Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Skin, by Donna Jo Napoli

[Gotta get that 100th review in tonight....]

Vitiligo is a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the pigment of the skin and causes patches of white to appear at random locations on the body.  Like other autoimmune disorders, there is no known cause and no real treatment for the condition.  It's chronic and, in this case, not terminal.  Still, for sixteen year-old Sep, it might as well be....

When Sep wakes up one morning to find his lips have gone completely white, she is terrified.  It isn't so much that she has been afflicted with a rare condition, but with how this one manifests itself.  She's a scientist at heart and loves to learn the causes and results of everything.  And what she sees isn't pretty.  Victims of vitiligo are just plain ugly.  Soon, she knows, she will be just as bad as they are.

She hides her condition, applying makeup and strategic clothing to cover up the "splotches" that are appearing on her body, in denial of what is happening.  And she refuses to tell anyone beyond her family and her best friend about the condition (and even then, she tries to obscure how far the condition has advanced).  She even keeps her boyfriend in the dark, until it is too late.

A great story about coming to terms with illness and learning (quite literally) to be comfortable in your skin.  Napoli always does great storytelling, but she usually works with mythic or historical settings, so this is a bit of a new thing for her -- and she does just fine.  The story itself works well because it takes any interesting concept (a disease that no one has heard of that has a particular resonance with image-conscious adolescents), creates a well-rounded character with realistic friends and family, and just lets the story wind itself out naturally.  As Sep grew meaner and nastier to her boyfriend and friends, I started to really hate her, but that was really just a measure of how much she had gotten under my skin.  By the conclusion, she redeems herself in an ending that wraps things up in a nicely sloppy way that felt plain right.  What better way to round out a year?

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Suburban Strange, by Nathan Kotecki

At the start of her sophomore year, Celia (like so many heroines of YA novels) is something of a wallflower at Suburban High.  But, out of the blue, an uber-stylish clique of kids called "the Rosary" adopt her.  She gets a complete life makeover - changing her hair, her clothes, and her social circle.  It is a fantasy come true for so many heroines of YA novels.  And finnaly, like far too many heroines of YA novels, she discovers the alleged artistic superiority of obscure New Wave bands from the Eighties (more on that later).

But meanwhile at school, things are turning darker that Celia's new outfits.  Girls are suffering an unusually large number of freak near-fatal accidents -- always on the day before their sixteenth birthdays.  It doesn't matter if they stay home or come to school.  In fact, the only thing that seems to protect some girls is losing their virginity.  Celia and her chemistry lab partner Mariette don't consider that to be an option.  They have a theory about what is causing the accident, and have to move cautiously but purposely towards a solution before their own birthdays come!

It's all over the place story-wise, but actually a nice original story with supernatural themes but an adolescent sensibility (how would you know that black magic was afoot?  why, what else would explain why everyone is failing chemistry?).  The book is long and really has a few too many moving parts, but it comes together in the end.  And while Kotecki is a clumsy writer (particular at the start of nearly every chapter), the creativity and the pace cover his sins.  That's a mixed review, but I enjoyed it.

Most of all, what bothered me was that way overused fiction that today's coolest kids would listen to their parents' alternative music.  I realize that writers have to write about what they know and that few of them can be bothered to research contemporary music, but get real!  Even though I am a child of the 80s myself, I can assure you that the Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Cure are not gods.  And old dudes trying to claim that they are are simply pathetic!

Neverwas, by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed

Sarah's father has a dream to unite New England, the Confederate States of America, and the free territories of Astoria in a last-ditch effort to defend the Americas against the Nazi Reich of Europe and the Japanese Empire.  It's an audacious plan for survival in the early 21st century.  It might even work.

Meanwhile, Sarah senses that something is not quite right.  Somehow, she remembers a different version of the present, where the American colonists did not lose their war of independence in the late 18th century, and where England was not defeated by the Germans.  The answers lie again with the famed Amber House and its mysterious "echoes" of the past.

In the sequel to the surprise wonder of Amber House, the mother-and-daughters writing team of Moore and Reed once again spin an outstanding supernatural tale.  The stakes are much higher this time and the story is a great deal more complicated (filled as it is with plenty of paradoxes of time travel), but basically this is another shot at the young female sleuth finding allies (quite literally) in the woodwork.  This time, I have to admit that I never quite figured out what was going on, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the ride and I let the story simply take me along with it.  With that in mind, this may be a book that rewards handsomely in the re-reading.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Friday Never Leaving, by Vikki Wakefield

Friday has never felt rooted in any one place.  Years of living on the road and in the bush with her nomadic mother ensured as much.  But she always had Mom...until she didn't.  After her mother dies of cancer, Friday is cast adrift and leaves her grandfather's home for life on the street.  Out there, she falls under the spell of a charismatic teen named Arden and a gang of kids that Arden leads.  While uneasy around them, the gang gives Friday the sense of family she has been missing.  Her years on the road growing up, however, make her more savvy than the others and ultimately brings her into conflict with Arden, with deadly consequences.

The characters are well-developed.  It is hard business to develop a large cast of characters and make them vivid enough to distinguish. The kids in the gang are a notably strong cast.  And the dynamic between Arden the leader and each of them is complex and interesting.

The book is nicely written, but the story didn't grab me.  Wakefield put a lot of effort into her writing, and it shows...sometimes a bit too much.  The title (and the cover) are an allusion to a prophecy that Friday will die from drowning on a Saturday (just as all of her female ancestors have).  A nice image, but one which is so obvious in its literary pretensions that you trip over it (you know from the first page that drowning will figure in prominently by the end...and are constantly watching out for any mention of water).  It's the obvious literary pretensions that make this beautiful book feel lifeless.  Too much like a book that you'll be assigned to write a book report on than actually enjoy.

Flowers In the Sky, by Lynn Joseph

Nina has always been happy with her flower garden and her quiet life in Samana, on the coast of the Dominican Republic.  But after her mother catches Nina in a compromising position, mami is determined that Nina will go to New York and live with her older brother Darrio.  Darrio has lived in the North for many years, sending a steady stream of money home, and Mom is convinced that Nina will find great fortune there, by marrying a rich doctor or baseball player.

What Nina finds is that life in Washington Heights (where all the Dominican immigrants live) is nowhere as easy as her mother thinks it is.  It's a rough life and it takes a while for Nina to make friends and find a place.  A young man named Luis with a secret past captures her heart but Darrio doesn't like him and won't explain why.  Meanwhile, Darrio has secrets of his own and Nina realizes that the beautiful life of the USA comes with dangers and a dark side.

All of which probably makes the story sound cliche.  However, there's a gentleness and honesty to the book that makes it stand out a bit.  Nina acclimates to her new environment, but maintains a strong sense of self and a strong moral center (loyalty, beauty, and love) that make her interesting as a person.  The story ties up sweetly in the end, but with just enough messiness to make it believable.  A good read.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna

Eve is an "echo" - a clone of a living person -- created and stored at a sufficiently remote distance for the sole purpose of serving as a replacement if something should happen to the original.  Amarra, Eve's "other," lives in Bangalore, while Eve lives in rural England.  Eve's job is to study everything that Amarra does and memorize every key fact about Amarra -- in case she has to step in and take over Amarra's life.  It's a job that is all encompassing, but largely unfulfilling, as few echos ever need to take up their other's life.  And for Eve, whom longs for time to be herself, it has grown unbearable to be enslaved to Amarra's life and be unable to have any life of her own.  And then, there is the small problems of "hunters" (vigilantes who oppose the concept of echos and try to find them and kill them) and also growing instability amongst the "weavers" (the three creators of the echos who work at the "Loom" that manufactures them).

Eve's growing self-enlightenment is interrupted when Amarra is killed in an accident.  Suddenly, Eve is sent to India to take on the role for which she has been preparing.  Despite all of Eve's study, things do not go well as neither she nor Amarra's family are able to adapt to the change.  And as Eve, her new family, and Amarra's friends struggle with the situation, it unveils a deep complexity to the issue.  Eve may have little choice of the role she has been created to play, but for the family that chose to do this, how do they make it work?  And is replacing your deceased daughter with a clone really going to fill the gap in your life?

