Sunday, January 20, 2013

My Life Next Door, by Huntley Fitzpatrick

Ever since the Garretts moved in next door, Samantha has been fascinated with them.  They are the polar opposite of her own family:  anarchic, disordered, loud, and chaotic.  While Sam's mother kept a tight lid on Sam and her sister and everything had its place, Mrs Garrett and her noisy brood of eight children seemed to run wild.  Now that Sam is older, her interest has become focused on Jase, one of the older Garrett boys and nearly the same age as her.  Of course, a romance blooms, but with Sam's mother's open disapproval of the family, Sam finds herself hiding the relationship from her family.

That would have made a nice and unremarkable romantic storyline (boy and girl from opposite families find love and overcome the objections of their families), but Fitzpatrick kicks the story up a notch with an out-of-nowhere plot twist that raises the stakes dramatically.  By the end, Sam has to make some difficult decisions about where her loyalties lie and what really matters.  This last-minute twist adds some intensity but doesn't really add to the story in the end, becoming a distraction from the conclusion towards which we were heading anyways.

The meandering and unfortunate plot detour aside, I enjoyed the characters.  Jase and Sam had authentic voices (emotional, but not dumb) and were generally sympathetic.  I found them a bit precocious in their ability to maneuver amidst the Garrett larvae (I'd believe that Jase would have that talent -- having grown up with them -- but Sam comes out and says that she has little-to-no experience with smalls, so the adeptness with which she handles Jase's younger siblings defies belief), but it's cute that they do have these skills.  And the interactions with the littler kids add humor and pathos to the story.  As for the adults, they have flaws but come through in the end in a way that fulfills the YA lit need for kids to be on top, but without sacrificing the reality that grownups are not without problem solving skills of their own.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Jumping the Scratch, by Sarah Weeks

After Jamie's aunt suffers an industrial accident that damages her short-term memory (essentially, preventing her from remembering anything that has happened since the accident), Jamie and his mother move in to take care of her.  This happens at around the same time that Jamie's cat dies and his father leaves them, so Jamie has gone through a lot and he is is very lonely.

Despite that, Jamie resists the attempts of a girl in his neighborhood to befriend him.  She's a bit strange and insists that she can hypnotize him.  While an odd statement, Jamie is curious:  could hypnosis help his aunt regain her memory? Secretly, he is actually hoping that her tricks might help him forget an even worse thing which has happened to him.

The story (and how it ends) is never really in doubt and most readers will have figured it out long before it ends.  However, that doesn't detract from a story that is fun and sweet.  The characters are memorable and Weeks keeps the story short and spare.  The gentleness makes the story suitable for younger readers, but it is far from childish and older readers will enjoy it as well.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Monument 14, by Emmy Laybourne

On their way to school one normal day, the Apocalypse dawns.  It starts as violent hail and expands to earthquakes.  A chemical weapons accident kills some and turns others into homicidal maniacs.  In the midst of this chaos, fourteen children find themselves secured (imprisoned, in fact) inside a superstore.  They have food and supplies to last them for months, but no adults to help them, and little idea of how they will survive.

With obvious tribute to Lord of the Flies, the twists and turns of this surprising and entertaining book keep up a high level of energy.  There are numerous implausibilities (most notably the premise of the particular Armageddon proposed by the story), but the characters are interesting and distinct enough to follow.  Unfortunately, the central figure Dean is actually the least interesting of the bunch.  But the others have merit and with so many characters, the reader never gets stuck with any one of them for very long.  I did not care for the ending (which was rushed and more of a last-minute attempt to generate a cliff-hanger for the sequel), but the story had a lot going for it.  Once Laybourne gets this series out of her system (I try to avoid series books like the plague that they are!), I look forward to reading her future work.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Take A Bow, by Elizabeth Eulberg

Talented kids enter the High School for the (Creative and) Performing Arts in New York City.  Each one is slightly different and over the course of their four years in school, they love and live and discover the important truths that will help them succeed in life.  Yes, if you're my age, you saw the movie version of this.  If you're a bit younger, you might remember the TV series.  But if you're a teen now, you have this book (one of the great joys of YA is that there is no institutional memory so even a seminal film like Fame can be forgotten).

In this take on the story, we focus on the kids' final year and have only four characters:  driven but obnoxious Sophie who is going to succeed whatever the costs; sweet talented Emme who sits in Sophie's shadow;  Carter, the child actor superstar who is fleeing his fame to have a "normal" life in high school; and Ethan, the dark brooding bad boy with issues but a soft spot for Emme.  Very quickly, Sophie establishes herself as an evil bitch and the reader spends the rest of the book just waiting for justice to lower an axe on her.  Famous boy Carter doesn't really have any issues that can't be resolved with some conversation.  So, that leaves us with the starcrossed lovers of Emme and Ethan.  By the last fifty pages, every character in the book (along with the readers) are basically shouting at the pair to just get over it and shag each other!  In sum, not much of a plot, but it keeps moving and is oddly enticing enough to make you want to finish.

