Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Thirty Sunsets, by Christine Hurley Deriso

On the eve of her family's annual month-long beach vacation, Forrest discovers that her mother has invited Olivia (her older brother's psycho bulimic girlfriend) to join them.  Worse still, she's going to have to share a room with her!  All that Forrest wants is to have a normal summer -- meet a cute guy on the beach and have a first kiss, sort out why her brother has gotten so weird, and maybe lose Olivia in a riptide along the way.  What Forrest gets, however, is completely unexpected:  a summer of revelations (about family, her brother, and herself).

I liked Deriso's great sense of family dynamics and her ear for language in complex scenes.  I was less thrilled by her taste for melodrama and piling on crisis upon crisis.  This story features a rape, an attempted sexual assault, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, an abusive mother, alcoholism, and even a death.  Deriso doesn't have much patience for storytelling, so rather than focus on her strengths in character building she resorts to action and violence.  This ultimately makes the book exhausting and thin, and wastes some lovely and interesting characters.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Faire Lady, by Laura Wettersten

In this fairly basic story of summer romance, we get a bit of a twist in the setting (a Ren Faire) but a tale which pretty much follows an expected trajectory.  Rowena, recovering from being cheated on by her boyfriend, jumps at the opportunity to spend the summer working away from home at a local Ren Faire.  There, she is blown away by the pageantry and the friendly community that provides it.  Quickly, she sets off in hot pursuit of a sexy knight but discovers that her real true love is waiting in the wings for her to realize it.

The story is sweet but a little hard to believe.  What parent would let their teen daughter waltz off for an unsupervised summer at a Ren Faire (sheer luck and some attentive grown-ups seem to save Ro from bigger trouble that probably would have come her way).  And everyone is just a little too sweet and friendly for words (even the bad guys are a bit comic and harmless).  To me, this made the book seem like it was pitched for a pretty young audience, but with underage drinking and multiple veiled allusions to sex, I'm not really sure. I couldn't tell if this was for middle readers, YA, or NA (one review I read claimed it was for "all ages" -- but perhaps it was really for none?).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders, by Geoff Herbach

Gabe has a love-hate relationship with the school's pop machine.  It certainly isn't helping his waistline.  On a good day, he can limit himself to only three bottle of Code Red.  But even though he has a bit of addiction to sugary carbonated drinks, the good news is that the proceeds at least benefit the band program.  A small comfort when the popular kids are making fun of your weight.

But then, the price goes up unannounced.  When Gabe goes to complain, he discovers something even more shocking: the proceeds from the machine have been diverted to a new program for the cheerleaders.  Summer band camp has been cancelled and the entire band program is in jeopardy.  In response, Gabe rallies the other band "geekers" to make a stand and defend the music program and their own self-respect.

A strange and fairly random story that delights in the sort of coarse razzing language that YA writers believe belong in "boy" books (and which always does a nice job of driving me towards the books with pink covers instead!).  There's plenty of frenetic activity and little troubling character development to interfere with it.  That would be fine, but most of the action is recounted by Gabe after the fact in the form of a one-sided interrogation.  This device drags things out and artificially builds up the suspense as important plot points are conveniently omitted until later to extend the story.  In sum, a pretty annoying read with a silly plot.

On the Road to Find Out, by Rachel Toor

Alice is an ace at getting good grades.  She's easily beat out all of the competition at school. But when her application for early decision at Yale is rejected, she has to do a reality check.  Outside of academics, her life is unbalanced.  Aside from her best friend (who's really more like her Mom's adopted favorite daughter) and her pet rat Walter, Alice doesn't really have anyone who understands her.  And when she has a falling out with her friend and a tragedy strikes at home, she realizes just how tenuous her situation is.

It is therefore something of a godsend that she discovers cross-country running around this time.  Having never done it before, a New Year's resolution to start doesn't go terribly well.  But Alice is persistent and determined to find something she can excel at, even if she really isn't sure what she wants.

I went through a lot of opinions about this book as I read it.  At times, I found it unfocused.  I wasn't really sure what it was supposed to be about (love for a rat, reconciling with mother, a search for meaning, etc.).  The story seemed to change more than the character.  Unhelpfully, Alice can be a terribly inconsistent character.  For such an insightful and intelligent narrator, she seemed far too capable of being clueless and boneheaded.  It's a character flaw that's supposed to be endearing, but it just seemed implausible and more like a lazy bit of writing.  But by the end, it seemed to hit its stride and it goes out on a high note, so I'll give it a qualified endorsement.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Geography of You and Me, by Jennifer E. Smith

The night the lights go out all over the Northeast, Lucy and Owen find themselves stuck in a stalled elevator in their Manhattan apartment.  Once rescued, they decide to spend the evening together.  The city -- without electricity -- has become magical, a surprisingly friendly town where you can even see the stars from Central Park.

Afterwards, they move on -- Owen and his father move out west, while Lucy and her parents relocate to Edinburgh and then to London.  Long distance relationships are hard (especially when you're not really sure what the nature of the relationship is in the first place), but the friendship born that night survives and they stay in touch through postcards and occasional emails.

I loved the characters (so full of hope and anxiety).  I loved the settings (so many familiar places from New York to Seattle to Edinburgh, and just enough detail to make them seem authentic without overdoing things).  But most of all, I loved the sheer beauty of the story -- a simple romance to be sure, but a captivating one based on honesty and believability.  I might have gotten a bit annoyed towards the end when Smith drags everything out a bit more, but I forgave her as soon as I got to the pay-off.

The Truth About Alice, by Jennifer Mathieu

Everyone knows that Alice is a slut.  She slept with two guys within the same hour at a party.  She even was responsible for one of those boy's death a few days later when she sexted him while he was trying to drive his truck.  So what that folks haven't been nice to her?  And so what that people have sometimes exaggerated the things she's done when they re-tell the rumors?  The graffiti in the girls' bathroom?  And the casting out and shunning?  She deserved all of it!

However, the truth is a slippery thing.  As four of Alice's peers recount their stories and admit their small contributions and omissions, a somewhat simpler yet more damning story is revealed.  And it is all the more shocking for its plausibility.

A well-written and ultimately icky story about bullying and the role that adolescent insecurity plays in it.  It's a story that is calculated to make you mad.  While there are acts of courage and decency in the story, the overall message is of how pride, vanity, and arrogance will trump the truth.  Mathieu makes no attempt to whitewash and the result is an ugly (but very honest) story about the near destruction of a human being a mob.  Almost certainly the book is on its way to becoming a book discussion subject!

We Are the Goldens, by Dana Reinhardt

Nell and her older sister Layla have always been inseparable, at least, that is, in Nell's mind.  Going to separate schools, it's been only too easy to explain away any distance between them.  So when Nell starts at City Day as a freshman, she is certain that she and her sister (a junior) will bond tightly.  On her first day, Nell is surprised to learn that Layla has a secret life.  And when Nell learns what the secret is, she is torn between loyalty to Layla and her conviction to do the right thing.  Meanwhile, she's making her own mistakes and torn over her feelings for her best friend Felix.

Written in the heart-aching pleas of an extended letter directly to her older sister, Nell's story early on sets a high expectation of tragedy and heartbreak.  Unfortunately, this particular expedition into pathos didn't gel as well for me as her earlier fraternal take, The Things A Brother Knows.  It hurts that the material is not all that original and that the storyline is cluttered with subplots.  The story felt more like a novella that Reinhardt has stretched out with other stories that were peripheral at best.