It's thoughtful and original science fiction.  While paying homage to Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein, Mandanna has created a finely textured study of the meaning of relationships (both friendly and familial) and of loyalty.  The book runs a bit long and the ending becomes muddled by a subplot about the weavers that is allowed to achieve too much prominence, but the story is quite fascinating.  From the ethical questions of life replacing life as a means to achieve immortality (a topic borrowed from Shelley) to the meaning of self for a clone, there is plenty of thought-provoking stuff here.  Finally, it's nice to have some science fiction placed in India.  While Mandanna doesn't really explore the local color, it is notable as India doesn't often feature in YA lit (or in sci-fi, for that matter).

A Really Awesome Mess, by Trish Cook and Brandan Halpin

Any book that significantly name drops my alma mater Simon's Rock deserves a special shout out, even if a main character disses the school in the end.

Emmy and Justin have both been involuntarily committed to Heartland Academy, a residential facility for troubled teens.  From their own accounts, their offenses seem minor and the punishment is disproportional.  However, by the end of the third chapter, the reader can clearly see what their issues are.  It takes the rest of the book for the characters to finally admit their problems.  Through friendship with the other kids in the program and the experience of adopting a pet piglet, they come to terms with these issues and begin to rebuild their lives.

{An aside:  Residential psychiatric programs for teens are an essential literary device in YA lit for getting a bunch of screwed-up teens together without parents (filling the void left by the demise of the boarding school genre).  Given how poorly the kids in these stories are monitored, one wonders how the institution survives, but I digress!]

The book is a team effort with Cook and Halpin trading off writing the story (a popular experiment in writing seminars and one that leads to far two many published books).  It suffers from a common issue with the format -- a general incompatibility of the writers.  The book starts off fine, but Trish Cook's attempts to write a straight story with insight are quickly derailed by Halpin's gonzo writing.  He'd rather gross-out the readers and subvert Cook's attempts to build meaningful dialogue and interactions.  In her chapters, the story is actually formed, but then Halpin comes in like a typical preschool boy and knocks everything over, leaving things a mess for Cook to dutifully clean up in her next chapter.  By the end, I cringed each time I started to read Halpin's chapters (fearing what damage he would do).  It wasn't cute and it wasn't interesting.  It was simply plain dumb.  Maybe Cook should write her own books instead?

And I think Emmy missed out by not going to the Rock!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Next Full Moon, by Carolyn Turgeon

Nearly thirteen, Ava is turning into a swan.  But, while the phrase may be metaphorical for most girls, for Ava it's quite literal.  She's growing feathers and gaining the ability to transform herself into a large bird.  And even how to fly.

At the same time, she's discovering that the changes in her body that were once made her feel gangly and ugly, now give her beauty.  And where she once was awkward with others, she is gaining grace.

It's a nicely written story and pleasant, but it's hard to escape the issue that there's not much new here.  The metaphor of becoming a swan itself is a tired trope and the story (girl experiences transformation, gets together with dream boy, and reunites with long-lost mother -- sorry, it's so obvious that saying it here is hardly a spoiler) is very well-trod.  Perhaps it can be enjoyed for the beauty of the story and for the way it captures succinctly the specific moment of being on the verge of adulthood, but it seemed tame and unadventuresome to me.  As a coming-of-age story, the fantasy elements were distracting.  As a fantasy, it was underdeveloped.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Imperfect Spiral, by Debbie Levy

While babysitting five-year-old Humphrey, Danielle loses sight of him for a moment, he runs into the street, and is fatally struck by a car.  At first, Danielle cannot remember the details of the accident and is frustrated by a sense that she was responsible for Humphrey's death.  Her guilt is compounded by her inability to speak up (an issue with stage fright that predates the accident).  But when the community blames both bad traffic controls and illegal immigrants for the tragedy, she searches for the courage to speak out and set the record straight.

A muddled novel that has a hard time deciding whether it wants to be about celebrating life and grief or if it wants to be a polemical work about immigration.  In the book's blurb, the subject of immigration never comes up, but in the afterword, it is all the author can talk about.  One suspects that Levy wrote one thing and got led astray by the other (although which thing?).  Regardless, the two themes don't mesh very well and the result is the lack of a clear focus to the story that ultimately distracts from its power.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nothing But Blue, by Lisa Jahn-Clough

A girl finds herself walking down the street with no memory of her immediate circumstances.  Someone has died and she must get away!  Voices haunt her and danger seems to lurk everywhere.  So, she lays low and tries to survive on the street, with help from random strangers and an uncannily intuitive dog.  As time passes, her memories slowly come back to her.

I really like Jahn-Clough's spare writing style.  Her other two novels are both on my very short list of perfect books.  This one is also well-written, but the story didn't work for me.  There are a couple of explanations for this.  Maybe it is because it is too predictable (memory loss stories have a pretty standard dramatic arc).  Or maybe it is because the novel's length relies solely upon having a main character who turns down rescue repeatedly (a choice that always seems to me more designed to extend the story than to serve a literary purpose).  It is, in sum, a short story stretched out into a thin novel.  It could easily have been resolved in thirty pages and maybe should have been.

This Is What Happy Looks Like, by Jennifer E Smith

Graham and Ellie met completely by accident when Graham mistyped the address of an email and reached Ellie instead of his pig sitter.  By random chance, they hit it off and traded emails back and forth.  But after months of chatting, Graham has decided to tempt fate and come to Ellie's town to meet her.  And she is in for a big surprise!

No, Graham isn't some creepy 46 year-old guy who reads YA literature in his free time.  He's actually Graham Larkin -- major teen hottie and up-and-coming young actor.  He's easy on the eyes, famous, rich, sensitive, Ellie's age, and miraculously available.  And Ellie is just a plain small town girl from Maine, so she is presumably as out of his league as the readers of this book.

But everyone is not quite who they seem.  Graham's heart of gold belies his fame and his decidedly simple small-town tastes.  And Ellie?  Well, you'll have to read the first 120 pages or so to find out what her special secret is because I'm not going to spoil that secret!

In many ways, this is over-the-top romantic teen fantasy (hot famous guy falls for normal girl).  He's famous but no one understands his true needs except her, and so he is willing to lavish all of his attention on her.  Not that the complete lack of a realistic fiber in this tale makes the story any less fun.  Who doesn't like a story about two totally nice people meeting and falling in love?  The story is adorable and you'll be happy while reading it.

But Jennifer? Check your map:  what part of Maine is located one hour south of Kennebunkport?  If that's where the town of Henley is, then it's somewhere in Massachusetts! :)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Sin-Eater's Confession, by Ilsa J. Bick

In the midst of serving as a medic in war-torn Afghanistan, Ben recalls the events surrounding the violent death of his friend Jimmy back home in the rural town of Merit, Wisconsin.  Despite the fact that he witnessed the murder, he was unable at the time to come forward and still doesn't really know what happened.  That failure to protect Jimmy, before his death or after, drives Ben to deep despair and he struggles with the doubts it implanted in his mind.

An intense psychological exploration of guilt and personality formation.  And definitely not a cheery piece!  I wanted to hate it for its depiction of rural Wisconsin as some sort of redneck bayou country, but ultimately Bick's depiction of the town Merit was nuanced and authentic.  The stereotypes (beer, brats, and the Pack) come mostly from Ben and are not borne out by the actual actions of the characters.  In fact, the entire novel bucks convention painting a world that is full of infinite shades of gray and less full of certainty than a reader is comfortable with.  Chief among the uncertainties is Ben himself, who struggles with almost every part of his story (not least of which is what he truly felt for Jimmy).

It's an ugly book and a story I don't particularly care to read again.  Yet, it rang true and one has to admire the artistry of the author and the fine craftsmanship of the novel.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dancing Naked, by Shelley Hrdlitschka

Sixteen and pregnant, Kia is faced with the most difficult set of decisions in her life.  And while she has the support of her family, a social worker, and a kind youth group leader at church, a lot of the weight falls on her shoulders.  Week by week, the story tracks the development of her pregnancy and Kia's adventure with the experience.

