the most unusual), but it's mostly good clean fun. Alice continues to be a dream child (dutiful to a fault and wise beyond her years). Anyone who wants to ban these books is seriously out of touch: Alice's adventures hold nothing to the vampires and gladiator games. Rather, she provides a nice safe alternative read for early adolescents.

And while it's understandable that there's value in avoiding major traumas every installment and so there will be a fairly mundane quality to the books, the lack of any climactic moment makes each book now seem like an exercise in treading water (perhaps, this is why they are now bundling three books into one in the new "year" editions)! In my mind, Naylor has sacrificed a wonderful opportunity to give Alice depth by making her such a goody-goody granddaughter. Given the tremendous effort towards building the depth of her character, making her flawed would have been so much more interesting.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Dreams of Significant Girls, by Cristina Garcia

Over the space of three summers in the early 1970s, at a camp hosted at a private Swiss boarding school, three girls from different backgrounds get to know each other. There's Vivien (talented with food, but shy and awkward), Shirin (a Persian princess with the attitude to match and serious internal suffering), and Ingrid (the wild girl with a heart of gold). While they initially dislike and distrust each other, they develop a strong friendship as they come of age.

This is extremely well-written, but ultimately not really a YA book. It falls more into the category of adult books written about adolescent memories. There are wonderful details and the stories may appeal to older teens, but this is a book for grownups (and probably fairly old ones who remember the early 70s). Few of us will relate to lifestyles where our parents could simply ship us off to elite Swiss schools for the summer!

Mercy Lily, by Lisa Albert

Many years ago, when Lily's father died, it was a long and drawn out affair. In the years since, Lily has had lots of experience helping her mother (a veterinarian) care for dying animals. She understands dying. But as her mother's multiple sclerosis grows worse and Mom starts talking about ceasing her treatments, Lily finds that the reality of letting her last living relative go is too much to bear.

It's an interesting idea for a story and written in a realistic and believable way, but ultimately this is a difficult story to like. The material is depressing and the story largely preordained. Mom will die and the only thing left for Lily to do is accept it. Thus, showing Lily's process of acceptance becomes the only point of the story, but it simply isn't that interesting of a process. The various subplots (a sick calf, a boyfriend, a resistant doctor, and reconciliation with some old friends) are distracting and fail to enhance the story.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray

When a plane full of teen beauty queens crashlands on a tropical island, all manner of over-the-top melodrama breaks out. It's Miss Congenialty meets Lord of the Flies, with the satiric sensibilities of Soviet-era satirist Vladimir Voinovich thrown in!

Plot? Well, who can explain a plot that combines beauty contests, reality TV, mad evil geniuses, and Elvis-impersonating half-pint dictators (with uncanny resemblances to half-pint North Koreans)? Yes, there's exploding exfoliating cream, pirates, psychotropic flowers, giant snakes, meal trays embedded in heads, and quicksand. And never mind that saving the world requires mastery of PowerPoint!

In the end, this satire is absolutely brilliant! It skewers just about everything that deserves it (tellingly, teens seem to either love it or hate it!). Its complete irreverence and irrelevance is what reminds me so strongly of Voinovich (and his Ivankiad and Private Chonkin books). Like the great Russian master, the story is really secondary and exists merely to make much deeper points about the nature of the society in which we live. The only way to survive a book like this is to immerse yourself in Bray's crazy world and enjoy the absurdity. I laughed, I cried, and I recognized the truth in every word of this bitter and wonderful novel. Bravo!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Liar's Moon, by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Digger is an unusual thief. In addition to the usual skills of a pickpocket and a lock picker, she moves in unusually important circles. Her brother is the Grand Inquisitor and her friend Durrell is the son of Lord Decath.

When Digger learns that Durrell has been framed for the murder of his wife and thrown in jail, she feels bound to use her talents to exonerate him. That will be difficult because no one is who they appear and suspects turn into allies, while friends seem quick to betray her. While the circumstances of his wife's demise are murky, Digger does know that it all has to do with a smuggling operation (and one which is important enough to murder more than a few other people as well), but of what and by whom is unclear. Meanwhile, war is on the march, making everything just a bit more dangerous.