Yet, there is no denying the strength and beauty of Reinhardt's writing.  Her ability to drop emotional bombshells with seeming ease makes this a pleasure to read.  And while I very rarely quote from the books I read, I can't help but quote a passage (from page 184) that knocked the wind out of me for its amazing insight into the pain of adolescent transition:

"It's suited Mom and Dad best to think of us as smart and mature young women with good sense who make good choices so that they could wrap themselves up in their own lives and fall asleep a little on the job of being our parents.  All these years, Layla, we've tried to make things easy on them.  We go back and forth, back and forth, smart and mature, building a bridge between two lives and crossing it over and over again.  You know I've always hated being called a baby, but I started to wish it were true.  The baby of whom nothing is asked or expected.

"I wanted to go to them, to tell them, to put them in charge, but I didn't know how.  I was afraid to cause that earthquake."

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Love and Other Foreign Words, by Erin McCahan

A precocious student, Josie has skipped a few years of school, but her social skills haven't necessarily kept up with her academic advancement.  To cope with her challenges, she's learned to speak everyone's "language" (student-teacher, her sisters, her parents, etc.).  But when Josie's sister Kate brings home a fiance, Josie is dumbfounded.  He's just obviously wrong for Kate and Josie cannot imagine what she sees in him.  Worse, the new couple have taken to communicating in a new language that Josie finds she doesn't understand -- a realization that leads to the even bigger bombshell that Josie really doesn't understand "love" at all.

For a story about language and communication, it is a good thing that McCahan excels with dialogue in this rather chatty book. Unfortunately, she is less successful with telling her story.  There are some pretty obvious directions that the story will go (reconciliation being the obvious consistent solution in all cases), but there isn't much in the first 200 pages of the book to give any indication of where McCahan intends to go.

It didn't help that I failed to gain much sympathy for Josie or Kate.  For much of the book, they were just plain mean to each other.  And, while I know full well how siblings can be, it's hard for me to believe that the parents wouldn't have more effectively stepped in.  Finally, there's that silly infatuation that Josie has over Denis DeYoung -- excuse me?!  Gag!

A Time to Dance, by Vadma Venkatraman

Veda loves dancing and has talent in the Indian art of Bharatanatyam dance.  Her strength, flexibility, and dogged determination have given her the ability to strike amazing and difficult poses demonstrating immense technical proficiency.  She wins competitions and is justifiably proud of the achievements which have come from years of hard work.

Then an accident injures her, leading to the amputation of one of her feet.  Her once-supportive dance instructor tells her that her career is over, but she refuses to give up.  Instead, she focuses on rebuilding her strength and learning to use a prosthetic foot and picks up a new teacher.  From this new teacher and the inspiration of another dancer, she discovers an entirely different approach to dance which is focused more on spirituality than form.

A beautiful story that sheds light on an unfamiliar world of Indian dance and spirituality.  Veda is a great ambassador for the reader, providing us with a sympathetic heroine with a heart of gold.  She is both strong and virtuous and, in Venkatraman's gentle hand, she both rewards us and is rewarded.

I was less taken by the writing itself.  Venkatraman chose to write the novel in a pithy broken form that claims to be free verse, but which felt more like half-finished ideas.  The writing lacks the coherency of prose or the beauty of poetry, leaving us with words that seek to be poignant in their minimalism but that just look sketchy and rough.

Searching for Sky, by Jillian Cantor

For as long as Sky can remember, Island has been her world. Surrounded by endless Ocean, she and her friend River have survived on captured rabbits, fish, and berries.  Her mother and his father perished some time ago, so now it is only them.  But then, they are rescued and brought back to a world that Sky does not know or understand.  Sent to live with her maternal grandmother (who she doesn't remember) and separated from River, she has to learn entirely new survival skills.

Beautifully written, Cantor delights (perhaps a bit too enthusiastically at times) in contrasting the innocent life on Island with Sky and River's existence in California -- all a little Gods Must Be Crazy (but without the laughs)  Those contrasts and the process these two young people go through in acclimatizing to their new world could make for a stellar book on its own, but Cantor is not content to tell that tale. Instead, she throws in a lot of back story about Sky and River's parents belonging to a cult and a mass murder that implicates River -- all of which ultimately seems unnecessary. Thankfully, this extra stuff is more of a distraction than something to ruin this otherwise nice story of innocence lost.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

I Kill the Mockingbird, by Paul Acampora

In the summer before they start high school, three friends decide to honor their late English teacher by hatching a plot to incite a mass movement for reading his favorite book -- Harper Lee's classic To Kill A Mockingbird.  The kids reason that if they can make the book seem controversial, they can artificially stir interest in it.  Learning that modern bookstore chains are incapable of tracking books that are mis-shelved, they trigger an artificial shortage by simply hiding copies of the books in every large bookstore in Connecticut. Their action inspires copy-cats nationwide and, before they know it, the whole thing has swung wildly out of control.

I liked the concept and eagerly dived into this short middle reader. The characters were smart and funny and I expected cleverness. But the book gets a bit too precious for my taste.  First of all, there's the very weird idea that To Kill A Mockingbird could go viral.  Weirder still, the way it is done (can you really manage in a few weeks to travel all over the state, misplace every copy of a book, and not get caught?).  Perhaps none of this matters and perhaps this absurdity is all supposed to be in fun, like a Kate DiCamillo book.  But it's really just silly and what is the point anyway?  There are a number of great opportunities to say something (about literature, growing up, romance, or even cancer) but Acampora just wants to be goofy and convince us that (since the book is about good literature) it must somehow be valuable intrinsically. But it never did it for me.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Pointe, by Brandy Colbert

Theo has struggled with an eating disorder and self-confidence issues since her first boyfriend disappeared on her and (barely two weeks later) her best friend Donovan was abducted.  Four years later, she's mostly recovered and well on her way to a professional ballet career.  But then Donovan suddenly returns and she's shocked to learn that her disappearing boyfriend was also her best friend's kidnapper!

What develops seems like a classic (and predictable) drama where everything comes to a head at the same time:  she'll have to testify against her former boyfriend, publicly reveal her shame, probably pass out from her increasingly dangerous starvation routines, and audition for her professional dancing career -- all in rapid succession.  But what turned my opinion of this story from "predictable drama" to a pleasant surprise was an ending that completely shocked me.  Colbert goes for something completely different, with an ending that was so fitting and so much better than I expected.   It's easy to get jaded when you read hundreds of YA books, so when an author throws you a curve ball, it will make your day!

The other characters are largely forgettable (and easily confused with each other) so it's important that Theo carry this story.  That is hard as she is hardly sympathetic.  Frankly, she does a number of plain stupid things and does a similarly terrible job of sorting through her life (for example, her hesitation over testifying became increasingly implausible to me the more it was drawn out).  Yet, there's no denying that she pulls herself together in the end (and not, as I said above, in the expected fashion).

Notes from Ghost Town, by Kate Ellison

Nearly a year has passed since Olivia's mother confessed to killing Stern -- a piano prodigy who was also Olivia's boyfriend.  As the time of her mother's sentencing approaches, Olivia is angry and scared, and going a bit crazy.  Literally.  Olivia's suddenly gone color blind.  Her doctor can find no physical cause of the disorder and suggests it may be stress-induced.  This is no small matter.  Mom suffers from schizophrenia, which can be hereditary.  And perception disorders can be a symptom of the disease.

Worse still, Olivia has started to experience hallucinations that Stern is appearing before her.  Or are they really hallucinations?  He tells her that her mother is actually innocent, that she was framed, and that he is stuck in limbo until the injustice is corrected.  Olivia, he says, must figure out what really happened and rescue her mother before she is sentenced.  While none of this makes any sense to her, Olivia decides to act.

It's a little of a slow starter, but once the sleuthing begins, Ellison weaves a tight story of intrigue that still finds time for all levels of trust and betrayal, and even a small romance.  The ending wraps things up a bit too easily, but we go through enough to get to that happy ending that it is welcomed nonetheless.  The story's debt to Ghost is a bit obvious, but it's recast enough that younger readers won't mind that this is hardly original.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Say What You Will, by Cammie McGovern

Amy is the girl in a motorized scooter, a hand-held computer that talks for her, and half a body that won't work properly.  Matthew is the kid who taps the lockers when he walks down the hall, washes his hands repeatedly, and never goes out.  Neither of them really have any friends.