Despite some subplots about Kia's relationship with the youth leader and her work at a seniors' home, the novel sticks pretty tightly on the pregnancy.  And it stays pretty matter-of-fact.  This works mostly because pregnancy is an inherently interesting subject and because teen readers will generally relate to Kia's character (who is level-headed but definitely a bit over her head).  For many, the nature of the story provides sufficient dramatic tension.  In apparent consideration of that reaction, the story leans so hard away from drama and theatrics that it comes across more as non-fiction.

The issue that it raises for me, though, is that this isn't much of novel.  In terms of depicting the experience realistically (and thus being educational), the book deserves praise, but it's a bit cold and clinical.  We know that Kia struggles with the decisions about whether to carry the pregnancy to term and whether to give the baby away for adoption, but we really never get inside her head.  Thus, the emotional attachment to the character doesn't develops.  Perhaps the most insightful part is the book's actual title (an allusion to exposing yourself entirely to the world), but in that sense we never really get to see Kia dance naked (at best it's about as fuzzy as the book's cover).

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Paradox of Vertical Flight, by Emil Ostrovski

My Alma Mater (Vassar) has contributed a fair number of YA writers to the world (most notably Emily Jenkins/E Lockhart). Here comes a new one...

Jack is interrupted in the midst of a suicide attempt brought on by existential angst with a phone call from his ex-girlfriend, Jess.  She's about to give birth to their baby and - out of the blue - asks him to be at the hospital with her.  That reunion doesn't go so well, but Jack is so struck by the momentous idea of being a father that he decides to kidnap the baby.  A madcap road trip to take the baby to meet Jack's grandmother ensues with Jack, his best friend Tommy, and Jess and the baby in tow.

Very much the boy book, the novel is liberally littered with scatological and raucous humor, some implausible adventures and a fair amount of irresponsible and illegal behavior.  There's a fair amount of the razzing that passes for male bonding and the girl definitely gets short changed as a character.  In case you don't get it, I'm not a fan of the genre but occasionally feel obligated to read a book intended for young male readers.

But Ostrovski has other higher (and contradictory) ambitions for this novel.  Jack is a philosophy aficionado, names the baby Socrates, and engages in long imaginary discourses with the child throughout the book.  This mental masturbation is fairly dull (and I studied philosophy at Vassar just like the author!), largely irrelevant to the plot, and really far out of character.  The topics of the conversations might thrill an undergrad, but since Jack is supposedly a high schooler, it's a little hard to believe that he would have the knowledge to know these topics (even if he's a bright kid, how many high school teachers can expound intelligently on Nietsche?).  The literary conceit simply didn't work and it fills a great deal of pages (particularly towards the end).  Might have been better in an adult novel, but it hangs on awkwardly and will search hard for an audience.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Velvet, by Mary Hooper

It's the Turn of the Century and Velvet is sure that her fortunes are about to change.  She ekes out a living in London as a laundress, working long hours in back-breaking labor.  So, when one of her wealthy customers, Madame Savoya, offers her the opportunity to join her household as an assistant, she thinks her dreams have been realized and she accepts the promotion without a second thought. 

Her new mistress is a medium and Velvet is introduced the arcana of seances and spiritualist sessions.  Velvet's never given much thought to "the other side" (as Madame calls it), but she notices early on the great comfort that communicating with the deceased bring their grieving relatives.  It is only later that Velvet begins to notice suspicious events and begins to question the motives of her new employer.

Another richly documented historical novel from Hooper.  Picking up some related material from Fallen Grace, we get a thorough introduction to the Edwardian obsession with the occult and some of the unsavory practices of the era.  There is the expected attention to detail in clothing and dining, as well as a lot of information about everyday life in London.  The story is a bit predictable, but Hooper unfolds the story well and the pace is lively.  Combined with the well-developed setting, this is a satisfying read.

You Look Different in Real Life, by Jennifer Castle

Ten years ago, Justine and four other kindergartners were placed around a table and interviewed on film in what was to become Five at Six - a groundbreaking documentary about growing up.  Five years later, the filmmakers returned and produced a second installment, Five at Eleven.  Now, it's time for a third visit to the kids.  However, in the intervening five years, things have changed dramatically and the inseparable children have become sullen adolescents with hidden dramas that they no longer want to share with the world (for Justine, it is the nagging feeling that all the promise she showed at eleven has fizzled into nothing and she has become unremarkable and unworthy of the attention).  The filmmakers' initial attempts to reignite the chemistry between the kids falls flat. But then a crisis occurs that brings the five together again and helps them come to terms with what drove them apart.

What starts as an interesting premise (more on that below) turns fairly conventional as the crisis that pops up mid-book turns this potentially deep study of changing priorities in adolescence and the process of coping with fame, into a predictable kids-hit-the-big-city adventure.  At that point, the book for me becomes dull and unremarkable.  A series of challenges brings the kids back together again into a tighter bond and Justine finds her special talent.  It's all very Disneyesque.

The draw of this book for me was really the premise itself.  I'm a big fan of Michael Apted's Up series (the obvious inspiration for this story).  Last year, I had the opportunity to watch a screening of 56 Up where Nick Hitchon (who lives near me) was in the audience.  He was seeing the film for the first time and afterwards spoke about the experience with the audience.  What I learned from him was how emotionally wrenching it is to be part of the film and what difficulty the participants go through every seven years.  It made a deep impression and I was interested to learn how Castle would approach this fertile material.

In the first couple of chapters where Justine is struggling with whether she'll participate or not and where she recounts the embarassments of being in the film, I heard a great echo of what Nick had told us and thought that I was going to get a lot out of the novel.  However, apparently it wasn't enough to sustain Castle.  The shift into high gear action addresses the issue of the separation between the kids and ties up some loose ends from their past, but we never really revisit Justine's (or any of the other children's) ambivalence towards the project.  That's really a shame as it was the most unique and original part of this story.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Moon and More, by Sarah Dessen

In her last summer before college, Emaline has a lot of decisions to make.  Living in the small coastal town of Colby, there aren't too many opportunities, but she wants to reach for anything she can.  And she's looking for encouragement wherever she can find it.

Her life has been defined by her relationship with her (adoptive) Dad and her (biological) Father.  Dad has always been there for her but not been too ambitious, while Father showed up only infrequently but pushed her to succeed.  At the same time, Father's let her down recently, bailing on her just as she almost realized her career dreams.  A similar tension develops when Emaline meets ambitious Theo, in town to help on a documentary about a local artist-celebrity, and she chooses him over her long-term safe boyfriend Luke. 

It's a summer beach story with a complicated storyline:  Emaline sorts out these complicated relationships she has with men and tries to figure out how to realize her dreams.

Sarah Dessen is a fantastic writer, with a major talent for expressing emotion and turning beautiful prose out in (increasing-longer) novels.  She also creates complicated and realistic young women on the cusp of adulthood like no one else in the literary world today.  No one should doubt her talent.  But, while Suzanne Collins can decimate a population and overthrow entire regimes in 400 pages, Sarah Dessen can barely get her heroine around the block of a small coastal Carolina town in the same space.  To say that barely anything really happens in the story might be overstating things (lots of stuff happens between chapters), but Dessen hates writing action sequences.  She would rather do all her action in recap and kill forests of trees in service to dialogue and emotional responses to the (off-screen) action.  That isn't all bad (and the focus on emotion is a trademark - and stereotype - of chick lit), but is seems a bit of a cop out when you're reading a 440 page book.

Emaline is an amazingly well-developed character.  Perfect for a sleepover and maybe a new BFF, but she doesn't really do very much in this story.  And, like so many other Dessen heroines, she's terribly autonomous and isolated.  That's all to be expected, but most of the time, it's interesting.  Here, I feel like I've read this character before and seen better.  In sum, it's another Dessen installment, but not one of the best of the lot.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Taken, by Edward Bloor

It's twenty years in the future and the world is socially and geographically segregated much more clearly into rich and poor.  The poor struggle to survive, have poor access to healthcare or education, and generally live in shantytowns.  If they are lucky, they have landed jobs as service workers for the rich or have joined the military.  The rich live in gated communities, surrounding themselves with armed guards, and lie in constant fear of kidnappers.  Kidnapping has become big business and every child from the wealthy families is a target.

