Wednesday, May 28, 2014
The story itself is told in a broken narrative, with each chapter beginning with a police investigator trying to figure out what happened to the missing girl, and then the chapter switches back to the past where Rose and Pearl become acquainted, the dress is made, and things eventually fall apart. More so than normal, the flashback approach is cumbersome and difficult to work through. In the interest of being mysterious and "lyrical," the writing is dense and tricky. I found it a lot of work to read and, in the end, not really worth the trouble (too much back tracking and confusion whenever I drifted and lost focus). Reading shouldn't be that much work!
Sunday, May 25, 2014
The real story, however, is about Briana and her attempts to fit in at the school. A recent transfer, Bree has tried to be accepted in order to appease her overbearing mother (an alumna). Winning a part in Hamlet is part of that goal. When she fails to do so, Briana finds herself saddled with the throwaway role of being the play's "Social Media Director," which involves stirring up excitement for the production through Twitter.
The blurb for the book makes these two plots sound intertwined but appears to largely be describing the final fifty pages of the book (where the body count rises and the plot's coherency fades). The book succeeds best as a boarding school story -- a tired but usually effective setting for coming-of-age stories of under-supervised teens. The overbearing mother fits in well and Briana has some interesting character flaws (vanity, insecurity, etc.) that are promising. The homicides (which really don't kick into full gear until 3/4 of the way through the book), in contrast, just seemed distracting. It felt like Davies took a decent draft of a book about Briana and tossed in some murders (and a Twitter account or two) to sell the MS to Scholastic as a horror piece.
[Disclosure: I received an ARC of this book in return for my consideration and review. No compensation was received.]
Friday, May 23, 2014
A truly remarkable story that shows a side of Iran that no one probably wants to see (or would believe even exists!). I was fascinated by Farizan's accounts of gay bars, prostitutes, and illegal parties (keep in mind that consuming alcohol is illegal in Iran, so what does one make of opium!?). But once we move beyond the titillation of these illicit scenes, there is a warm and authentic story of not just these two young women, but of their parents and friends as well. The actual romance that forms the center of the story didn't have a lot of heat to it, but the honestly and depth of Sahar's feelings of loss, betrayal, and despair are heartbreaking and moving. I was drawn to the book by the novelty of the story, but stayed for the appeal of the characters.
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
An accident that should have been fatal to Mila proves to be just a minor scratch. But the scratch itself reveals that Mila's innards are mechanical and she is something very different from the sixteen year-old girl she thought she was. Soon, she and Mom are on the run, pursued by a wide variety of forces of evil. Mila learns that she is an android built to be an ultimate fighting machine. She proves to be a fierce fighter, but her fears and anxieties prove to be a handicap. Can she overcome her reluctance to harm the people who want to kill her and save herself and her mother?
It's an odd story that starts as a basic teen romance but quickly moves into high speed chase and violence. Comparing the first 100 pages and the last 100 pages are striking -- as if Meg Cabot met Tom Clancy. I suppose it works in the sense that the beginning of the book gives us the background to appreciate Mila's human side, while her ability to drive a Camaro around downtown DC in a high speed chase comes much later. I'm happier with the moody adolescent girl we begin with than the gradually dehumanized machine that she becomes (despite her struggles to the contrary). But I guess I understand the appeal of the message that even a "normal" teenage girl can become a super deadly killing machine.
For those interested in the character, her struggles continue in the sequel that was just released last week.
Saturday, May 17, 2014
Vanessa, his girlfriend, can tell that something is wrong but she can't quite figure out what. Brendan is distant. He no longer seems to care about her. She suspects he must have fallen in love with someone else.
And then there's Angel, a transsexual who's been on the streets for the past couple of years. Early in the book, she randomly befriends Brendan, and she'll help direct him through his confusion, but her purpose to the story is really to show his future by telling the story of her past.
It's an ambitious original story exploring gender fluidity. Told in verse through shifting points of view, it tries to capture not just the process of identifying with transexualism, but also the impact that such decisions have on others. Clark's depiction is authentic, showing that a great deal of research went into this. Her poetry is sophisticated and often quite good.
In my opinion, however, the story itself tries to bite off a bit too much. While we get a great story about Brendan's acceptance of his identity, neither that story, nor in fact any of the subplots, truly wraps up. Rather, this is an ongoing adventure, whether it is the relationship with Vanessa, Vanessa's own self-realizations, Angel's story and her own growth, or the overall future choices that Brendan will make. That's realistic but frustrating for the reader. It's an enticing story, but one which is left (for reasons of space or just ambition?) unfinished. I wanted to learn more about Vanessa!
A tighter story with fewer subplots could have done more. For example, dropping the character of Angel altogether might have allowed the space to take the main narrative farther to a more satisfactory point of departure.
Thursday, May 15, 2014
A year later, Jane is still struggling with the psychological and physical trauma but determined to move on with her life. The question, though, is move on to where? Should she pursue her original dream of being an artist? Or should she follow the inspiration of all the people who helped her through the last year and pursue a career in nursing? In truth, she's not a natural in either (her artistry suffers from a loss of her muse and the physical challenge of learning to draw with her left hand; meanwhile, nursing requires stronger science skills than Jane has ever possessed).
Other themes also play a part in the story. There's romance in the air (both for her, as well as for her mother who has started to secretly date again). And finally, there are the never-ending letters from her "fans" -- people who tell her what an inspiration she is, much to her complete and utter astonishment!