When Amy complains to her mother that having a grown-up health aide with her at school basically ensures that she'll never meet anyone, a plan is hatched to hire four "peer helpers" to work with her at school.  Matthew gets hired as one of those helpers.  It's an odd match-up and Amy's over-protective parents aren't thrilled to have Matthew (with his steadily worsening OCD) taking care of their daughter.  However, the two kids discover a special chemistry that transcends their usual public identity as "the girl with CP" and "the OCD boy." The result is a surprisingly touching story of two young people with a special relationship.

The strength of the book is the characters.  They can be stiff (McGovern struggles with Matthew in particular), but they are sympathetic and insightful.  Frustratingly prone to doing dumb things, this makes the reader root for them all the more.  Sales reps with limited imaginations have tried to bill this novel as Fault In Our Stars meets Eleanor & Park, but it really is none of the above.  The kids are not dying and they really aren't geeky nerds either.  They are, however, the only two young people who can see past each other's disabilities due to the sheer fact that they know what it is really like to be labeled.  Their relationship is frighteningly lovely and fragile in a way that grownups will appreciate, and it will break your heart.

The only criticism I have with the story is how long it was dragged out and how randomly the story weaves and dodges.  McGovern has a near-stubborn refusal to follow the usual predictable arc and the story that we begin with is hardly the one with which we end (to paraphrase the wisdom of Chekhov, the pistol in the first chapter is used in chapter three to dig up turnips!).  Yet, the completely unpredictable trajectory of the story is also its strength as it serves to underscore the truth that life goes in unpredictable directions.  Those looking for a definitive conclusion will be disappointed by the one chosen here.  In the end, the story doesn't end so much as slow down enough for the reader to leap off.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Girl Called Fearless, by Catherine Linka

In a parallel universe, genetically-modified beef has triggered a mass cancer epidemic that has killed off most of the adult female population of the United States (wiser countries outside of the US never allowed the GMO beef to be consumed).  In the country that was left behind, the Paternalist political party has risen to power and gotten the government to restrict the surviving women and girls to the home.  Banned from going to college, girls are sold off to the highest bidder as breeding stuck when they reach adolescence.

Despite the political changes, Avie had hoped to attend college when she completed high school, but her cash-strapped father has instead sold her off to an odious, rich and powerful benefactor of the Paternalists.  Determined to avoid her fate as a trophy wife and provider of offspring to a man twice her age, she decides to flee to Canada (where the authorities remain sympathetic and have been known to grant asylum to women fleeing the US).  However, the escape won't be easy.  More so, because Avie has unwittingly stumbled over a conspiracy whose exposure threatens the entire status quo, placing her in the position of having to choose between her dreams of college and freedom, and her sense of duty to her sisters.

The obvious inspiration is Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but Linka's story doesn't have quite as lofty literary ambitions.  Pitched more for the adrenaline and hormones of a teen audience, the story features more violence/action and the gratuitous attention to fashion and glamor that one expects in the modern YA dystopian (a sequel is due out next year and, yes, this book is already optioned for a movie!).  An amazingly accommodating boyfriend provides suitable eye candy.

All that said, Linka is a bit grittier than the usual YA writer.  There's significant attention given to real-life survival skills, a realistic lesson on how to fire a 9mm, and a focus on the practical details of this (nonetheless far-fetched) alternative world.  I especially appreciated the fact that this isn't set in some "near future" but most explicitly in a parallel time-line (the mass extinction of women took place in 2002, shortly after the Towers fell).  I found it readable and engaging.  Fluffy but good!

Infinite Sky, by C. J. Flood

In the aftermath of her mother's abandonment of their family, thirteen year-old Iris discovers love from a Traveler whose family has squatted on her family's property.  But while the boy's company brings her peace, the gypsies' presence becomes a focal point of rage for her father and her older brother (who both redirect their frustration from Mum's departure against the unwanted trespassers).  As one can imagine, tragedy ultimately ensues.  But in the calm before the storm, Iris and the boy enjoy a summer of quiet talks and nature walks.

A gentle and tightly-written novel that is ultimately a bit dull and seemingly geared at an adult audience.  Precocious young readers might enjoy its pacific pace, but there is entirely too little about Iris's feelings and little appreciation for how a young heart thinks.  Instead, this seems like a book for adults looking back wistfully on a "summer that changed me forever" -- an admittedly popular and appealing genre, but something quite distinctly different from YA.

Somehow, I also miss the significance of the cover or the book's title.  They are both pretty but not really much related to the ideas of the novel.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Guy in Real Life, by Steve Brezenoff

Lesh is a heavy metal fan who's grown tired of the same old grind. His best friend is trying to turn him on to online multi-player gaming, but Lesh can't get into the constant violence and mayhem of hacking and slashing.  It just seems like a boring waste of time.

Svetlana is an introvert and a creative genius.  Leader and dungeon master for the school's gaming club, she spends endless time in her room planning out vividly hand-illustrated and carefully plotted adventures for the club.

When these two young people literally cross paths one night, an unlikely attachment develops. Svetlana isn't used to being noticed (aside from a sleezeball that her parents are trying to hook her up with).  But it is Lesh who truly goes all out:  inspired by her qualities, he creates an online avatar that represents how he sees her and he starts to play this online "Svvetlana," discovering that being a healer rather than a fighter and helping others appeals to him more.  Pretending to be a girl online, however, creates complicated when you are really a G.I.R.L. (guy in real life).

A mixed bag for me.  I love the originality of the story and the idea of an adolescent boy who is growing comfortable with his feminine side.  I just wish that the idea had been developed further. Instead, we spend an awfully long time in the gaming world (inside the characters themselves in a pseudo-fantasy environment), which isn't terribly interesting because it's mostly narrated (apparently gamers in Minneapolis just sit back and get told what their characters are doing, rather than play them).  I wasn't entirely sure what the point was?

And while I liked Lesh and felt he had some great nuances, Svetlana is neglected.  You get some sense of the sexism in role-playing, but not much about why she likes it nonetheless.  As a general observation, guy writers seem to have trouble giving their female characters depth -- which seems ironic in the context of this book's theme!

Lies My Girlfriend Told Me, by Julie Anne Peters

The shock of having her girlfriend die from heart failure is about as big of a surprise as Alex can imagine (who dies of something like that in High School?). That is, until she discovers that her girlfriend was seeing someone else at the same time that they were together.  Meeting Liana (the other woman) is hard for both of them, but as Alex gets to know Liana, the two of them discover that they have a lot more in common than just the same taste in girlfriends.

Peters writes great YA fiction, where the fact that her characters are gay plays second to simply writing a good story.  On the sheer desire of wanting to support the normalization of LGBT YA fiction, I enjoy reading and promoting her books.  Unfortunately, this particular novel is not her strongest.  The plot (which really doesn't have that much to do in the first place) meanders about. Subplots involving the dead girl's younger sister and another one about Alex's former BFF are never well integrated into the focus of the story on Alex and Liana's budding relationship.  However, I still enjoyed this story of girl-meets-girl as an appealing romance.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Ask Me, by Kimberly Pauley

Aria Morse is cursed to be an oracle -- a speaker of the truth. Following her grandmother and a string of ancestors running back three millennia, every time someone speaks a question within earshot (rhetorical or not), Aria must respond (often with answers she didn't even know until they were altered) and always truthfully.  When the behavior first appeared in middle school, it branded Aria a freak at and she learned to keep a low profile and try to avoid being around people asking questions.  And that mostly worked.  But when a string of brutal murders rock her small Florida town, Aria finds her talents bring her into the crosshairs of suspicious police and the murderer.