Charity certainly knows about the kidnappings.  From a few friends who have been nabbed to the training she received in school (she even wrote a paper about it in school!), she understands what to do if you are taken away if you want to stay alive.  So, when she wakes to find herself strapped down to a stretcher on an ambulance far away from safety, she calmly accepts that she has been taken.  Now, it is a simple matter of waiting for things to take their usual course (a ransom will be paid and she will be let go).  However, when things don't go according to plan, Charity realizes that it could all end up badly.

This one's a bit darker than Bloor's other novels (which compared to Story Time is really saying something!).  While mildly satirical, Bloor aims here for overt social critique.  With a pretty heavy hand, he speaks to inequality, racism, and the arrogance of the haves towards the have nots.  The result is fairly preachy and a bit hard to digest (mixing reality and outlandish fantasy in a way that probably disengages readers more than agitating them).  The aim is probably to reach an adolescent audience, but the message is not just loud, it's also muddled.  Given the polemic, characterizations suffer too, so this isn't such a successful outing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

37 Things I Love, by Kekla Magoon

Two years ago, Ellis's father was injured on the job and fell into a coma.  He's never woken up.  Every day, when Ellis isn't visiting him to vent her life's frustrations, she's fighting with her mother about whether they should turn off his life support.  Mom believes it is time to let go, but Ellis can't accept that and she fights bitterly to keep the machines going.  In thirty-seven brief chapters, Ellis tells us about the things she loves and simultaneously about the last week of her sophomore year, when everything changes and she has to confront the decisions she has made and to reevaluate her friendships and loyalties.

A brief, but ultimately satisfying story about relationships and letting go.  Magoon focuses her attentions on her heroine and gives us a well-developed emotional landscape, but one where everything (and everyone) else is incidental.  Ellis herself is engaging and interesting enough to get the reader hooked. However, given the brevity of the story, it is inevitable that the other characters get shortchanged.  From the friends and family to a host of throwaway supporting characters (the neighbor, the counselor, etc.), there is really only space for Ellis here. This works well in this case and the novel is successful in its modest ambitions.

Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, by Shannon Hale

In this long-overdue sequel to Princess Academy, Miri and the girls of Mount Eskel have come to the capital Asland to help their Britta prepare for her wedding to Prince Stephan.  It's exciting for Miri to finally see the city that they have only heard about before.  Everything is so much grader than they have ever seen before!  But their arrival comes at an inopportune moment.  Unrest is afoot and a revolution is beginning to stir.  On their first day, an assassination attempt on the king is barely averted before their eyes.

The unrest is directed at the rulers, but Mount Eskel itself is in a precarious position.  As Mount Eskel's delegate Katar explains to Miri, it is critical that they (as the newest members of the kingdom) position themselves well, regardless of the outcome.  To that end, she entrusts Miri with the task of finding the rebellion and ingratiating herself with its leaders (dangerous and tricky when one of your own is about to marry the King's son!).  Through what seems like luck, Miri succeeds in the task when she befriends a young idealistic student named Timon.  But Miri gets more than she wished for.  At first, Miri is personally very taken by the goals of justice and equality for which the revolutionaries are fighting.  She finds herself drawn to Timon and even begins to question her attachment to her simple boyfriend Peder from home.  But as the situation grows dark and dangerous, Miri discovers that she is trapped in her new subversive role.  And being a revolutionary means not only plotting against the King, but also betraying her friends and homeland.  As the masses start to rise up, Miri finds that she must tread carefully through a series of difficult decisions to stay alive and protect her home.

It's all a bit darker than the original story.  Hale has drawn a great deal from the history of the French Revolution to show how dangerous uprisings are and how easy it is to get caught in the crossfire.  The novel itself is an engrossing tale of politics, intrigue, and loyalty.  In her usual style, the grownups are generally helpless and stubborn, so it falls on the adolescents to rise to the occasion and save the land.  That is convenient for the story, but it also provides a pleasing dramatic arc as Miri fully comes into her own.

This is truly a magical work which expands the potential of YA fantasy literature!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Story Time, by Edward Bloor

When Kate and her uncle George (who is two years younger than her) find out that they have been accepted into the Whittaker Magnet School, they have opposite reactions.  George is excited.  It is just the sort of environment where he can finally spread his wings and excel.  He's managed to score the highest score on the school's entrance exam ever.  And the school's focus on standardized testing plays to his strengths.  Kate, on the other hand, is no genius and the change of schools will prevent her from auditioning for Peter Pan this year.  Kate's mother languishes in depression, while her grandparents (George's parents) are lost in their floor-shattering clogging practices.

Regardless of initial impressions, the school itself proves to be a nightmare.  It teaches quite literally to the test, subjecting its students to continual bubble-filling, brain-enhancing drinks, and rote memorization (and phonics!) for the younger kids.  The school is a conglomeration of everything that is wrong in modern schooling.  And all of this before accounting for the demon that is possessing people on the school grounds or the disastrous visit from the First Lady of the United States!

A bit long and not nearly as funny as Tangerine, Bloor still has a good time making bitter fun of the American education system.  Younger readers may find the chaos to be great fun in itself, but even middle readers will recognize the satire.  Taken seriously, the book (with numerous serious injuries and sundry dead bodies) is grotesque, but it works wonderfully if you don't get too literal with any of it.  Unfortunately, that is where the problem of length sets in.   Being a satire, we don't have any attachment to the characters.  Instead, the story rests on humor.  The wit gets a bit tired after the first 200 pages.  By the 400th page, we're more than ready for it to wrap up!

The Lucy Variations, by Sara Zarr

Eight months ago, Lucy walked out on her concert in Prague, after discovering that she had been betrayed by her family.  Sixteen years old and already an established concert pianist, her future had looked bright.  But now she's quit music altogether and her family can't forgive her.  Their hopes are now pinned on her younger brother, who's apparently a wunderkind himself on the piano.

While Lucy herself would deny it, she really does want to play again.  In the end, it is her brother's new teacher who reawakens that desire to play again, but it is no easy matter.  Can she find a way to enjoy the music itself, without the pressure of performance?  Can she play without her family's expectations or judgements clouding that joy?  And what about the teacher himself?  He's supposed to be teaching her little brother, and yet Lucy clamors for his attention, virtually stealing him away.  And despite the fact that he's married, Lucy finds herself recklessly drawn to him.

Zarr's books can be hit-or-miss, but I liked this one.  There are plenty of other books out there about young musical prodigies and more than a few about forbidden teacher-student relationships (what's with all the lecherous music teachers out there, anyway?), but Zarr keeps this one fresh.  First of all, because the characters are too knowing to fall into tragic tropes.  More importantly, though, because Zarr keeps the focus on Lucy's family.  There are many complexities, from Lucy's brother's jealousy to her grandfather's obsessions to her mother's guilt.  Even the father, who starts off rather weak, shows strength and comes into his own by the end of the story.  The non-family characters (Lucy's friends and colleagues) are less interesting, but I'm willing to let that go as the main story of Lucy's journey to break free of her familial bonds ultimately is so engrossing.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pretty Girl - 13, by Liz Coley

Three years after she was abducted during a campout, Angela suddenly reappears at her home.  At first, she cannot recall anything that has occurred during her absence.  However, with the help of hypnosis and the support of a psychologist, she slowly reassembles what happened while she was gone.

To protect herself from the trauma of her abduction and long periods of captivity, she has developed a series of "alters" (other personalities) that inhabit her body and shield her.  Putting these pieces of herself back together becomes crucial for the healing and rebuilding her life, but involves unraveling the horrors of those three lost years.