One very strong point of this novel is its unconventional approaches. The stereotype of the outcast thief is constantly subverted by the powerful friends that Digger has. People who should be her enemies are strangely not so. Events that should place her in danger don't matter, while minor things that seem unproblematic pose deep challenges. The story keeps you on your toes and subverts stereotypes. And Digger herself is a refreshing combination of feisty independence and anxious young woman -- comfortably self-sufficient but simultaneously needy.

I found myself handicapped in reading this story because I haven't read the first book in the series (and didn't even realize at first that it was a sequel). But even if I had read the predecessor, this is still a difficult novel to work through. There is a large cast of characters and multiple plots and subplots of which to keep track. The overall effect is numbing. On one hand, the detail presents a rich setting and the characters are complex and multifaceted, but it all gets to be too much (especially in a fantasy novel without a familiar setting). It's a lot of work to keep up with this story and at times, it didn't seem worthwhile.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Between, by Jessica Warman

When Liz wakes up on the morning after her eighteenth birthday, she discovers that she is dead, drowned after falling overboard from her family's boat. But she can't figure out how it happened and somehow that uncertainty has left her in limbo between life and afterlife. Now, aided by a geeky classmate who himself was the victim of a hit-and-run accident a few months before, she must put together the pieces and figure out the mystery of her death in order to move on.

What starts off as a bit like Ghost or maybe Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere gradually morphs into a decent mystery that jumps smartly between past and present. It's actually a fairly complicated story. Rather than clearly blaming any one party, it becomes pretty clear that just about everyone has some guilt, even the victim. The characters grow in a satisfying manner and the pacing is nearly perfect throughout the 450 pages of the novel. It's not deep stuff and the story is hardly original, but this is a pleasing and entertaining take on it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Dreamland Social Club, by Tara Altebrando

When Jane's maternal grandfather dies, the family inherits his old house on Coney Island. Grandpa was some sort of well-known character at Coney, but she never met him. Her mother, who died when Jane was six years old, never felt any reason to bring her home to meet the family. So, the man and his whole Coney Island existence is a great unknown. But with Jane's father between jobs, they decide to live in the house for a year and this presents a unique opportunity to learn about her family roots.

The community, with its mix of classy and shabby surprises them. And the house is a mirror of the neighborhood's oddness. There's old movies of Coney Island's past, a wooden horse chained to the radiator, an attic full of rescued landmarks of the long-gone attractions, and a basement full of her grandmother's exotic "bird-woman" costumes. It's a world full of more questions than answers, which frustrates Jane's attempts to learn more about her mother through the people who grew up with her.

This wildly busy story is bursting with color and with subplots. The characters are vibrant and vivid. In short, there is never a dull moment. And, given the subject matter, the chaos of the plot is apropos for a story. However, I'm less of a fan of the dense writing style (and, in particular, of Altebrando's stylistic convention of putting two different voices of dialogue in the same paragraph). It's not an easy book to read at times, but it's certainly got depth and variety. Like the boardwalk, there's a little bit of everything here for most readers, but you'll enjoy the story most of all if if you like stories about carnivals and freak shows.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Addie on the Inside, by James Howe

If you've read The Misfits (and I'm glad that I did before I read this companion), you'll remember Addie. She's the bright, but slightly outspoken girl who's always protesting something, and ever so slightly out of step with her peers.

Here, we finally get to see what motivates her and why she is always standing up for causes, whether it is against homophobia, opposing domestic abuse, or just criticizing the inanity of her peers. We get to meet her supportive parents and her inspiring grandmother. But most of all, we get a direct view of her thoughts. Rather appropriately, these are expressed in verse.