It's a clever idea and creates lots of interesting twists to the plot.  I like the setting as well.  But the sociopath storyline left me cold. Compared to the fascinating ramifications of a teen who only speaks the truth, a homicidal crazy simply wasn't very interesting. And, while foreshadowing is largely absent, I had figured out whodunnit about fifty pages before Aria did and that just made the rest of the book a chore.  So, a great concept but the execution was a disappointment.

Girls Like Us, by Gail Giles

Quincy and Biddy have known each other from their years in the Special Ed program together, but they were hardly friends.  Quincy is perpetually angry and aggressive with others while Biddy cowers inside her jacket with an eating disorder.  But when these two young women graduate from school, they are placed together as roommates, caring for an elderly widow.  What develops is a touching and sensitive portrayal of discovery, growth, self-respect, and burgeoning understanding between the three of them.

Written in alternating chapters with Quincy's and Biddy's distinctive voices, the text takes a bit to warm up to.  But once you do get accustomed to it, the story is an eye-opener.  Giles takes her career in Special Education and uses it to give an authentic and inspiring voice to these two marginalized women.  The result can be heartbreaking at times, but it is ultimately uplifting.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Battle of Darcy Lane, by Tara Altebrando

Julia's plans for the summer get thrown askew when a new girl named Alyssa moves to her street.  Alyssa isn't very nice and seems to immediately set her sights on stealing away Julia's best friend Taylor.  Amidst the battle over Taylor lies a number of other major events:  a competition between Julie and Alyssa, a friendship with the boy next door that may be growing into something more, new friends at band camp, some sneak watching of a forbidden TV show, and the arrival of the cicadas.

Altebrando hits a number of key tween themes in a light, realistic, and respectful manner.  This isn't a story of big events.  In her own words, it's a "quiet" book.  Kids are kids, grownups are grownups.  Everyone is a bit flawed and acceptably happy.  And truth be told, Julia isn't a terribly nice girl (being almost as mean to girls she doesn't like as Alyssa is to her), but she recognizes it and the reader can sympathize with her flaws.  It all rolls up into a lovely honest story of the struggle to maintain friendships in the turmoil of pre-adolescence.  I'm really not sure where those bugs fit in though!

To All the Boys I've Loved, by Jenny Han

Lara Jean is the middle girl of three.  After their mother died, her older sister Margot kept things together and there was a comfortable routine.  But now, Margot's graduated and gone to study in Scotland.  So, it's Lara Jean, her little sister, and her father.

Things start off on an inauspicious note when five private letters that Lara Jean wrote to her secret crushes (and never intended to send) somehow get mailed out.  She must do some quick damage control (particularly because one of the recipients is Margot's ex-boyfriend and Margot doesn't know that Lara Jean liked him as well!).  Her peculiar Shakespearean solution is to conspire with another one of the boys to fake a relationship to throw off her sister's ex-.  This, as one can imagine, complicates things yet further and has numerous unintended consequences.

Jenny Han scores again with a beautiful book that combines authentic stories and behavior with finely nuanced and detailed characters.  The girls and their father felt so real it was impossible not to be sucked into their story.  Han gets teen angst and the complexities of adolescent love.  However, her talents go far beyond teen romance as she also shows a fine appreciation for family dynamics and has a real ear for how people actually talk and relate to each other.  A truly wonderful book about love, trust, loyalty, and being brave when your heart is on the line.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Free to Fall, by Lauren Miller

In the near future, everyone will have the Lux app on their handhelds to guide them through life.  They no longer have to worry about making mistakes and wrong decisions, because Lux tells them exactly what the correct choice is.  Of course, they could always choose to do something else, but why would they bother when Lux is always right?  That is, unless they were one of those disturbed individuals who listen to voices in their heads that make them act irrationally -- a socially dangerous condition known as The Doubt.

Rory is a bright kid, so it surprises no one (except her) that she's been accepted at the elite Theden Academy (a sort of Grande Ecole for gifted teens in Western Massachusetts).  Her doubts are not the work of humility; they are founded in a secret that she can't risk revealing:  that she hears The Doubt (an inconvenient fact that would lead to her immediate expulsion if it ever became known).  It's a hereditary condition and her mother (an alumna of Theden) suffered from it as well.

Once at the school though, far more serious issues rear up.  With the help of her roommate and a townie boyfriend, Rory discovers that there is intrigue afoot at the school.  And it has ramifications far outside of its walls.  The release of a new handheld device and its new improved Lux app threatens civilization as a whole and the project, Rory and her friends discover, is tied to the Academy itself.  It is up to them to save humanity from its own willingness to abandon free will for the convenience of technology.

So, it's a dystopian with a strong anti-technology message.  That message can be a bit too heavily delivered and the plot strays into the realm of the silly (particularly when it drags flu immunizations into its crosshairs), but Miller makes some good points and will set some young minds thinking about the benefits and costs of mobile social media.  Not all of it comes off as Luddite ranting.

It's a long book, though, and a busy story.  There are so many subplots that it is a credit to the author that she can tie them all up by the end.  It does though seem like a chore to do so and perhaps a more concise story would have made its point as effectively.

The Lost, by Sarah Beth Durst

Upset by her mother's worsening health, Lauren drives blindly out into the desert.  An unusual dust storm swallows her up and she ends up in a run-down town called Lost.  There, she finds a strange community of dangerous and desperate scavengers, criminals, and rabid animals.  But with the help of a beautiful god-like man and a resourceful little girl, she manages to stay alive.  Escaping from the place is another story however.  To do that, she is told, she must first figure out why she is lost in the first place.

An imaginative and creepy fantasy.  I didn't care so much for the ending, where in service to the continuation of the story as the first of a trilogy (why?), Durst veers far away from the compact world she so wonderfully has created.  Given how certainly the plot twists destroy the beauty of the novel's central conceit, I'll focus on the world of this one book alone.

The idea that when things are lost they end up in an isolated desert town is quite picturesque and the logic of the place is nicely played out here.  This original setting had a great mix of intrigue and danger to make things interesting without being too scary.  I also enjoyed the characters (who mostly play against type from the little girl who is so resourceful to the romantic lead who is notably blasé throughout to the heroine Lauren herself).  Technically, this isn't even a YA book, but it will appeal to teen readers (and folks who like the genre) just fine.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tom's Midnight Garden, by A. Philippa Pearce

Tom and his brother Peter are very close and, when Peter is diagnosed with measles, Tom is upset that he is to be sent away to spend ten days with his aunt and uncle.  But the pain of the separation from his brother is assuaged by an adventure shortly after his arrival.  One evening, he discovers that the door to the back of the house leads to a secret garden which only appears at night.  And in the garden he finds a young girl named Hattie, with whom he has many happy adventures.  Night after night he returns, not noticing that she is continually growing older while he of course stays young.  More frustrating, as Tom's brother recovers, it comes time for Tom to leave the house (and the opportunity to spend time in the garden with Hattie).

It's a classic story (first published in 1958) but I've never read it before.  One is immediately struck with how stiff and awkward the writing is (from a combination of the era when children's books were stiff and awkward with the English-ness of the writing and setting).   The mannerisms (particularly Tom and Peter's affection for each other) also seemed a bit creepy at times.

However, it has its charms.  The tale is terribly innocent in a way that children's books don't allow much anymore.  The appeal of the book (child able to take secret adventure to places adults can't go) is timeless, even if the story itself is horribly dated.  And the story, with a dash of The Secret Garden and Somewhere in Time even has a sweet romantic quality to it, although naturally enough (given the context it was written in) that romance is more infantile than passionate.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Torn Away, by Jennifer Brown

After a tornado devastates her town, seventeen year-old Jersey has to learn how to recover.  Her mother and little sister have been killed.  Her stepfather, while physically alive, is so emotionally damaged by the loss that he shuts her out.  All that is left are her estranged father (and his dysfunctional family) who don't want her and her mother's parents (whom she's never met and was well-warned off by Mom while she was still alive).  With her home and family destroyed, all would seem lost, but Jersey finds that even when you seem to have lost everything, there's always something left to hang on to.