An extremely emotionally intense to read, but also quite compelling.  Given the ickiness of the premise, it’s a bit weird to say that I “enjoyed” the book, but I did find it hard to put down.  Angela's suffering is immense and her capacity to survive it makes her a strong heroine.  This is amplified by Coley's complex portrayal of her and her psyche.  Despite these strengths, some of the other characters (the parents and the counselor, in particular) can be a bit two dimensional. 
Do be forewarned that this isn’t a book for sensitive readers.  Coley avoids getting too graphic, but the events portrayed are quite gruesome.  This is definitely nightmare-inducing material.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Anti-Prom, by Abby McDonald

When Bliss Merino catches her BFF and her boyfriend doing the nasty in their group's rental limo at the Prom, she wants revenge.  However, she's better at fashion than vengeance and she could use some help.  That help comes from an unlikely source: the local "bad girl" from the wrong side of the tracks, Jolene Nelson (who has her heart set on a little vengeance as well!).  Neither of the however have the transportation they need, so they recruit wallflower Meg Zuckerman to drive them around.  And on the night when all three girls thought that they would be celebrating their Prom, they end up doing something very different.

Compared with McDonald's other books, this one is bit more slight.  The idea that three mismatched kids will come to understand each other and bond in a wild night of adventures is pretty formulaic.  And while there are a few twists, we don't stray very far from the formula here.  Still, if you don't mind predictability, it's an entertaining enough read.  The characters are

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Last Present, by Wendy Mass

In the fourth (and probably final) installment of Mass's Willow Falls series, many mysteries are revealed and loose ends are tied up.  It begins where the third book left off:  with ten year-old Grace falling into a inexplicable coma.  The ever- cryptic Angelina knows more than she's saying, but what she is saying is that Amanda and Leo (just off of their own one year vow against speaking to each other) must team up again, travel back in time, and revisit each of Grace's previous birthdays.  Their mission is to distract Grace's brother who somehow manages each year to mess up the birthday parties and thwart the magic that could eventually save Grace in the present.  Yes, the adventures of Willow Falls continue!

While this continues to be a clever series, I think it probably is time to retire it.  While the third breathed new life into the franchise with new characters, here we are mostly revisiting old friends.   That said, I still enjoy the kids and their adventures and the mixture of fun and the awareness of their own growing up (there's a bit more kissing in the latest book!).  Wendy Mass writes true quality books for middle readers and deserves the attention she gets.  That said, you wouldn't want to pick this book up unless you've read the preceding installments (in order) as there's no allowance for getting up to speed.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Heaven Is Paved With Oreos, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Sarah has a typical share of fourteen year-old's problems:  a mother who's always watching her, a friend who's a boy but not a boyfriend (or maybe not!), and a bitter rival at school.  But everything is about to be put in perspective when her eccentric grandmother announces that they are going to Rome (as in Italy)!  At first, no one is particularly excited about it, but Sarah's parents come round to the idea that it could be a great learning experience.  And as for Sarah?  She hopes that getting away will just help her sort out things with friend-who-is-a boy Curtis.

The trip turns out to be a true adventure.  From all the things that are new (despite Sarah's attempts to survive on familiar food, she finds that even pizza is different in Italy!) and all the things that are old (like the churches), Sarah and her grandmother have a major cultural outing.  In the last days there, however, something happens to grandma:  she becomes withdrawn and depressed, and she makes a shocking confession to her grandddaughter.  When they return to America, Sarah has to deal with it and what it means for her family.

In my mind, the very best thing about this book is the title.  But although Oreo cookies are invoked several times in the book, the story itself is really about family secrets and learning from the mistakes of the past.  That's a bit hard to suss out as the narrator is a realistically scattered fourteen year-old. Realistic, but not really very enticing for a novel.  There's a lot of ambition in the story, but it never quite gets the gravitas it needs.  And I keep wondering about Murdock's obsession with Wisconsin (she really doesn't seem to know much about it -- wouldn't her native Pennsylvania provide the appropriate rural setting she needs?).

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Just One Day, by Gayle Forman

A chance meeting with a Dutch actor named Willelm in London, sends American high school grad Allyson on an impulsive trip to Paris with him.  The two of them spend a whirlwind day together, but in the morning he is gone.  Panicked by the abandonment, Allyson barely makes it home to the States.

For the next year, Allyson is obsessed with figuring out what happened.  And, not content to let the matter drop, she makes arrangements to return to Paris to look for Willem, a move that neither her friends or family understand.  But along the way, she comes to understand that this need to close a chapter in her life is about much more than a one day fling.

While it starts off as a variant of the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset story, Forman takes her tale of an impulsive love that becomes a year-long obsession into much deeper territory, exploring how chance meetings can change lives (and, in fact, cause us to reexamine all of the parts of our lives which we do plan) in a way that those movies never had the opportunity to explore.  And it's a well-written story with great character depth (surprising, given the large and diverse cast of characters that play parts in the story).  The pace is brisk, but various different settings (London, Paris, school life in Boston, and The Netherlands) are well-developed.

I enjoyed the read and the found it easy going, with one exception: the editing.  Nothing is more distracting than a well-written book which is edited horrendously.  Either Forman had a lousy copyeditor or she was too lazy to read her galleys, but when I can casually count over ten typos without even trying to notice them, one really has to wonder why anyone would take a book that otherwise represents a huge effort and release it so sloppily!

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Different Girl, by Gordon Dahlquist

Four girls live on a desert island with their two guardians.  Each day, they learn new things in their school about the world and their abilities.  Each night, their guardians put them to sleep.  Completely inseparable, the four girls communicate seamlessly with each other, sharing thoughts and completing each others' sentences.   It all seems normal until the day that a fierce storm comes and suddenly a new -- and very different -- girl is washed to the shore.

But it isn't just that the girl is different.  The island itself is changing and danger seems to be approaching quickly.  The guardians begin warning the girls that their very survival may be at risk.  And as previously unimagined dangers close in on the four girls, they come to rely on the new arrival to guide them.

An unusual, striking, and original story.  The mystery of the girls themselves and how they came to live on the island is very slowly unraveled (but is also a process which is never completed).  Instead, we are left with a story with many things unexplained.  The loose ends offer up a choice of interpretations to the reader.  Yet, given the situation, it is natural that a vast majority of the story's action occurs off-page and is beyond the ability of the narrator to explain to us.  Some readers may find that maddening, but I think it provides a fascinating dynamic for the reader to absorb, leaving us sometimes as bewildered as the four girls themselves.

Sophomore Switch, by Abby McDonald

As far as bad decisions go, Tasha's impulse to make out with a teen idol at a party ranks pretty high (especially when a video of the moment goes viral on the Web, earning her an international reputation as a sexual predator and all-round slut).  Desperate to get out of the limelight (and get away from California), she jumps at the opportunity to go on an academic exchange. Meanwhile, prim and hyper-organized Oxford undergrad Emily is less driven by recent events than simple bad luck.  Her application has gone astray and now there are few remaining opportunities for study abroad.  The chance to swap with an American girl attending UC Santa Barbara seems the best option she has.

Two totally different personalities swap places to the most inappropriate of choices.  But, as one would predict in a novel, the initial fish-out-of-water experience gradually turns to acceptance and life-changing success.  Both girls learn something about themselves from walking in each others' shoes.

What is somewhat more surprising, given the book's general lightweight focus on fun and parties, is the strong empowerment message that comes through by the end.  As McDonald writes in the afterward, she was particularly interested in exploring the sexual politics of the younger generation. That said, McDonald has created a bit of a straw person, by creating an overly simplistic reading of feminism as anti-sex (focusing in particular on Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon) in order to show how these two young women break free of such old fashioned ideas.  However, there has always been a significant body of literature out there exploring the place of desire in defining identity, so McDonald (and Tasha and Emily) are hardly stepping in new ground. 

