Sunday, April 27, 2014

Until It Hurts To Stop, by Jennifer R. Hubbard

Back in seventh and eighth grades, Maggie was the victim of a series of bullying incidents.  Years later, in high school, she is still terrified of being attacked.  In the intervening years, she has learned to use outdoor activities (hiking, in particular) to escape her anxieties and build confidence.  But this year, her former nemesis returns to the school, and Maggie's fears come back full-force.  Worse, her friend and hiking partner Nick is becoming interested in other girls - something which Maggie never expected to bother her.

The romantic subplot won't win any originality points, but the story stands out for its depiction of the PTSD-like qualities of recovering from adolescent bullying.  Hubbard does an excellent job of showing how the years of abuse cause Maggie to live in a state of constant anxiety, in which she in fact chooses to stay (ironically, for the comforting security it brings her!).  Two particularly remarkable scenes occur near the end where Maggie confronts her former enemies to find to her shock and surprise that they have moved on and forgotten everything (and that Maggie is no longer the center of their interest).  Other subplots (including the romance) are carefully tied in to the main theme and illustrate other aspects of bullying and of recovery.

The Vow, by Jessica Martinez

Mo and Annie have been friends (and only friends!) for years.  For different reasons (Annie's loss of her older sister and Mo's status as an Arab living in Kentucky) they have never bonded with anyone else.  So, when Mo finds out that he is about to be deported with his family back to Jordan, it is not that much of a stretch for Annie to propose a radical solution to let him stay: the two of them will get married.

But what seems like a perfect solution at first comes with complications and problems (some anticipated, others not).  In order to make their plan work, they must convince their family and friends that they are truly in love and serious about being a married couple.  This causes understandable turmoil between the two of them and their social circles and heightens the difficulty of living together (which they now must do in order to convince the INS that their marriage is legit).  Everything gets more complicated when Annie falls in love - for real - with another boy.

There are a number of missed or underdeveloped opportunities in this book (the racial dynamics of the relationship, Annie's fears of letting others down, the differences between Mo's and Annie's expectations of the relationship, and Mo's feelings for his homeland), but much of that is because of the story's ambitions.  Martinez does a good job of setting up a plausible motivation for the faux marriage and making the set-up all seem possible.  In the end, when their plans unravel quickly, that too seemed plausible given the circumstances.  What got lost was allowing us time to truly get inside the heads of these two characters, but I suspect that would have doubled the size of this already lengthy book.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Picture Me Gone, by Meg Rosoff

Mila, an unusually insightful teen, likens herself at the beginning of this novel to a terrier -- both in her ability to discern peoples thoughts and motives, and also because of her steadfast loyalty.  These traits prove useful when she and her father arrive in the States to visit her father's old friend Matthew.  When they arrive, they find that Matthew has disappeared.  No one know where he has gone or why he left, and the two of them set off into Upstate New York to find him.

The result is a gentle adventure (where the most danger they encounter is a little snow and some dodgy restaurants).  As is true in most literary road trips, the story is about self-discovery as much as finding they quarry. Spending the time with her father and learning more about his missing friend helps Mila understand her Dad better and also reveals things about herself.

The novel has potential, but never really delivers in the end.  The story is muddled.  While the blurb promises adventure, the plot is weighed down in ruminations and meditations.   The search itself - in many ways - is unsuccessful, even though some of its goals are achieved (being more specific would spoil what little suspense the book offers).  And once one reaches the end of the book, we are left (much like Mila herself) wondering why we started out in the first place.

Rosoff is fond of mood pieces. For her, the plot tends to seem like an annoyance that gets in the way of the emotion.  But the mood here -- a bit of lost hope and failed opportunity - is so melancholy and beige that it doesn't capture the heart.  It is all very pretty, but fails to engage.

Switched at Birthday, by Natalie Standiford

Lavender is a gawky nerd, comfortable in her skin, but still a magnet for abuse from her classmates.  She's the complete opposite of Scarlett -- popular and graceful, but cautiously walking a social high wire.  They share a longing for change and also a birthday.  And on the evening of their birthday, they each make a wish.

In the morning, they awake to find that they have somehow swapped bodies!  Now, Lavender (who has never before cared about appearances) must learn how to navigate Scarlett's complex social world.  Scarlett, meanwhile, who has built her life around being popular, finds herself an outcast and is stuck in the everyday humiliations of Lavender's life.

The initial process of adjustment provides by entertainment and education. But once they move beyond the process of working through the contrasts in their lives, the two girls realize that they can both benefit from the new perspective that their differences bring.  While they search for a way to reverse the process and return to their own bodies, they still manage to help the other make changes to improve eachother's lives.

It's cute and predictable, with an entirely too happy and sweet ending, but satisfying life lessons are learned and tweens will enjoy the story.  Some gentle and unobtrusive life lessons about dealing with bullies will appeal to parents and teachers.  So, the overall result is useful and entertaining, but not particularly unique.

[Disclosure:  I received a free copy of the book from the publisher for consideration and this review, and will be donating the copy to my local public library after I finish with it.  No other compensation was received.]