A moving and engaging story that explores two powerful themes: the process of coping with loss and the meaning of family.  These are hardly new themes, but Brown breathes new life into them with compelling characters and tightly-woven narrative.  A story without a dull moment is a joy, but it's really the people in this story that made me thoroughly enjoy it.  Brown has previously shown a talent (see Hate List or Bitter End) for creating rich and realistic characters with complex motivations, and she does not disappoint here.  Most of all, it is Jersey's spirit and determination that wins over the reader, but even the most repulsive members of her father's family are interesting. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hidden Girl, by Shyima Hall

When Shyima was a little girl living in rural Egypt in the 1990s, she was sold by her family into slavery to pay off her older sister's debts.  After a few years of service, her captors moved to the United States and brought her along to continue her back-breaking servitude.  It took almost three years for her to be found and rescued, and many more years after that to recover.  While this true story was widely recounted in the press at the time, in this book she gets to tell that story herself.

The book itself is fascinating, eye-opening, and (of course) horrifying.  That said, it is hard to critique it.  It comes off as petty to point out the inadequacies of the writing as the author has the double whammy of being a non-native speaker and of being denied primary education until well into her teens.  If anything, the halting and sometimes unfocused writing gives the book authenticity and a clear sense of voice.  Some light assistance from co-writer Lisa Wysocky helps, but doesn't interfere with the immediacy of Hall's anger and hurt as she recalls her most painful memories.

What really makes the book shine is Hall's honesty about herself.  She has many strong opinions, but she is as quick to find fault in herself as she does in others. In particular, there's a fascinating section near the end of the book where she talks about her own personality and what enslavement did to how she relates to others and the outside world.   But even before you reach that point, you know that one of the striking legacies of her ordeal is her ability to be bold and frank here.

[Editorial aside:  I don't read much non-fiction and I have never reviewed it here, so this is a bit of a departure for me.  But as this autobiography covers Shyima's adolescent years, it seemed appropriate to include (and the book is being marketed as YA non-fiction by the publisher).  It also doesn't hurt that I've been heavily exposed to Egyptian culture through my father and can vividly recall visiting the type of town from where Shyima came.]

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, by Kate Hattemer

When it is announced that a reality show will be staged at the Selwyn Academy (a high school for the arts in Minnesota), a group of nerds and outcasts decide that they have to do something to fight back against it.  Reality television and this show in particular, is simply an exploitation of the school and a perversion of true "art." Inspired by the poetry of Ezra Pound, which they are studying in English class, four of these students embark on a secret plan to strike back.  Even when their plan is betrayed by one of their members, the other three double down to bring this television show to its knees and to expose the hypocrisy of the show's producers and the school's administrators who are in cahoots with them.

It's an odd story that flirts with absurdity while maintaining humor and originality.  Undeniably, it's very funny, but in the crass and tasteless way that I associate more with male writers like David Levithan.  In the end one doesn't know how seriously to take a story featuring defecation artwork, a heroic tumor-ridden gerbil, and an 864-page "long poem." It works best as an adventure, but Hattemer makes the mistake of occasionally trying to add gravity by exploring hero Ethan's fear of commitment and decisiveness.  The story doesn't have the patience to pursue this, though, and Hattemer was better off sticking to the crude and the rude.

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

Every summer, Cady and family have come to their private island off the coast from Martha's Vineyard.  Three families in all (grandparents, uncles and aunts, and lots of cousins) -- the entire Sinclair clan in their rich privileged WASPish glory.  The eldest three children (Cady, Mirren, and Johnny) and Johnny's friend Gat (who Cady has been crushing on for many years) have been inseparable.  But something happened in their fifteenth summer and Cady got very sick.  She was found in the water, suffering from terrible migraines and, for some unknown reason, totally alone in her underwear.  And she had no memory of how she ended up this way.  She missed the opportunity to return the next year but, now in her seventeenth summer, she looks forward to being reunited with Gat and her cousins.

However, something is not quite right.  No one will talk to her about what happened two summers ago.  Her grandfather has torn down his old house and put up a new one.  Her younger cousins keep their distance.  As the summer progresses, memories come back to her and the terrible horrible truth is re-emerges.  For Cady, who has been unable to recall it all, the horror is being relived.

A rather darker tale than I usually associate with E. Lockhart, and I don't think I cared for it much!  The story is well-written and the mystery unfolds at a nice pace (although, once revealed, the book really has nowhere to go for the last twenty pages).  I did love the little interludes where Lockhart goes off on the gruesomeness of Brothers Grimm in a lovely set of parallel tales.  But the story was not very pretty or beautiful or even as suspenseful as I hoped it would be.  It was ultimately gross and tragic and a bit cruel.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Never Ending, by Martyn Bedford

And while we're on a dead brother kick, here's another one...

After Shiv's little brother Declan dies, she can't shake the sense that she was responsible for his death.  The guilt is tearing her apart, making her prone to sudden violent acts and memory loss.  When traditional therapy fails, she ends up at a remote institute that practices an extreme form of immersion therapy.  Along with a group of other young people who have also lost loved ones, they struggle through the emotional healing process. As for the facts of what happened to Shiv's brother, they are slowly unfolded through alternate chapters of flashback, recounting how an idyllic and romantic Greek vacation went tragically bad.

It's well-written and the characters of Shiv and Declan are interesting and their relationship complex, but it's hard to shake the fact that we've done this story all before -- the tragic accident, the exaggerated self-blaming, the institutionalization (with its combination of patients who want to get better and those that don't), and so on.  There simply isn't anything new here.  In fact, there's plenty of the old tricks, like not revealing the great "trauma" until the end so we can't evaluate how legit (or usually, illegit) the main character's sense of guilt is.  All of which leaves us with the Big Question:  why read it?

In Honor, by Jessi Kirby

After Honor's older brother Finn is killed in Iraq, Honor is basically an orphan (their parents died when they were young).  In his last letter home, Finn sent Honor tickets to Country-Pop singer Kyla Kelley's final concert and, after the funeral, Honor decides to fulfill his final wish and take a road trip to California to attend the concert.  Awkwardly, she is joined by Finn's estranged best friend Rusty on the trip.

As these stories tend to go, there are plenty of adventures and things do not go quite as planned.  And, as is to be expected, there is lots of recollection and reconciliation as Finn and Rusty come to understand each other (and their relationship with Finn) better.

Not quite as original as Moonglass or Golden, the book follows all the standard conventions, but Kirby's writing still manages to enthrall.  It's a combination of a great sense of character and voice (with the weird exception that her Texans add a "the" to Interstate Highway names the way that only SoCal folks do!) and her eclectic tastes (who ever thought of watching the sun rise from underwater in the middle of New Mexico?).  There's always something interesting going on in this book and that makes the typical navel gazing of the road trip genre slide by a bit faster.  Kirby really is one of the better YA writers currently out there and not nearly appreciated enough!

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

Prenna and her mother live in a tight secretive community that lives by twelve key rules designed to keep them at arm's length from others.  It's necessary to protect the "time natives" of the present from contamination from their community of time travelers.  After all, they all understand what the future will bring:  global warming and plagues.  No matter how tough life might seem now, it is paradise compared to where these people come from!

But Prenna discovers that there is even more danger in not interfering. With the help of a time native (i.e., a particularly talented classmate named Ethan), she is trying to influence a series of events that form a "fork" in the continuum.  This juncture will take place very soon and decide whether the future will turn into nightmare or whether it will take an unknown alternative path.