There are other issues with the story itself.  Some of them are little (claiming that Rousseau wrote Civil Disobedience) while others are bigger (in what exchange program would student swap entire class schedules -- trying to attend each others' classes?).  But I may be taking it all a bit too seriously.  The story itself is great escapist fun, with some light romance and a bit of drama to keep things interesting.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Darkbeast Rebellion, by Morgan Keyes

In this sequel to Darkbeast, Keara, Goran, and Taggart are fleeing for their lives, trying to escape the Inquisitors and simultaneously searching for a group of renegade "Darkers" who will take them in.  As adults who have rejected the mandate that they must kill their animal familiars ("Darkbeasts") on their twelve birthdays, the three of them are not only heretics, but a deep threat to the social order.  The Darkers, it is said, shelter similar rebels.  If only they can be found!

But their problems do not disappear when the three of them find a colony of Darkers, as all is not quite as they hoped.  Instead, soon they are thrown back into peril.  By the end of the story, Keara must find a way to prove herself, without the help of her Darkbeast.

I loved the first book in the series so much that I eagerly threw myself into this one, casting aside all the other books on my pile in favor of this one when it arrived unannounced in the mail.  Even though I am not a fan of sequels, I had high hopes for this novel.

It held up surprisingly well.  I liked the first book for its originality and for the depth of its vision.  A tremendous effort was made into imagining this fantasy universe, as Keyes explains the theology, culture, and mores of these people.  She continues this forcefully in the sequel, expanding into the complicated politics of the society as well.  Even if young readers won't always appreciate it, there is an amazing consistency and logic to the world the author has created.

What young readers will certainly appreciate is the description of the changes that Keara is going through.  While the first book focused on the difficult problem of letting go of childhood, the second explores the more complicated process of navigating the beginnings of adulthood.  From the dawning of the realization that social interactions have grown more complex to the cold reality that friendships are easily betrayed to the novel need to build social bonds, Keara goes through many familiar challenges.  In this way, Keyes's complex coming-of-age story is much more honest than the more "reality" based versions on the market.  And in the safety of this fantasy world, readers can see their own difficulties exposed and conquered.  Truly, this is the glorious purpose for which middleschool fantasy was intended!

And it is also an excellent and fun read!

[Disclosure:  I did receive an unsolicited free copy of this book from the publisher (and am grateful to them for calling attention to the book).  It does not impact the nature of my review.  I look forward to finding a receptive young reader for this book in the future.]

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor is an awkward redhead from a difficult family situation.  Park is a half-Korean punk rocker (and the only Asian kid in Omaha to boot!).  When she boards the school bus on the first day, she looks like a train wreck ready to happen.  Park takes pity on her.  And over a series of silent bus rides together, a friendship develops that turns into something more.  Yes, it's just a love story.

But it's also a lot more.  Told through the alternating voices of Park and Eleanor, Rowell has crafted an amazingly honest book about emotions and the flowering of love.  There are the mandatory references to Romeo and Juliet, but the novel itself is surprisingly fresh for a story that ought to be so overdone.  And while I hate the setting (did it really need to be set in the 80s?), the writing is pitch perfect.

This is also a story that grabs you by the jugular. It has tragedy painted all over it, which ought to prepare you for the ending, but the expected train wreck still devastates you.  These are kids that it is impossible not to care about and when bad stuff happens, it strikes you in a surprisingly effective way.  Perhaps, because these are good people and you want to see the best things happen to them.

The characters are key, of course. Park can be a bit clueless but he is likeable.  Eleanor captures your heart as intensely private and proud, and compassionate beyond her years.  And what's not to love about Park's mother, who is part Asian tiger mother stereotype, but with so much more depth and heart than Koreans ever get painted with by popular media?

In sum, a truly memorable and excellent book.  Plenty of other reviewers have said as much so I realize I am not breaking any ground here, but for anyone who fears that I hate everything I read, it's a pleasure to prove that I'm not a total curmudgeon!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

13 Gifts, by Wendy Mass

Because of some trouble at school (involving the kidnapping of a goat), Tara's parents decide that bringing her along with them on an upcoming trip to Madagascar might not be a good idea.  Instead, they send her to live with her aunt, who lives in her Mom's old home town (where Tara has never been).  There, she makes new friends, loses her shyness while engaging in an elaborate scavenger hunt, and discovers hidden talents, all because of a mysterious woman named Angelina (with whom readers of the previous installments in this series will be well-acquainted).  It all ends with a rousing performance of Fiddler on the Roof and some wild twists and turns that introduce the next installment (to be reviewed in a few weeks - stay tuned!).

While this is a series (third out of four and counting) and thus I should be predisposed to hating it, Wendy Mass writes such wonderful books for middleschoolers that it's hard to dislike this charming coming-of-age story. I love the way that the characters can have coed adventures with a middle-schooler's (age-appropriate) awareness and curiosity of the opposite sex, but make no big deal about it.  Getting kissed by the right boy would definitely be a lot of fun, but there's a mystery to solve!  The adventure itself is giddy stuff (I myself almost squealed with delight when teen heartthrob Jake Harrison made a cameo appearance!) and keeps the pages turning.

Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots, by Abby McDonald

When Jenna's parents announce that they are both going away (to different places) during the upcoming summer, she suspects that they are separating.  However, her immediate worry is that she is not going to be able to engage in the eco-activism program she and her best friend are planning.  And while their plans seem to be wrecked, Jenna is eager to avoid the probability of going with her mother to Orlando and hanging with the over-65 crowd.  It's her friend who points out that Jenna does have a godmother Susie living in rural British Columbia.  There's plenty of nature therefor a green activist, and she'll be able to help her Susie set up a new Bed and Breakfast (and maybe even arrange an eco-tourism package while she's at it).  Jenna is excited when she convinces her parents to let her go.

But things don't go smoothly when she finally gets there.  Susie's sullen step daughter Fiona is a major pill.  The other kids in their small town aren't terribly friendly and they become downright hostile when Jenna tries to lecture them about environmentalism.  But once the initial bumps are overcome and Jenna learns to be a bit more sparing with the rhetoric, things smooth out and an exciting summer awaits.

An above-average summer read, with a bit of adventure in the woods led by an energetic (but lovably self-mocking) narrator.  There's plenty of humor, some light romance, and a little drama to move things along.  The kids are all memorable and appealing in their own right.  The adults are realistic, but conveniently distant and unobtrusive.  It's not fluff, but nothing too weighty holds this story down (even if McDonald does toy briefly with the topics of divorce and homophobia).  In sum, a nice light read.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Lovely, Dark, and Deep, by Amy McNamara

After living through a car accident that killed her boyfriend and her unborn child, Wren flees to remote Maine to live in her father's house and just sort things out.  Worried by Wren's lack of activity, Wren'smother who tries to get Wren to do something and pressures her ex-husband (the parents were divorced long ago) to nudge Wren out of the house.  Both of their clumsy attempts are rebuffed by Wren.

Instead, Wren meets a young man named Cal with issues of his own.  And in sharing their issues with each other, Wren and Cal develop a relationship on their own terms.  However, their  friends and families worry that neither Wren nor Cal are in any shape to take care of each other.  They may be in too deep.

A slow-paced but ultimately authentic look at depression.  McNamara captures well the spiral of a young person very much sucked in by her grief. And, however much it may offend fans of this sort of story, I found that excruciating, not "insightful."

While the grieving process can take considerable time and there is no doubt that well-meaning (but ultimately pushy) family members in Wren's life should have laid off, it really does get very old to listen to her rant on about how every thing that happens is just some attempt to hurt her.  Wren's combination of adolescent self-centeredness and arrogance gets old pretty quick.  I presume that McNamara believes that Wren's persecution complex is a sign of strength, but it is pretty obvious that Wren is in fact her own worst enemy.  When someone is nice to her, she relabels it as pity or lack of trust.  When someone gives her space, they are neglecting her.  And when someone tries some tough love, she whines that they just don't "understand" her.  However, Wren doesn't want to be understood and needs, in fact, to drag out her misery as long as she can because it has become habit and provides the only meaning at the psychic corner into which she has painted herself.

