Monday, September 29, 2014
The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares
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.
Posted by Paul at 8:16 PM No comments:
Saturday, September 27, 2014
The Boy in the Dress, by David Walliams
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!
Posted by Paul at 3:49 PM No comments:
The Chance You Won't Return, by Annie Cardi
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.
Posted by Paul at 11:38 AM No comments:
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Famous Last Words, by Katie Alender
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 consideration. The book is scheduled for release on September 30th.]
Posted by Paul at 10:01 PM No comments:
Friday, September 19, 2014
Don't Look Back, by Jennifer L. Armentrout
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.
Posted by Paul at 8:53 PM No comments:
Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy
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!
Posted by Paul at 8:37 PM No comments:
Saturday, September 13, 2014
The Summer of Letting Go, by Gae Polisner
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.
Posted by Paul at 9:04 PM No comments:
Friday, September 12, 2014
Felix the Comet, by Cathy Coley
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).]
Posted by Paul at 6:45 PM 1 comment:
Can't Look Away, by Donna Cooner
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.
Posted by Paul at 6:24 PM No comments:
Tuesday, September 09, 2014
The Milk of Birds, by Sylvia Whitman
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.
Posted by Paul at 7:51 PM No comments:
Thursday, September 04, 2014
The F*** It List, by Julie Halpern
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.
Posted by Paul at 7:36 PM No comments:
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