It's a strange choice of genre for an author most strongly associated with those amazing traveling pants!  And, while she struggles a bit with the usual rigor expected in science fiction, Brashares does a surprisingly good job with this time travel yarn.  That's mostly because she keeps the story very much in the present and (mostly) in New Jersey.  In her telling of the tale, Prenna and her friend Ethan are just a bunch of normal, impulsive teens.  The focus is strongly on their relationship, while the high stakes adventure takes a back seat.  Even though the pacing is brisk, its doesn't stop Prenna and Ethan from having time to hang out and even walk on the beach as the world hurtles towards its critical moment.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Boy in the Dress, by David Walliams

After Dennis's mother moves out, Dennis finds it hard to express the feelings he is having.  Neither his father nor his older brother want to talk about it.  Dennis misses his mother but he finds he also misses her dresses.  Dennis has always had a thing for women's clothing.  At first, he tries to smuggle home copies of Vogue, but when those are discovered and tossed out by his worried Dad, Dennis befriends Lisa (a budding fashionista).  The two of them enjoy long hours discussing clothes and she eventually convinces him to try on some for himself.  That leads to the idea of smuggling him into school as a girl, which ends up disastrously.

A surprising and unusual book for its subject and for its target audience (middle readers).  The book goes a bit silly in the end with just about everyone wearing dresses and giving out fashion advice, but it's all in service to the theme that self-expression is a wonderful thing.  And despite the implied subject of transgender identity, Dennis's sexuality is never really brought up (beyond the fact that he has a strong crush on Lisa).  A breezy and fun read -- and probably a great way to freak out uptight parents!

The Chance You Won't Return, by Annie Cardi

Alex is an absolutely atrocious driver.  It isn't that she's reckless, but quite the opposite:  nervous and terribly afraid that she'll cause an accident.  It's a phobia that is endangering her ability to pass Driver's Ed.  But thanks to help from Jim (an older boy with the patience of a saint and, ironically, a worse driving record), she may master driving.  However, this is really the least of her worries.

Alex's mother is suffering from the delusion that she is Amelia Earhart.  The condition appeared suddenly and grows worse quickly.  The family's insurance won't cover residential treatment, so they have to bring Mom home and care for her as well as they  can at home.  This causes immense stress to Alex, her siblings, and her father, as Mom loses touch more and more with reality.  And Alex begins to realize that Mom has taken to playing out Earhart's life, recreating in her mind each of Earhart's trips, which gets Alex worrying about what will happen when Mom "sets off" on Earhart's last round-the-world trip -- the one from which she never returns!

An ambitious story that tackles vibrantly the crippling impact of mental illness on entire families (and also neatly underscores the financial difficulties of doing so).  The book is at its best when it focuses on Alex's relationship with her parents and the maturing influence of having to rise to these new challenges.  These relationships are nuanced and show both strength and weakness and heartbreaking honesty.

Less successful for me was the driving story and the boyfriend.  I kept waiting for those plot points to get tied in, and one might stretch and find a few places where they converge, but in general they seemed like separate stories.  Cardi's focus is (where it should be) on the family tragedy at play here so those other stories are frequently neglected.  As much as they help to fill out Alex's character, I would have given them an editor's red pencil altogether.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Famous Last Words, by Katie Alender

Willa has been seeing things (dead people, flashes, water on the floor, writing on the wall) that no one else sees.  It appears to be tied to her obsession with reaching out to the Afterlife to contact the spirit of her dead father.  But when she and her mother move into her new stepfather's mansion in Hollywood, these hallucinations take on more sinister tones.  And it takes the help of an obsessive-compulsive outcast at school to help her figure out that it all has to do with a serial killer who's stalking young actresses and forcing them to reenact famous death scenes from movies.

Yes, it doesn't make a terrible amount of sense (and it only gets worse in the end), but it's fun enough escapist stuff to read.  Not a lot of character stuff here either (a forgettable girlfriend seems particularly inconsequential), but it's a story with a breakneck pace.  If you like sociopathic killers and poor little rich girls, you'll probably enjoy this.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC from the publisher in return for my critical considerationThe book is scheduled for release on September 30th.]

Friday, September 19, 2014

Don't Look Back, by Jennifer L. Armentrout

The first thing that Samantha remembers is walking along a road in her bare feet.  She's badly injured.  She doesn't know it then, but once she is rescued, she discovers that she has been missing for days.  Worse, she was not alone when she disappeared and her companion (her best friend Cassie) is still missing.  Samantha doesn't know what happened to Cassie and, in fact, can't remember anything about herself or her life.

Much to the surprise of everyone around her, the amnesia causes her to change.  People with whom she was apparently friends before no longer appeal and she doesn't feel drawn to her rich and stuck-up boyfriend Del.  Instead, she bonds with hunky, but low-class Carson, the son of her family's groundskeeper (a choice that elicits strong disapproval from her peers and her family).  But the real issue is the mystery of what happened to her -- a matter which grows more urgent when Cassie turns up dead and suspicions are aroused that Alice's amnesia may simply be an act to cover up her guilt.

With the whole amnesia plot (and particularly the opening), I was reminded of the book Pretty Girl 13 (which I reviewed a few months ago), but this is a very different story.  Less creepy and far more suspenseful, it's a classic whodunnit.  I enjoyed turning the pages in search of the answer to the mystery.  The pacing is near perfect and played out well.  I had plenty of suspicions of the culprit but nothing definite until the reveal.  As for that ending, it was a bit too melodramatic, but had a good pay-off.

This is not, however, a great character read.  I liked Sam, but the other characters are less memorable.  The romance isn't very interesting and even the peer rivalries seem weak and contrived.  The characters are there to make their required appearance.  The plot itself is king.

Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy

When Alice got sick with leukemia, life went on hold.  Alice's problems with her ex-, the knowledge that her mother was cheating on her Dad, and even her arms-length relationship with her friend Harvey changed.  She was dying and in the period of a year, as her condition grew worse and worse, she found new joy in her family and in Harvey.  She settled scores with old enemies with particularly poetic forms of revenge and came to peace with her fate.  Harvey meanwhile adored Alice and devoted himself to being whatever she wanted, completely losing her own sense of self.

Then a terrible miracle happened.  Her condition reversed and she went into remission.  Suddenly, the idea of living long enough to go to college didn't seem so crazy.  And that is when Alice realized that she's in trouble.   Those kids she settled scores with are still out there.  Her family's issues haven't gone away (they've just been on hold during her illness).  And now that she isn't dying soon, she knows that Harvey is no longer what she wants (despite the fact that he still wants her).  Facing death was easy -- now Alice must face life!

A strikingly original story about life and living in an imperfect world with flawed people.  If you want your characters to be likeable, this isn't a very good book for you.  Most of the kids (and some of the adults) are selfish and mean.  Harvey is weak and spineless.  But Alice takes the cake as a self-centered, cruel, and manipulative young woman.  And while she gets cut some slack for being sick, there's no denying that she's simply not a nice person!  Yet, these are recognizable people with real raw emotions and their struggles ring very true.  So, while this can be unpleasant to read, it is engrossing for its honesty.

My only complaint is the structure of the book -- which shifts between Alice and Harvey's narration and jumps around fairly liberally along the timeline.  Stylistically, I found the combination of regular flashbacks and multiple POVs to be a bit hard to follow (it took about a hundred pages for me to get into the swing of things).  However, it's still a great book!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Summer of Letting Go, by Gae Polisner

It's a beach story (there's a boy who's off-limits and best friend to betray), but it's also not your typical summer romance.

Four years ago, Frankie's brother drowned in the ocean while she was supposed to be watching him.  In the intervening years, her mother's never quite recovered and seemingly never forgiven Frankie either.  Her father has drifted away from the family, leaving Frankie pretty much on her own, to wallow to self-pity.