While I was looking forward to reading this book, my first thought when I saw that it was mostly written in verse was to put it away. Middle school verse?! With a preachy anti-bullying message? I wasn't sure I could take it. I expected trite little pieces inspired by Kumbaya. But I was surprised with the strength of the writing and how quickly Addie's character won me over. With the help of some poignant verse on growing too old for childhood (and some absolutely devastating ones on her cats), I was totally hooked. I think that I'm going to have to go out and buy this one!

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Fox Inheritance, by Mary E. Pearson

Some 260 years have passed since Jenna Fox discovered that she was an android built by her parents to preserve her existence. By transferring her memories in a brain scan to an artificial body, they had tried to resuscitate their daughter from the coma she was in after a car accident that landed Jenna's two friends (Kara and Locke) in a similar position. At the end of that story (The Adoration of Jenna Fox), Jenna had destroyed the memory cubes holding the scans of her two friends, in order to prevent anyone from attempting such a thing again.

But no one counted on someone keeping a back-up.

Now, a power-hungry scientist has discovered the data and reanimated Kara and Locke in new super bodies. He's determined to use them as examples of his new technology and will stop at nothing to exploit his new resources. But Kara and Locke have their own ideas. Spending 260 years in a memory chip has impacted them differently, but they are both agreed on an objective: escape and find Jenna Fox. To do so, they must navigate a world that is very different from the one they knew, as well as come to understand what changes have occurred to them in all these years.

The original story was an introverted drama about parental love gone too far. Until the final pages, you didn't even realize how much the story was even veering into science fiction. The sequel shoots for a much grander scale: launching immediately into the science and the ethics questions that Adoration just hinted at. The scope is much greater as well, with action spanning the country and numerous characters. It's a night and day difference and Inheritance lacks the intimacy of its predecessor. For those who like a sequel to resemble the original, that may be a bit hard to take, but that doesn't mean that this is a bad read -- it just makes reading both books unnecessary.

I didn't care for the ending of the book, which seemed to wrap up everything a bit too neatly (and was awfully rushed to boot!), but I liked the story itself. The characters are interesting and the details are rich. I found it to be a satisfying sci fi escape novel.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Near Witch, by Victoria Schwab

Children are disappearing from the town of Near. Each night, some sort of magic beguiles a child to leave their bed and vanish. Even Lexi, the daughter of town's tracker, cannot figure it out at first. The disappearances coincide with the arrival of a stranger to the town, and suspicions immediately fall upon him. Lexi, however, believes he is innocent and in fact may be the only person who can break the curse. A forgotten legend suggests that the nightly abductions might be the revenge of the Near Witch. But she must convince the other people of her village of this before they take out their anger on the stranger.

A vividly written, but awkwardly paced story. Action scenes drag interminably, yet key moments are played out abruptly (no more so than the climax itself). The story is very repetitious (for example, given the sheer number of times that Lexi escapes captivity, why do the villagers even try to restrain her?). With that uneven pacing, I lost track of the story lines and ended up pretty confused. Lots of great ideas here, but the writing needed some smoothing out and more revision.

Hound Dog True, by Linda Urban

During the week before fifth-grade starts, Mattie is helping her uncle clean up the school. He's the school's janitor and she's determined to be his "custodial apprentice." It would certainly beat having to start the year in a yet another new school, being forced to stand up in front of the class and announce your name. Or even worse, having to come up with something interesting to share about yourself with a bunch of strangers! Mattie is shy and would rather keep her thoughts within her journal instead.

However, that week of hers before school starts has adventures of its own and Mattie learns that when the moment of truth comes, she needs to be able to stand up and speak out. Actually doing so and putting her fears aside will be the tough part.

A deceptively simple book that grows on you. As I was reading it, the whole story seemed pretty insubstantial to me: a shy girl, her friend, and a bunch of adults. There were a few doubts and fears but nothing that seemed to spell out a definite conflict. Still, out of this mild and modest world, Urban tells some wonderful truths about finding your voice. It's the same magic that made A Crooked Kind of Perfect such a wonderful book. Like with that earlier work, this is certain to be underappreciated and ignored, but do yourself a favor and seek this out. It's a slender and fast read, and geared for a young audience, but full of so much!