Thursday, April 10, 2014

All I Need, by Susane Colasanti

One summer on the Jersey shore, when Skye is looking for something new, she meets Seth and a new love is born.  They have a variety of mishaps (amongst other things, they lose touch for a year because they failed to exchange contact information).  Throughout it all, they have friends to bond and break with, and a variety of family issues.  None of these themes are developed or explored.  The book simply drifts from one topic to the next.  In the end, they have the promise of living happily ever after.

In sum, nothing much happens.

Colasanti can be good when she wants to, but here she merely phones in her book.  It's a lazy affair and lacks a story, any meaningful character development, or the vaguest attempt to be contemporary (we're treated to yet another example of adolescents who worship 80s music, don't appear to own a smart phone, and have never heard of social media). And worst of all, it takes place on a beach.  Enough said!

Unthinkable, by Nancy Werlin

The curse of the Scarborough women was lifted in Werlin's earlier novel, Impossible, but Fenella Scarborough is still imprisoned.  When Padruig pronounced the original curse, he laid a second one on top of it: immortality.  And what might be considered a blessing by most people has simply meant eternal suffering from guilt for Fenella as she has been haunted by generations of her offspring whom she was unable to rescue from imprisonment during the past 400 years.

In order to end the second curse and be allowed to die and finally achieve peace, Fenella is informed that she must perform three acts of destruction against her own family.  Set free from Faerie with the company of the queen's brother in the disguise of a cat, Fenella must find a way to "destroy" her family (while causing the least amount of actual harm) and break the final hold that Padruig has over them.

While the backstory fleshes out how the original curse started, overall this novel lacks the depth of the original.  The original benefited from the rich source material of the "Elfin Knight" and is a hard act to follow - a perfect storm of a book that took a classic and fleshed it out in an exciting and original way.  This novel is a more average work and doesn't measure up. The companion novel is less rooted in anything of importance.

It also hurts the story to base the breaking of the new curse around acts of destruction, which seem much harder to justify.  One is immediately struck with the thought that Fenella's predicament is more of her her design.  Only later in the book does Werlin come up with a compelling justification for breaking the curse.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Dear Life, You Suck, by Scott Blagden

Cricket has had a pretty rough life.  Eight years in an orphanage in northern Maine have given him a home.  As the oldest resident, he takes care of the younger kids.  But his sense of responsibility also gets him into heaps of trouble, as he often lands in fights to protect the younger boys from bullies.  And, despite the pleas of the nuns who run the "prison" or the principal of the school, Cricket is convinced that violence is the only way to solve some problems.

The salient feature of this novel is Cricket's language, and a lot of the critical attention to this book has focused on Cricket's profane and rude banter.  It is a bit over the top and likely to offend many readers, but it makes a point:  Cricket doesn't really care what we (or anyone else) think of him.  Once you get used to it, the language fits the character.  And also, once Blagden has made his point and gets the story moving, the language gets dialed back a bit and the focus switches over to the action.  But beyond that, I appreciated the messiness of Cricket's life and Blagden's willingness to keep it messy.

Golden, by Jessi Kirby

Every year, the seniors in Mr. Kinney's class write a journal in which they describe their hopes for their future, seal their writings in an envelope, and leave it with the teacher.  Ten years later, he returns it to them so they can be reminded of what they thought and felt at that crossroads in their life.  This year, current senior Parker Frost is helping Mr Kinney send these journals back to their owners when she finds the journal of the late Julianna Farnetti.

Julianna and her boyfriend Shawn were the perfect couple - the school's golden pair - when they disappeared into the icy waters of Summit Lake on their graduation day and were lost forever.  Holding the doomed girl's journal, Parker makes a fateful decision to break the seal and learn more about Julianna's last days.  She find more than she bargains for.

A loving tribute to poet Robert Frost as well as a painful and tragic story, this novel pulls all the heartstrings.  The pace occasionally flags, but when Kirby is on a roll, the story hits hard.  There are my usual favorite themes of integenerational miscommunication, learning to make your own future (and breaking free of parental expectations), and the pain of growing up and leaving home, but the stakes are raised in this treatment of them as we see the tragedy of Julianna's disappearance intersect with Parker's own life.

I was less taken with the supporting characters.  Parker's friends (her BFF Kat and her persistent suitor Trevor) left me unmoved.  They seem largely wasted and unnecessary - which is reinforced by the fact that they are conveniently absent during every major scene in the book.

To Be Perfectly Honest, by Sonya Sones

Colette is planning on taking her friends along with her for a fun-filled summer in Paris, but then her mother announces that she's just signed on to do a film in San Luis Obisbo (if you're unfamiliar with the thriving metropolis of SLO, look for the empty space on the map between San Francisco and LA!) and Mom's decided that she's taking Colette and her little brother along for some quality time.  Colette can't imagine a worse fate, until she meets a sexy guy named Connor who makes the summer much more interesting.

Or does it?  The problem is that Colette is a compulsive liar, prone to making up half of her adventures.  And for every truth that she tells, there's usually also a whopper mixed in!  That makes her real life very complicated and it spins the reader around a bit as well.

Sones's trademark is writing in verse, so this 480-page tome goes down in under two hours.  That doesn't make it thin and lightweight though.  She is truly one of the best in this little niche and she can craft in a lot of impact out of a fading thought or an angst-ridden title.   As for the story, it is pure predictable romance, but the ever-present deceit is a nice twist.  And the story itself is really stolen by Colette's lisping and potty-mouthed little brother.