Frankie lives in fear of the ocean, of taking care of others, or of opening up to (even to her best friend).  But this summer she decides to be brave and put one foot in front of the other and confront her fears.  In the course of finding out why her father is sneaking around with a next-door neighbor, Frankie stumbles into a job caring for a rambunctious little boy who bears a striking physical and personality resemblance to her dead brother.  As the coincidences and similarities pile up, Frankie becomes more and more convinced that this child is actually a reincarnation of her brother.  Somehow, in the midst of all this drama, there is still some time to squeeze in the love triangle.

Obviously, it's a book trying to do a bit too much.  In general, the romance gets sacrificed to the rest of the story, but by the end, almost every plot line suffers through a quick fix.  This is a shame as the originality of the potential reincarnation plot is interesting and needed a fuller resolution.  Still, I enjoyed a late summer beach novel that finds some novel territory in which to explore.  And, as usual, I want to give a shout out to another YA book that does a decent job of portraying grownups as being real people (and not clueless boobs!) -- parents and other random adults got to be human beings, much to the chagrin of the adolescents in the story.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Felix the Comet, by Cathy Coley

Felix is a first class geek with two geek parents (they are both teachers at a local college), but Felix can't help the fact that he's smart and knows stuff.  Thankfully, at his school, it's never been a problem.  He's been free to pretty much be himself.  Kids just know that's how he is. 

But when a new boy transfers in, trouble begins.  The kid takes an instant dislike to Felix and goes out of his way to tease and torment Felix.  The book's title however comes from a side plot: Felix and his dog Cosmo discover a comet.  This makes Felix instantly famous and all that attention further infuriates the bully.  Felix tries to cool things down by maintaining a low profile, but it does no good.  Felix's friends, meanwhile, try to convince Felix to tell an adult.  Felix, however, wants to figure out a solution on his own (and he's no tattle-tale!).  But, as the situation escalates, Felix discovers that he may be in over his head!

Coley is great with details, portraying in loving detail the dynamics of Felix's friendships and family life.  The parents, in particular, are well-rounded and authentic.  Dialogue is less of a strong suit and I found the kid's voices stiff and not as true.  That said, the story (and Felix's motivation to avoid making trouble in particular) made sense and build a satisfying dramatic arc.  I would have liked to have seen more development of his nemesis (we get a small bit of that in the end when Felix observes that the bully's family may be the source of his anger, but it is an underdeveloped idea and a lost opportunity.

[Disclaimer:  I'm friends with the author and she bravely asked me to review her book (even sending me a copy for the review).]

Can't Look Away, by Donna Cooner

Torrey has always liked being in the public eye.  Her popular fashion VLOG has been a dream come true, garnering plenty of attention.  But after her younger sister is killed by a drunk driver, Torrey finds that public attention isn't always kind.  As the comments turn from sympathetic to nasty, she shies away from posting to her site.  Conveniently, her family decides to move from Colorado to Texas, giving her a chance to start over (at least outside of cyberspace).  But once in Texas, she finds that the desire to re-establish her credentials as an It-Girl conflicts with her desire to escape her past.

Her attempts to ingratiate herself into the company of the popular clique also come into conflict with her romantic aspirations as she finds herself falling for brooding Luis -- an outcast.  Luis, however, understands her grief over the loss of her sister in a way that no one else does.  And he helps her to understand the futility of seeking fame and popularity.

It's a pleasing story with most of the tropes of YA fiction.  The girl doesn't quite fit the plain Jane standard for a heroine (she far too pretty and vain), but she has the right amount of insecurity to make her instantly worthy of empathy.  But Torrey didn't really grab me.  She's too narcissistic and her complaints are repetitive and whiny.  Her coming around at the end is entirely too neat.  The boy is, of course, too perfect as well as being conveniently unattached.
Not everything is standard and predictable.  There is a nice side story about Mexican death customs.  And I also liked the side story of Torrey's awkward cousin Raylene, who provides a not-so-subtle comparison with the dead sister.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Milk of Birds, by Sylvia Whitman

Nawra (a refugee in Darfur) and K.C. (a high-schooler in Richmond VA) make an odd match.  Through a correspondence sponsored by an NGO, they spend a year trading letters.  Their differences are stark:  Nawra deals daily with starvation, disease, threats of physical harm, and privations that K.C. cannot even imagine.  But as the two girls learn about each other, they find the ability to inspire each other.

Of the two of them, Nawra's story is by far the most compelling.  Not only is she facing daily unimaginable challenges, but she does so with strength and optimism that nearly defies belief.  Her proverbs, which pepper the story, are wonderful.  In comparison, K.C. comes across as a terribly whiny and spoiled suburban brat.  While K.C. slowly redeems herself, the book's primary weakness is the handicap that K.C. presents from the start.  How many First World problems can we tolerate when the stakes are so dire for Nawra?  It's hard to read about genocide and then be expected to care about K.C.'s desire for a smart phone.  It seems a bit overkill:  Even a less spoiled American girl's life would have come across as a contrast with the world of Darfur.  Perhaps this book would have seemed less uneven with a milder opposite number?

Still, I think it is a remarkable achievement to tell this story and to do so with such authenticity and love.  Whitman excels in opening up the world of Darfur and making it accessible to Western readers.  It's the little moments where the characters misunderstand each other, but the reader realizes that they are in a privileged position to realize it that really make the reading of this book a joy.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The F*** It List, by Julie Halpern

Alex has a lot of trouble in her life.  Her father recently died in a car accident, her best friend has cancer, and there's a guy (Leo) who she isn't sure she wants to get close to (which doesn't stop her from tearing off her clothes, when given the opportunity).  She's a supportive friend to Becca and good older sister to her fatherless brothers, but it pulls her in way too many directions.  What she does have is a great love of horror films and Becca's bucket list, which they have renamed the "Fuck It" list.

The result is a story that meanders along through the year as Becca goes through treatment, Alex and Leo struggle to figure out what they want.  Surprisingly, the List itself doesn't play much of a role in the story.  There's a lot of death and also a lot of sex (the first masturbation scene is on page 57, if you're looking for it!).  Neither the death nor the sex really did much for me, as there isn't much emotion behind it.  Some of that flat emotionless delivery v is the cynical dark attitude that Alex carries with her, but mostly it is the lack of investment that the storyteller conveys.  A functional story, but it doesn't really add much to the genre.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo

Flora is a natural-born cynic, while Ulysses is a might-be superhero squirrel.  After an unfortunate encounter with a powerful vacuum cleaner, Ulysses emerges as a rodent with a big fluffy tail (and no fur) who can lift heavy items, fly through the air, and write poetry.  And while Flora wants to help him conquer his arch-nemesis (her Mom), Ulysses would really just like to find something to eat (perhaps a giant donut?).

A clever and wacky fantasy that intermixes odd-ball characters, poetry, and comic-book styling (complete with storyboard interludes) together to tell a story about a girl and her amazing squirrel friend.  It's completely chaotic and absurd, but in a way that you can enjoy if you let your grown-up sensibilities go (whether children will even understand it is another matter altogether!).  DiCamillo won me over originally with Because of Winn Dixie, but she has since drifted fairly far into Absurdism and I'm not sure how many readers want to follow her there.  Some reviewers claim that the story has a deep theme (abandonment), but I consider it just so over-the-top that any message is largely lost.  I did enjoy it, but it was a bit of a close call.

Oh, yeah, it won the Newbery too, if that sort of thing matters to you.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen

After Violet's father moved out on them, Mom went through a string of disastrous relationships.  Violet has had enough of these losers and decides that the only thing to do about it is to hook her Mom up with the perfect man: George Clooney.  It's not going to be easy, but Violet and her friends are resourceful.  They also have to be fast though because Mom is on the verge of getting hitched to the unfortunately-named Dudley Wiener!