Kudos to the author for portraying the downward suck of depression so accurately but shame on her for not calling it out as a dead end.  The process (of healing) will come when Wren realizes that there are other behavior patterns (like caring for Cal) that are worth following and which don't have to hurt as much as the path she has chosen.  But that piece of good news is not really the purpose/goal of this harrowing story.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Serafina's Promise, by Ann E. Burg

There's nothing like reading a story about a impoverished Haitian girl, whose one dream is to be able to go to school and become a doctor, to make you want to retch at all those whiny suburban white girls who complain because they can't get a boy to kiss them.  At least, that was my first thought when I read Ann E. Burg's forthcoming verse novel, Serafina's Promise about a little girl growing up in the developing world.

But once I moved beyond the obvious differences between Serafina and her financially-better off sisters, I realized that there were plenty of similarities as well.  She dreams of a better life, but views the world socially (valuing her friends as much as her successes).  She enjoys playing, but understands her responsibilities to her family. She simultaneously loves her mother, yet wants to surpass her, being unwilling to settle for the life that her Mom seems to live.  Like many other children, she exaggerates her responsibility for the misfortunes of adults (even if her experience with murdered relatives is a bit more extreme than an American's) and searches for a balanced understanding of where she fits in.  And, if anything, Serafina is blessed by a tight family unit, a particularly strong work ethic, and some good fortune.

Verse novels are a bit of a flighty affair.  In this case, the verse doesn't add much to the story, but it doesn't hurt the story either.  What is wonderful is Burg's ear for the local Creole and the cadence of the spoken language of Haiti.  The dialogue of the characters makes the setting come alive and is itself fascinating.  As an opportunity to travel to another place and see the world through another's eyes, this is a memorable read.

[Disclosure:  I was sent a free copy of the book by the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.  After I finish writing this entry, I will donate the book to my local public library.]

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Wolf Princess, by Cathryn Constable

Three girls from London (Sophie, Delphine, and Marianne) are invited to be guests of a mysterious Dr Starova in Saint Petersburg during their break.  But instead of ending up with the doctor, they are transported to the long-forgotten estate of the Volkonskies.  Their hostess is the last Princess Volkonskaya, who takes a special interest in Sophie.  This is an odd choice as Sophie is definitely the least inspiring of the bunch.  A scholarship student and an orphan, she is surprised to find the Princess eagerly soliciting her.  And even more surprised when the Princess asks for her help in locating the long-lost family diamonds!

A cute little book in that grand tradition of English Public School Kids Take a Trip Into a Magical Kingdom.  This one stays a bit harder on the realistic side with suitable attention to Russian history, current events, and language (plenty of decent Russian phrases litter the book and a useful glossary at the end provides definitions).  The magic, mostly involving communing with the animal kingdom, is suitably kid friendly and harmless.  The most fantastic element of the story is of course the fact that the kids are basically outside of adult supervision altogether (the English seem as devoted in their literature to putting their young children in harm's way as the Scandinavians!).  Being away from parents won't bother the target audience.  Young readers will mostly enjoy a gentle fantasy adventure.

[Disclosure:  This came to me as an unsolicited ARC, which I'll recycle.  The actual book is not released until September 24th.]

Friday, August 30, 2013

Fingerprints of You, by Kristen-Paige Madonia

Lemon has been dragged from one town to another by her single mother for the past dozen years, a process that she despises but has grown used to.  However, on this latest move (to Morgantown WV), she's in trouble:  she's gotten pregnant from her Mom's ex-boyfriend.  Determined to keep the baby, but aware of the uncomfortable parallel's with her own mother's decision to keep her but flee her father eighteen years ago, Lemon decides that she needs to get away.

She convinces her friend Emmy to join her on a cross-country roadtrip to California, where she hopes to find her father (who she's never met).  Classic road-trip story unfolds and California offers its shares of surprises and revelations to the girls.

Coming with a warm endorsement from the Godmother of YA (Judy Blume), the novel actually manages to live up to the hype.  Madonia writes fluidly and creates complex and interesting characters.  The actual plotting of the story can be a bit broken (Madonia has trouble foreshadowing properly and the ending of the book drags on a bit), but the characters make up for these flaws.  Both adults and children have their share of strengths and flaws, and their interactions are mature and realistic.  Key amongst these is the complicated struggle between Lemon and her mother that forms a fascinating thread throughout the story.  Rather than just stringing raging dialogues together (as most YA books do), Madonia takes the time to explain each side's point of view in reasonable terms.  Mother and daughter clearly love each other, even when they don't quite see eye to eye.  And the dramatic arc of the novel basically recounts the ways that Lemon comes to understand how her mother's fingerprints are really found all over her life.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I Swear, by Lane Davis

When senior Leslie ends up dead in her garage, there is no question of how it happened (she intentionally asphyxiated herself with car fumes), but there is the open issue of why she did it. The student leaders in her class rally together to form suicide-awareness rallies and peer counseling groups, but an uncomfortable truth hangs around them:  Leslie was bullied by precisely the same group that is now leading the charge to heal their classmates.

When Leslie's parents file a wrongful-death suit and the subpoenae start to be served, the kids circle their wagons.  Led by media-savvy queen bee Macie (herself the daughter of a local politician), they try to deflect responsibility.  But their guilty recollections to each other (and eventually to the authorities) reveals a variety of motivations that could lead a group of teenagers to drive a classmate to her death.

The story is, of course, chilling to read for anyone who was even mildly teased in school.  It is also naturally cathartic to watch a conspiracy fall apart (although the less-than-happy conclusion will disappoint readers clamoring for blood).  Beyond those primal instinctual appeals, the story doesn't boast much depth in its plot or its characters.  It's a good story and one that probably needs to be told a few more times, but much potential complexity was sacrificed for a slick story.  At the end, as the guilt-ridden ones are baring their souls, I wouldn't have minded learning something that would have painted a more complex explanation of bad behavior.  I think I was supposed to forgive some of these kids, but I honestly didn't find much to redeem them!

What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt

The Kingdom of Valorim has come under a terrible siege.  As the barbarian O'Mondim are breaking through the defenses of their fortress, the doomed Reced bind their power into a chain and send it far away to a distant galaxy.  Denied what they came for, the enemy swears to find the chain and gain the power necessary to rule their new thrones.

Far far away in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Tommy Pepper is celebrating his birthday.  Unfortunately, instead of getting anything cool, he has been saddled with an embarrassing gift (a lunchbox suitable for a little kid) from his grandmother! Heedless of the irreparable harm that showing up with an uncool lunch pail will cause, Tommy's parents insist that he take the lunchbox in to show his friends.  But as Tommy's social standing is about to endure a fatal blow, he finds a mysterious necklace inside the box with his lunch.

In the days that follow, Tommy discovers that he has the ability to see things that no one else can see, draw so well that his sketches seem to come alive, sing beautiful songs that no one has ever heard, and even to see his dead mother.  Realizing that it all has something to do with the mysterious necklace, he is determined to keep these new powers.  Which is about the time that the bad guys show up....

The result is a terribly clever and well-written fantasy-adventure, which manages to squeeze in some poignancy as well.  The fantasy elements are intentionally over-blown in the form of a mild satire (along the lines of the movie Super 8) which is cute but drags.  Instead, the story moves along best when it is stuck on Earth.  And while there isn't much room to effect something original in Middle Grade Fantasy, Schmidt seems to have pulled it off, producing a story with enough soaring adventure and down-to-Earth middle school drama to appeal to its target audience.

My Beautiful Failure, by Janet Ruth Young

Billy's father suffers from manic depression and when Dad's obsession with restarting his art career threatens to put him back into the hospital, Billy becomes desperate.  However, nobody else in the family seems to be concerned with what is happening.  Unable to fix the situation at home, Billy embraces the opportunity to work at a suicide prevention line.  Knowing something about mental illness first hand, Billy figures he can do some good.

But as his father's condition starts to worsen, Billy find himself caught in his own problems:  a girl named Jenney who keeps calling in.  At first, he finds he just enjoys listening to her, but soon it grows into something more.  Going around the organization's rules, Billy becomes more and more involved in her issues.  Too late, Billy comes to understand why those rules exist.  Simultaneously, Billy has to deal with his father's potentially devastating public art exhibit.