There are some nice stylistic twists (Carter always speaks in script, as a way of hitting us over the head with a clue-by-four that he sees his entire life as a performance) and Sophie is consistently loathsome, making it easy for us to hate her.  This isn't a book that makes you think.  Just some good escape literature.

[Full disclosure:  I received a free review copy of this book from Scholastic/Point and will be donating my copy to our local public library after I have finished with it]

Friday, January 11, 2013

Zombies vs Unicorns, eds Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black

Definitely one of the more unique anthologies (with one of the more catchier recent titles to boot!).  This is a collection of short stories devoted to either zombies or unicorns.  Ostensibly, the purpose is to allow Larbalestier and Black to debate which creature makes a better protagonist.  To prove their point, they've enlisted the help of some high-power YA talent, including Meg Cabot, Libba Bray, Kathleen Duey, Garth Nix, Scott Westerfeld, and Maureen Johnson.

The stories range widely, but most of them are quite dark, which means that the zombie stories generally come across better.  Modern YA writers are apparently more comfortable with brain-eating zombies than with unicorns.  The best zombie stories in this case came from Carrie Ryan (a complex story of a Carribean island's attempt to survive), Alaya Dawn Johnson (a homo-erotic view of the undead), and Libba Bray (imagining prom night amongst the survivors).  Most of the unicorn authors re-imagined unicorns as mean and nasty, and most of the stories dragged a bit.  The notable exceptions were Meg Cabot's satire (despite its gratuitous mention of the SCA) in which a rainbow-farting unicorn rights all wrongs at a birthday party and Kathleen Duey's melancholy look at the perils of immortality.  While mentioned, the obvious subject of virginity doesn't feature as much as one would expect.

Most of all, I was disappointed that there was no story with zombies taking on unicorns directly (which I assumed from the title and the cover was the original intent).  I was hoping to see whose powers were stronger:  flesh-rotting zombies or health-restoring unicorns?  Now that would have been a cool story!

Saturday, January 05, 2013

It's Our Prom (So Deal With It), by Julie Anne Peters

Azure has always considered proms to be totally bogus.  You have to be outrageously rich (and straight) to go to them, so only the super popular kids bother to show up.  When the principal asks her to form an alternative prom, by serving on the prom committee, she signs on with reluctance.  The opportunity to actually make something different is simply too enticing.

Needing help, she enlists her friend Luke.  He's busy staging a musical drama based on his coming out story ("Closets are for Mothballs"), which is slated to premier days before the prom.  Luke and Azure take turns (in alternating chapters) telling of their struggle to take control of the conventions of proms and make theirs more inclusive.

The story is a bit convoluted (and far more than just a story of staging an unconventional prom and play).  There's a love triangle of sorts, some familial struggle with sexual identity, a little school politics, and a very silly conclusion.  The book has got heart and Peters has certainly made another stride into the territory of books about LGBT characters who are incidental (rather than having the story be solely about their identity).  However, this particular story is so random and unstructured, and the ending so completely silly (and half-baked) that the book never came together for me.  The characters, including Azure and Luke, are underdeveloped and two-dimensional.  And there's not much point to the story beyond imagining how much fun kids could have at a prom that featured poetry slams and drag queens.

Prairie Evers, by Ellen Airgood

In her first year living in New Paltz (that's Hudson Valley area, for the uninitiated), Carolina-native Prairie has a lot of adjustments to make:  from managing without her grandmother (who's decided to return back to North Carolina shortly after they all move up) to going to school (after years of being homeschooled).  In that first year of changes, there are also plenty of totally new things, ranging from learning how to raise chickens to having her first real best friend.  There are even a few challenges both minor (some poultry trouble at school) and major (her friend Ivy dealing with a difficult home situation).  The book recounts these events.

When I asked the girl who introduced me to this book what it was about, she gave me a blank look.  I now understand why:  it's not really about anything.  There's plenty of activity, but no real plot beyond "this is how I survived my first year up north without my Grammy!" More problematic than the lack of a storyline is the lack of development in the characters.  It's a pleasant enough story, but rather dull.

The Girl in the Park, by Mariah Fredericks

Once upon a time, Rain and Wendy were best friends.  Wendy was the brash and fearless one who always urged the shy and more restrained Rain to seize the day ("go for it, tigress!").  Rain never could quite manage it, but after Wendy is killed in a brutal assault in Central Park, Rain wants to figure out why it happened and she launches her own private investigation.

There are plenty of suspects (being brash and fearless can earn you plenty of enemies!) and early evidence points to the bad boy at school with whom Wendy had a fling.  But as Rain digs deeper, she discovers some dark secrets about her school, her friends, and herself.

It's a nicely-paced whodunnit, with a bright and interesting girl solving the murder.  I found myself a few pages ahead of the characters in figuring the whole thing out, but that is mostly because the story follows the predictable conventions of a classic mystery novel (i.e., just think of who's getting a lot of attention in the story but is not a current suspect).  However, while the story follows conventions, I enjoyed Rain's intelligent insights on her peers, as well as her weaknesses (mostly adolescent insecurity) that made her a bit more vulnerable than Miss Marple.