Friday, October 31, 2014
The Battle of Darcy Lane, by Tara Altebrando
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!
Posted by Paul at 3:51 PM No comments:
To All the Boys I've Loved, by Jenny Han
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.
Posted by Paul at 3:37 PM No comments:
Saturday, October 25, 2014
Free to Fall, by Lauren Miller
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.
Posted by Paul at 1:01 PM No comments:
The Lost, by Sarah Beth Durst
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.
Posted by Paul at 12:22 PM No comments:
Saturday, October 18, 2014
Tom's Midnight Garden, by A. Philippa Pearce
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.
Posted by Paul at 1:43 PM No comments:
Friday, October 17, 2014
Torn Away, by Jennifer Brown
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.
Posted by Paul at 4:05 PM No comments:
Saturday, October 11, 2014
Hidden Girl, by Shyima Hall
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.]
Posted by Paul at 9:35 PM No comments:
The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, by Kate Hattemer
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.
Posted by Paul at 5:18 PM No comments:
We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart
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.
Posted by Paul at 5:04 PM No comments:
Friday, October 03, 2014
Never Ending, by Martyn Bedford
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?
Posted by Paul at 2:40 PM No comments:
In Honor, by Jessi Kirby
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!
Posted by Paul at 2:19 PM No comments:
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