Violet is the type of kid who's always getting into trouble.  The appeal of the book is supposed to center around her mishaps.  For me, that only works part of the time.  Violet is stubborn and a bit cruel, and her issues (which include a mild case of OCD that lies largely uncommented-upon throughout the story) can be a bit hard to take.  So, the humor (such as it is) has a dark side.  I'll give the book points for being lively and original, but the meanness of so much of the story detracted from my enjoyment.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Black Helicopters, by Blythe Woolston

Valley and her brother Bo have been raised by their Da to survive in a frightening world.  They've been living under the radar and in secret ever since the death of their mother.  Da says it's the black helicopters that Those People use and he has trained the kids to be alert and cautious.  Relentlessly, the children have been trained on how to hide and how to fight back against their enemy.

One day, Valley and Bo return home from a mission to find their home destroyed and their father presumably dead.  Following their training, they set out on their own, avoiding contact with their parents' murderers.  They reach out to their father's network of friends and prove their worth taking on missions against the enemy.  But Valley wants revenge, and with a jacket full of C4 she intends to get it.

A short but chilling portrait of the paranoid world of domestic terrorists.  The story is a nail-biter and definitely hooks you in.  However, it's an odd story, with a lot of loose ends and poorly developed supporting characters.  Details are confused and don't entirely match up.  Some of this is stylistic (Valley's own confusion permeates the narrative), but some of it is simply overly concise storytelling.  The brevity that gives this thriller urgency also sacrifices character development.

Dash, by Kirby Larson

Eleven year-old Mitsi loves her dog Dash, her family, school, and her drawing.  She understands that sometimes boys like to bully people, but she doesn't understand why people have gotten so mean to her and her family just because they are of Japanese descent.  Yes, the United States and Japan are at war, but she and her family are Americans!  Then, she learns that all the Japanese people in Seattle are being rounded up and relocated to a camp far away.  With just a week's notice, her family has to sell everything and pack up.  Worst of all, she's been told that she can't bring Dash with her - no pets are allowed!

A kind neighbor agrees to take care of Dash and sends her status reports during their separation.  That correspondence gives Mitsi a release and allows her to cope with the horrors of her family's incarceration.

A well-researched and well-told story of Japanese-American relocation during WWI through the heart-wrenching hook of a girl separated from her pooch.  What's not to like?  Mitsi and her family have hearts of gold and are sometimes too good to be true, but the detail is so rich and so interesting, that the story just moves you right along.  This is a lovely piece of historical fiction (based on a true story) that captures and personalizes a shocking moment in American history.

[Disclosure:  I solicited and received a copy of this book for review.  Having really enjoyed this book, I plan to keep the copy I received, but it did not affect my review.]

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Doll Bones, by Holly Black

Zach is growing up.  His father thinks he's too old to be playing with action figures and dolls, or for his two best friends (Poppy and Alice) to be girls.  So, Dad throws away all of Zach's toys.  In anger and embarrassment, Zach tells his friends that he doesn't want to play with them anymore.  They are understandable hurt and angry, especially since Zach won't give them any reason for his actions.

A few days later, Zach gets an urgent message from the girls to join them.  They have been nagging him so much that he figures that it's a trick to recruit him back to playing their games.  However, this time, the adventure is actually real!  A haunted doll, a quest, and a life-changing journey awaits.

What is billed as creepy and scary turns out to actually be a decent road-trip story, with plenty of real-life adventure and some risky behavior (at least two cases of theft, an incident of breaking-and-entering, and a number of other bad decisions play a prominent role).  There are intimations of magic and the supernatural, but it is all easily explained if necessary.  Instead, Black focuses on the way that real-life journeys can be just as interesting as mythic ones.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Finding Ruby Starling, by Karen Rivers

A mixture of emails, letters, poetry, and other media form the structure of this story of two girls who meet online and determine that they are in fact twin sisters, separated at birth.  Ruth lives in America, while Ruby lives in England, so they have plenty of differences, but they find that they also have a great deal in common.  Subplots involving their friends (including a rather bizarre one about making a movie about shark-orca hybrids) also figure in.

Told almost entirely through correspondence, most of the decent dramatic moments happen off-stage and in re-telling.  That sucks much of the energy out of the story.  It's also a major chore keeping all of the characters straight in this busy narrative (many of the characters come from a previous book; one imagines that another installment is probably in works -- and these two facts help explain the plethora of dramatis personae).  By the end, I had pretty much caught up to the flow of the story, but for a story which is basically about two girls being reunited, the whole thing seems distracted and off-focus.

[Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in advance for the purpose of writing this review.  I received no other compensation and will be donating my copy to the public library.  This book is scheduled for release next week.]

Uses for Boys, by Erica Lorraine Scheidt

In "the tell-me-again times," when Anna was a little girl, she would crawl into her mother's bed and her Mom would tell her, "She had no mother, she had no father.  All she wanted was a little girl and that little girl is me." But by the time Anna turned eight, she found that wasn't really true.  There was a different story.  Her mother wanted a husband and a house and a life outside the house, and she had little time for Anna.  Instead, Anna was left alone for hours and hours (and eventually days and days) in a big empty house, without a mother and without love.  Her mother was always distracted by the latest man and by chasing after the next rainbow.

So, Anna discovered how to find her own happiness in the attention that boys gave her.  The physical sensations were nice, but most of all, it was the feeling of being needed and wanted that provided Anna a surrogate for love.  The few friends she had at school rejected her as a slut, but eventually she left school anyway and simply focused on boys.  They provided what she needed and were more useful than school.

An immensely powerful, touching, and ultimately disturbing story of longing and the way that sex is too often used as a substitute for affection and love.  It's not really a story for teens (or even most adults) - not because of the depictions of sex and drugs, but because of the narrative itself.  I've read a fair number of reviews that wring their hands at the cruelty of the mother in this story, but it is obvious to me that she's as much of a victim as Anna herself (and even more trapped in the conflation of sex with love).  And the ending, while quite sad, leaves an amazing seed of hope that Anna has the strength and the smarts to break the cycle.  Young readers (and most adults) won't understand how Anna got this way and will quickly condemn her as a lazy "slut" in the type of defense mechanism that people who have not been there use to protect themselves.  But this story is really quite universal and that makes it very powerful.

I love love love Scheidt's writing!  From the very first chapter, I was drawn in to this story.  The beautiful way she establishes the neediness that Anna feels, in its pure and most innocent sense, goes so far to make the rest of the story believable and full of pathos.  One could criticize the flatness and opaque nature of all the other characters.  But seen through Anna's damaged eyes, it's fully understandable that we will never understand the others fully (after all, Anna is incapable of doing so!).

A truly brave and moving story, about a painful and difficult topic.  Amazing!!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Odessa Again, by Dana Reinhardt

Odessa has lots of things that bother her.  She hates the fact that her father doesn't live with them anymore.  She hates that he's remarrying.  Her little brother drives her crazy because he is such a toad!  And she despises having to share a room with him.

So, she is pretty happy when she finally convinces her Mom to let her move in to the attic.  And it is there that she makes an amazing discovery:  by stomping her feet on the floor she can go back in time!  It's a very limited power:  the first time, she goes back 24 hours; the second time, 23 hours; and so on.  Very quickly, she figures out the powerful opportunity of the Do-Over.  At first, she uses it to benefit herself.  But, as time goes by, she comes to realize the value of (and limits to) improving the lives of others.

The story, in the end, is really about the importance of internal change, but the magical angle of time travel gives the story a bit of fun.  Odessa gets to grow up in fairly predictable ways (learning to appreciate her brother, reconciling with the changes going on in her family, etc.) but I really enjoyed its predictability.  I also really liked grownups in the story (always a big fan of adults who are people and not monoliths).  The drawings are cute too!