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!

Zero Tolerance, by Claudia Mills

When seventh-grader Sierra accidentally brings her mother's lunch to school, she's in for a surprise when her mother's paring knife falls out of the bag.  She's also in big trouble!  Her school has a zero tolerance policy regarding weapons and drugs.  Her friends urge her to simply hide the knife, but Sierra's always been rule-abiding, so she turns it in immediately and tries to explain her mistake.  Her principal, however, makes a big deal about applying the rules fairly and feels obliged to carry out the mandatory punishment for such an offense:  expulsion.  Sierra, a perfect student and a class leader, has never been in trouble before, but over the next two weeks as she awaits her sentencing while in mandatory in-school suspension, her eyes are opened to the world of being on the other side of the law.

Mills remains one of my favorite writers of traditional middle readers.  The particular subject is topical and handled well, with little sensationalism.  Mills articulates the way that rigid and unimaginative authority undermines discipline in the long run, and avoids making out any one person as a good guy or a bad guy. This would make a nice book for a group discussion, but is equally enjoyable to read on one's own.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Faces of the Dead, by Suzanne Weyn

People have often noted the physical similarities between Marie-Therese, daughter of the King of France, and her chambermaid Ernestine.  And the two girls have taken advantage of their appearance from time to time to switch roles.  It's all been in fun until the Revolution comes and Marie-Therese finds herself on the outside, while Ernestine plays her role with the condemned royal family.

Out on the streets, Marie-Therese befriends a young man named Henri. He is helping the future Madame Tussaud, Anna Marie Grosholtz, collect dead bodies to make wax death masks.  Grosholtz, however, is really learning voodoo spells from Rose de Beauharnais (a.k.a. the future Josephine Bonaparte) to help reanimate the spirits of guillotined nobles in wax bodies.  Through all of this, Marie-Therese mostly alternates between swooning and trying to reunite with her family (and then eventually escaping again). 

The whole story is, in sum, quite ridiculous!  The body double business has been done often enough before and might have made a fine story on its own.  But combined with the voodoo stuff it just gets silly.  The writing style seems forced and the characters are quite annoying.  Marie-Therese is the proverbial house cat: unable to decide if she wants to be inside with her family or out free on the streets, she sneaks in and out several times.  The boyfriend is entirely too modern to be believable.  Every other character is disposable and forgotten.  What a silly mess!

[Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book as an unsolicited ARC.  I received no compensation for my review and consideration.]

Bombay Blues, by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Dimple Lala (introduced to us in Born Confused) is now studying at NYU and has become well-integrated into New York's club scene.  Her boyfriend Karsh is a DJ who specializes in Banghra mash-ups.  As the story begins, Dimple and her parents are going back to Mumbai to see family, celebrate an anniversary and a wedding, and generally soak up some hometown vibe.  Karsh is also going to be there as he's landed a breakthrough gig.

Things don't quite work out as planned, but the entire point of the book is to show that, in a city as big and as diverse as Mumbai, closed doors are always paired with open ones.  And for every opportunity that doesn't quite pan out, others appear.  Karsh's job doesn't work out but he goes in search of godhead instead.  Dimple finds herself pursuing other interests as well.  And even the family plans get thrown asunder.

All of this is told in Hidier's breathless and evocative prose, mixing New York club slang with hybrid English-Hindi in an argot that is quite unique (and which begged a glossary for the clueless suburban reader!).  The style is lyrical and colorful, but maddening difficult to crack.  The jargon meant that I found the book pretty slow going in the beginning.  The end grew difficult for another reason as Didier's narrative starts to crumble (a dubious stylistic decision driven more by artistic coolness than a desire to tell a story).

Didier obviously enjoys the city of Mumbai and lavishes a huge amount of text on describing her observations (probably an outgrowth of journaling there for a year in preparing this book).  Sometimes this works (for example, when she draws out a nice mini-essay on the semiotics of the new Bandra-Worli Sea Link) but mostly it seems like so much digression.  The story frequently takes a backseat to Hidier's love affair with Mumbai.  I longed for more of a story, some pruning of her descriptions, and a shortened book (at 550 pages, someone should have been doing more editing!).

[Disclosure: I received a copy of this book by soliciting the publisher for an advance review copy, which I'll be donating to my local public library. This did not affect the opinion expressed here.  The book is scheduled for release on August 26th.]

Friday, August 15, 2014

Year of Mistaken Discoveries, by Eileen Cook

Avery and Nora had been friends since first grade, where they discovered that they were both adopted.  Over the years, however, they had drifted apart.  When Nora kills herself, Avery tries to find meaning in her grief by searching for her own birth mother.  To help with the search, she enlists the help of Nora's friend Brody.  In the process of the search, she gets more than she counted on.

Pleasant enough of a read, but lacking much of a spark.  The story wants to be many things:  a soul searcher, a romance, a coming-to-grips-with-grief novel, and a story about adoption.  However, it doesn't really pan out.  Avery is part of the problem.  She's supposed to be very popular, but she acts like an outsider.  She's supposed to have grown apart from Nora, but she talks about her dead former friend like they were still BFFs (while tuning out her alleged friends).  It doesn't help that Avery doesn't really know what she wants from life and hardly gloms on to anything by the end either.  Even the romance is without spark.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Breaking Butterflies, by M. Anjelais

When they were seven, Sphinxie's mother and her best friend made a blood oath to be friends forever, become (respectively) an advertising executive and a fashion designer, get married and have one child each (a girl and a boy), and to see that girl and boy get married.  Most of their plans came true.  They stayed friends, realized their career goals, had a girl and a boy, and their children became close friends.  But the rest veered off plan.