Short and breezy, the story is a good fast read, but it is a bit of a disappointment.  Too many lost opportunities.  There are some lovely ironies in the story that I wish that Young had called out in the end (but which I won't reveal here as they would spoil the ending).  I also found the climax a bit underplayed.  And while I hate conveniently clean conclusions, too much is really left unresolved in the end (most notably, no coming to terms between father and son).

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Seeing Red, by Kathryn Erskine

In rural Virginia in 1972, Red knows that bigotry and racism are wrong, but he also sees plenty of otherwise responsible adults engaging in it.  The children around him emulate the adults and his think nothing of expressing opinions and using words that Red was never allowed to express by his late father.  When an error in judgement causes Red to betray his African-American best friend, Red comes to understand the intoxicating effect of racism.  But there are darker secrets from the past that Red must confront -- a secret that may have even been responsible for killing his father!

It's a classic American novel setting:  boy growing up in the South finds and confronts racism in his community.  Erskine isn't breaking new ground here and her characters (from the wide-eyed boy to the wise old African-American woman to the slow-witted but gentle giant are all part of the well-worn cliche.  Whether it has any basis in reality is completely irrelevant: these are archetypes and you can pretty much picture the discussion guide that will go along with the chapters (I was actually surprised that the book didn't come pre-equipped with one already).

Does it deserve the attention?  Actually it probably does.  Not so much because of the setting or the characters, but for what else Erskine is trying to do.  The book isn't so much about racism, but about race relationships in a post-racist world.  By which, I mean:  how does one come to terms with the history of institutionalized racism when it is supposedly past?  How do you accept the role that your ancestors played in it?  That's an interesting idea and not as frequently explored in literature, particularly children's literature.  How much that will register with children is a bit of a guess since the book itself is placed nearly in their grandparent's era.

[Disclosure:  I asked for and received an advance copy of this book (it is slated to be published on September 24th) from the publisher free of charge.  I will be donating the book to my public library.  I do not receive or solicit compensation for any of my reviews.]

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Drowning Instinct, by Ilsa J. Bick

The story opens with a detective handing Jenna a Dictaphone to record her side of the "story." But not knowing how Jenna ended up being a person of interest or what the detective is investigating, we spend the rest of the novel in anticipation of having that story unravel.

I was very reminded of American Beauty and the way we start off knowing the ending, but not how it began  Like that story, there are plenty of distractions along the way:  Jenna's abusive parents, her psychiatric illnesses, her absent brother, a zealous and attentive (or maybe overly attentive) teacher, a jealous classmate, some lecherous adults, and so on.  It's complicated, but in the end I'm not really sure what the point was, except to spin an elaborate whodunnit.

More distracting is the character of Jenna herself who is wise beyond her years and more articulate than humans - of any age - are ever likely to be.  How Bick, who claims to be a child psychologist, could write such an unconvincingly and inauthentic adolescent voice is beyond me.  At best, this is Jenna some fifteen years later on a shrink's couch recounting her youth.  But it is certainly not the voice of a sixteen year-old girl.  It's barely even human.

All that said, the story is taut and fast-paced.  You won't be bored reading the book.  You may even have trouble putting it down.  I read it to the end, mostly because I madly wanted to know how it began.  But in the aftermath, I really don't know if I would recommend that someone else start it.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Kill Me Softly, by Sarah Cross

Growing up, Mira's godmothers (who took over raising her when her parents died in a fire) have kept a close eye on her.  They have a strict set of rules, including a few odd restrictions like not handling sharp objects.  But as Mira's sixteenth birthday approaches, she decides that she must break one of their most important rules: never returning to Beau Rivage -- the town where she was born and where her parents died.

So, she runs away from home and shows up at the town.  Her goal is to scour the town's graveyards and find her parents' grave, so she can finally come to terms with their demise.  Instead, she finds a town with an obsession with fairy tales and befriends two brothers who run a local casino:  Felix and Blue.  Felix is charming and takes Mira in, while Blue seems angry at everyone (alternating between attacking his brother for scamming on Mira and sniping at Mira for being receptive to Felix's overtures).  But something more serious is going on here than just fraternal jealousy.

A creative and unique twist on the Grimm's tales, combining the dark and nasty side of the originals and placing them in a contemporary setting.  The details are complicated and can't really be revealed without spoiling the story, but suffice it to say that it mostly works.  The result is a steamy adventure story that tends to work best when it focuses on action, overcoming destiny, and some good hacking and slashing.  The romantic parts try a bit too hard and the combination of curses and lust is heavy handed -- the type of thing that sounds good in theory but which reads like wet cardboard.

The ending becomes particularly messy as two very important threads (one involving Felix and the other concerning Mira's parents) get suddenly dropped and forgotten in favor of a romantic subplot that most of us could see coming.  It's not a bad twist, but the decision to completely drop the ball on the primary plot lines is a bit jarring, to put it mildly. So, bag the last fifty pages or so, they will just drive you nuts and take my word for it that the story was never wrapped up.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Every Other Day, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Kali has a double life:  one day she's an invisible sixteen year-old, but the next day she's a killing machine hunting down hell hounds, basilisks, dragons, and other "preternatural" creatures.  She doesn't know why she has to endure the cycle, but simply that it's been that way since she hit puberty.  On the days she is the hunter, she is invincible and capable of anything.  On the other days, she is vulnerable and fearful.

For the most part, she keeps a low profile and doesn't reveal her alter ego, but one day that changes.  At school, she notices that Bethany (one of the cheerleader/It girls) has been marked by a demon in a way that indicates that she will die within the day.  Despite the social class divide, Kali is determined to save her, but there is one problem:  it's the wrong day!

If this description (which more or less follows the book's jacket blurb) was the extent of the story, it would have been a clear riff on how a nerd and a popular girl became friends facing a mutual adversary.  The trouble is that this part of the story wraps up after about 120 pages, leaving an additional 200 more in which to unfold a pretty complicated plot that lacks consistency.  The story was far more interesting when it was simpler (awkward girl fantasy about using superhero powers to save the popular girl and gain acceptance).  Once it becomes an industrial conspiracy and every adult (including the parents) are involved in it, the story gets silly and drags.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kristin Cronn-Mills

In a small town south of Minneapolis, Gabe dreams of making it big as a DJ.  He's got a mentor next door, an old man with an amazing collection of music (and some great stories about Elvis).  The neighbor even lands Gabe a late-night slot on the community radio station, where Gabe plays classic rock for a show he calls "Beautiful Music for Ugly Children." The show is a big hit with the kids at school and Gabe builds up a following. There's just one problem:  Gabe's birth name is Elizabeth and just about everyone off the air knows him as a her.

Since Gabe was little, he's known that he wasn't a girl, even if his body didn't agree.  When he was younger, he dressed the part and played with the boys.  But what was cute or maybe awkward growing up has now become dangerous.  At first, Gabe hopes that he can remain anonymous on the radio, but what will happen if the kids at school figure out Gabe's identity?  But even that is not so simple: at the same time, Gabe welcomes the danger -- he's tired of being in the closet and hiding his identity from his family and friends.  But, even for those who accept him for who he is, stepping out has its costs and unexpected complications.

There's a bit of a split focus to the story as it tells the more conventional story of seeking fame in the radio industry, but combines it with the more unusual quest by Gabe for acceptance of his transgendered state.  Of the two stories, I found the first one to be the weakest.  I lose patience with YA writers who can't be bothered to give their characters contemporary music tastes (C'mon! How many teens really care about Matt the Hoople!?).  It either seems like the author is too lazy to study contemporary music or they hate what the kids are listening to.

But the story of Gabe's struggle to break free of his Elizabeth identity was much more compelling.  Just how much?  Well, I very nearly missed my flight reading in the airport and, once on board, completely missed the flight attendant asking me if I wanted something to drink!  I was totally out of it, being so sucked in to the story.  I liked Gabe.  I liked his way of handling people.  I was fascinated by his relationship with his BFF (the straight and very confused) Paige.  The mentor, the parents, and even the kids at school were all interesting.  No easy answers, not even a complete ending, but plenty of things to think about.  In sum, a nice addition to the very small "T" section of LGBT literature.