While I still find Bingham's verse underwhelming (it takes a lot of skill to write a novel in verse!), I really did find the story more compelling this time around. There's a greater distance from the trauma and Jane is focused enough to lend a strong direction to this sequel. It's a more compelling adventure (moving on, rather than just healing). In sum, it just works better. And where the non-verse parts of Shark Girl were distracting, the letters from the fans in Formerly Shark Girl are well grounded to the story and provide an well-integrated Greek Chorus to supplement Jane's own musing.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
While the story is lighthearted and cute, I found it a bit hard to enjoy a story about a group of children intending to sabotage their older sister's wedding. Despite numerous warnings from all the grown-ups around them, they persist in their goal. And their stubborn persistence made them seem more like selfish brats concerned with getting nice presents and having fun, than caring younger siblings. Perhaps younger readers won't be bothered by the story's inherent mean streak (the title itself is a misnomer - there is no "revenge" going on here; but rather, simple plotting), but it interfered with my own enjoyment of the book. And regardless of the happy ending, it was hard to not feel that a lesson in respecting people's choices and proper boundaries was called for.
A note on the cover: in the book, the girls resist wearing dresses and end up attending the wedding in tuxedos. Somehow, the marketing department at Scholastic didn't get that message!
[Disclaimer: I received the book from the publisher in return for my consideration and review. No other compensation was received. As is usual, I'm donating the book to the public library. This book will be released on May 25th.]
Saturday, May 10, 2014
Napoli loves to explore legends and myths. In this novel, she takes on the story of Noah. Genesis doesn't actually provide much detail and since this story doesn't actually focus on any of the known participants, she has a great deal of license to imagine instead what stowing away on the Ark might have been like. It's an interesting premise but surprisingly different than I imagined it would be. Much of Napoli's interest is in imagining life for the animals and the book focuses on how hard spending a year in the Ark would have been for human and animal passengers alike. It's a sort of brutal realism that doesn't quite work for a story like this (Genesis is not exactly the most realistic of books in the Bible!). And some might argue that her literal interpretation sort of misses the point.
Towards the end, Napoli makes a belated exploration into the entire mindset of being Noah and what that experience might have been like. It's an interesting digression and gets into territory that would have been much more interesting to explore. Overall, the book seemed a bit of a lost opportunity. Well-written, but simply not rising up to the glory of its source material.
Friday, May 09, 2014
No one writes as richly about seventeenth-century London as Mary Hooper. Beautiful historical detail fills this story, which will serve mostly to impress upon readers just how terribly hard life was - especially for an unattached woman. Hooper hasn't ventured far from the settings of her other books (and there is even a small cross-over to the heroines of her Petals in the Ashes and At the Sign of the Sugared Plum books), but this provides familiarity and lends her confidence to tell a slightly bolder story that mixes fiction and fact, and remains truly entertaining throughout.
The author has drawn out a pretty classic text-book case of anorexia nervosa (perhaps a bit more eager to blame the grown-ups than the media that normally gets the nod). It's a book with a mission (one that few of us would disagree with) but not much to sell it. The characters and story exist to scare or warn the reader of the perils of eating disorders. It seems unlikely that most young readers would be unfamiliar with the concept already.
If not original, is it still a story worth repeating? If someone reading this book learns enough from doing so that a death is averted, than some good will have been done. The problem, I fear, is that the book probably can't do that for the simple reason that the story illustrates so well: the behavior is not rational.
Sunday, May 04, 2014
Meg is convinced that this most recent relocation needs to their last. She wants answers to why they are hiding and has started sleuthing to figure out what is going on. She has also decided that, after numerous hasty departures, that she won't get attached to anyone or anything this time - no clubs, no friends, nothing to miss if she has to leave again. But that plan is thrown when she meets Ethan!
A little slow to start and periodically rough (the "rules for disappearing" at the beginning of each chapter are consistently silly and unnecessary), the story does pick up as it goes along. Also, important for a story with lots of subplots, Elston does a great job of tying everything together into a satisfying conclusion. Some of this gets a bit too neat and convenient, but it's a good piece of escapism (no idea, however, about whether the sequel coming out later this month can keep up the magic!). The romance did less for me than the action, but thankfully Meg and Ethan's relationship is not a critical part of the story.
Saturday, May 03, 2014
But the real adventure occurs when Misty finds a strange boy spying on her and her friends. Tracking him when he runs away, she finds that he is living alone in an abandoned house next door to the crazy "Witch Lady" who strikes terror in the local children. But it is his pastime - collecting other people's secrets - and how he does it (pulling them out of the trunk of a tree in the woods) that interests Minty.
If that synopsis sounds a bit odd, it's because the story is a bit hard to summarize. It's an odd mash-up of realistic middle school drama and junior supernatural lore. It's a story where your best friend's sister can be casting voodoo spells on your friend, but the biggest problem is that that same friend has failed to invite you to a pool party! As crazy as this all sounds, it actually works. There's just enough fantasy to seem magical and enough realism to be grounded.
The writing itself is functional and the characters fairly stock items, but the novel benefits from its clever and ambitious concept. When I cracked the book, I fully expected some tired fashionista agitprop and maybe a bunch of shallow clothes-obsessed girls gabbing about their fave brand names. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while the story does indeed center around clothing, it isn't really about it at all. There's plenty of wardrobe details here for the reader who craves that stuff, but the clothes are really just props (or maybe literary devices) here. And, as much as I'd like to chide young readers for caring too much about style and fashion (being a crotchety middle age guy!) I found these stories about self and self-expression to be surprisingly deep.
[Disclosure: The publisher supplied me with an unsolicited free copy of this book with the hope that I would review it. Upon finishing the review, I will donate the book to my local public library. No other compensation was received.]