From the start, the children were very different from each other.  The boy (Cadence) was exceptional in all ways (beautiful, talented, and charismatic), but the girl (Sphinxie) was timid, plain, and unremarkable.  Everyone, particularly Sphinxie, loved Cadence.  But then a shocking incident occurred where Cadence brutally attacked Sphinxie and the two children became estranged for many years. 

Now sixteen, Sphinxie learns that Cadence is dying, and develops an obsessive desire to make amends.  It's a terrifying prospect as she fears her former friend, made the more so when Sphinxie discovers that Cadence's mesmerizing power over her (and his underlying sadistic cruelty) remains intact (and in fact has grown far worse).  Can she maintain her own sanity as she struggles to resist his madness?

A very creepy psychological thriller of a sociopath and a well-meaning young woman who thinks she can handle him.  At a few points, the pace flagged and sometimes it felt like the author had stretched credulity to get them to stay together, but most of the time the pace is brisk and the story shocking and irresistible.

Angelais's voice is lively and original.  It's an extreme credit to her as a writer that she makes this difficult tale work as well as it does.  Odd character names aside, these are interesting characters with strong and memorable personalities.

[Disclosure:  I solicited this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was received and the book will be donated to my local public library.  The book is scheduled for release on August 24th.]

Maybe One Day, by Melissa Kantor

When Zoe and her BFF Olivia get kicked out of their ballet school, Zoe is heartbroken but at least assumes that it is the worst day of their lives (and that things will only get better from here!).  But when Olivia is diagnosed with leukemia, Zoe discovers that there are indeed far worse things that can happen!  Over the next year, while Olivia struggles with the disease, Zoe tries to be a good friend.  It isn't always easy and the two of them have their ups and down.

Death and dying stories are naturals for poignant tear jerking, so you pretty much know what to expect in a story like this.  Even the cover of the book screams out "Wind Beneath My Wings" so you'll get a chance to bawl over something in this book.  All of which make me a bit heartless to say that I'm not so sure about the novel.  The narrative is jumpy and poorly pieced together.  The girls were interesting enough and sympathetic.  I learned a bit about leukemia as well.  However, Kantor as the narrator didn't have much of an attention span.  She would introduce a plot development, but then jump ahead a few months when she got bored and quickly recap (oh yeah, the big deal I spent ten pages on?  it all worked out months ago!).  That felt like cheating the reader to me.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

In the Shadow of Blackbirds, by Cat Winters

In 1918, after her father is arrested for treason for discouraging men from enlisting, Mary is sent to live with her aunt in San Diego.  It's a dangerous time:  the country is at war and the world is being ravaged by the deadly Spanish Flu.  Mary's beau Stephen has shipped off to the Europe.  When he returns dead, Mary develops the idea that she can communicate with him.  The stronger that link becomes, the more she grows obsessed with the belief that something horrible happened to him that she must now try to set to rights.

A complex and interesting novel that combines historical fiction and the paranormal.  It actually reminded me a bit of that old Kevin Bacon film (Fade To Black) in the way that the dead reach out to the receptive living to fix injustice (although one could cite Ghost as well, I suppose!).  In that vein, the story works well as a truly creepy thriller.

But there's the more interesting historical part.  Fascinating details about the impact of WWI on the home front, the rebirth of spiritualism, as well as the flu pandemic fill out this story and fix it (at least partly) in reality.  Period photographs (some of them quite freaky) give the book a great design.  I enjoyed its originality and creativity.

When Audrey Met Alice, by Rebecca Behrens

Being the daughter of the President of the United States is tough!  You're never allowed to go out without a security detail.  People at school are only friends with you because of who you are.  Your mother (POTUS) and father (the "First Gentleman") are far too busy to spend time with you.  You can't even sneak a boy into the house without setting off the Secret Service!  First Daughter Audrey has pretty much had it with life in the White House!

But when Audrey stumbles across the long-hidden secret diary of Alice Roosevelt (daughter of TR), she discovers that presidential children have always had it rough.  Inspired by Alice's spunk and daring, Audrey tries to claim a bit of glory of her own (or at least some independence).  The results are catastrophic, getting her into far more trouble.

Basically, it's harmless fun for younger readers.  Not quite as enticing as Meg Cabot's All-American Girl, but a little more rooted in reality and historical fact.  Behrens imagines a far more liberal presidency than I can picture within my lifetime, but the real story of Alice is fascinating reading and will excite younger intellectual curiosity.  As for her contemporary counterpart, one wishes that Audrey didn't make so many bad choices or that the book didn't go for such a spectacularly happy ending, but that's how middle grade readers tend to go.  Entertaining and educational fun!

Friday, August 01, 2014

This Song Will Save Your Life, by Leila Sales

Elise is very driven and successful at most things she tries, except for the one thing that matters the most to her: having friends.  She's tried everything, but somehow she always ends up the outcast.  One night, during an evening constitutional, she runs across a late-night dance club and stumbles on to the world of DJ'ing.  As with everything else she's applied herself to, she finds that she excels at it and also discovers that being a good DJ can be a gateway to many other things: friends, admiration, and even romance.  However, just as quickly as she rises to the top, she falls down.  But not before she learns a few lessons about the true ingredients of success.

It's another of these YA books that imagines that the greatest dance music came from the 80s and 90s (and ignores the music that young people actually listen to these days), but if we push that bit of silliness aside, the book itself is actually pretty good.  Elise is a great character.  Not at all afraid to go after exactly what she wants, her risk-taking behavior will take your breath away, but that fearlessness and straight-outspokenness goes a long long way to making her a winning heroine.  And I appreciated the fact that both the good and bad guys in this story ended up believable ambivalent in the end.  I even forgave the cheery and rosy ending because I so much wanted Elisa to triumph in the end.

A totally satisfying adventure in self-discovery.