Sunday, December 27, 2015
Ship of Dolls, by Shirley Parenteau
The exchange of the dolls is a historical fact that was also the setting of one of my favorite books (The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson) which focuses on the story of the dolls that Japan sent to the United States in return. It's fascinating material for novelization and it's interesting how very different these two books are. Larson's book is a rather metaphysical book that attributes all sorts of magic to the dolls, while Parenteau's book is fairly firmly set in reality.
There's a great deal of sentimentality and wholesomeness to this book that might make the jaded reader wince (this book will upset far fewer adults than the ones I've been reading recently!). Lexie is a creature of her time (the 1920s), dutifully following expectations and living within her grandmother's strict conservative expectations. But she is also a deceptively strong and empowered girl. She makes quite a few poor choices, but she realizes her mistakes and is haunted by her conscience. And even when she would love nothing better than to hurt people who have hurt her, she is able to put aside her desire for vengeance and do what must be done. Certainly, her decision late in the story to give her most treasured possession away to someone who needs it more is heartbreaking and heartwarming. Throughout the story, we see Lexie fearlessly stand up for herself and eventually make the right choices in the end.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Infandous, by Elana K. Arnold
This is the sort of novel which is guaranteed to upset sensitive parents. Between the profanity, sex, and drug use in the first dozen pages, this is a book begging to be banned. The intensity of the subject matter seems inappropriate for a book targeted at teens. But as a novel about a teenager living through a micro tragedy, it's a powerful read.
Arnold intersperses Seph's story with some less-familiar tellings of myths and fairy tales (focusing on the gorier and sexually-violent elements). The intent is not so much a feminist retelling, but simply to highlight the extremely dangerous world that these stories portray. As Seph herself says at one point, the whole empowerment project feeling "belittling." There is a weak attempt to tie these interludes into the main story by claiming that Seph has developed an interest in myths and stories, but it felt like a stretch. However, it made for good reading and it also opened a plausible, but entirely unexpected and brutal twist at the end.
There is also the wonderful daughter-mother dynamic between Seph and her mother. While we don't get much opportunity to hear her mother's voice, Seph's adoration is undeniable -- a mixture of need, jealousy, and protectiveness that she waxes eloquently about. I loved the complexity and the opportunity to hear an expression of child-parent relationship that moved beyond frustration and anger. And the one-sided exploration of that relationship made its pathos all the more strong.
Posted by Paul at 2:43 PM No comments:
Friday, December 25, 2015
Extraordinary Means, by Robyn Schneider
Faced with an incurable disease, a society that pities and fears them, and a longing for a normal life, this novel explores a wide array of issues, both emotional and ethical. And it also finds time to explore a touching and rewarding romance between two young people united by the same threat to their survival, coping with it in very different ways.
The result is utterly stunning. Dying teens as subject matter is of course going to be heartbreaking literary material, but in the hands of an excellent writer, you can do amazing things with it. The obvious reference point is John Green's philosophical and witty The Fault In Our Stars and Schneider dutifully acknowledges the debt. However, this book is quite different. Schneider's interest is in the social/emotional effects of incurable disease: how society treats the sufferers as well as how they respond to that treatment. And her interest is not just literary. Schneider holds a degree in medical ethics from UPenn and this informs fairly lucid discussions in the story of topics ranging from alternative therapy to the prioritization of treatment. The result is an intelligent novel that brings up a lot of deep thoughts. That it places all of this amid vivid characters, a touching friendship, and a heartbreaking story is a bonus. The result is haunting and memorable.
Posted by Paul at 10:28 AM No comments:
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen
A charming story of the many ways that families and friends can support each other. I disliked the rather cruel way in the story that Ashley's needs were shortchanged and her intellect belittled while Stewart's social ineptitude is frequent glossed over. However, in general, the novel has some good messages about the need to stand up against bullying.
There are other things that stand out in this book. As usual, I appreciate the attempt to show both the strengths and flaws of the adults alongside the kids (it isn't just the kids who bicker -- the grownups are equally as skilled). And, as much as this is a message book, the sermon is not heavy handed, giving us a good story as well.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Alex As Well, by Alyssa Brugman
An interesting look at an intersex child. Brugman struggles a bit with how to present the story, trying both an internal dialogue between Alex's masculine and feminine sides and interspersing her mother's exasperated online confidences about her struggles to understand her child. The latter is painful reading as the mother is incredibly self-centered and abusive. And it also distracts us from the more important story of Alex's own growth. That there will be people who will hurt Alex, we can be fairly certain, but seeing so much of it really adds little to the story itself (after all, I imagine that Alex can do a pretty decent job of hurting herself without her parents' help). A subplot about a fashion modeling career seemed similarly off-topic. I think the novel would have been strengthened by simply focusing on Alex herself as she discovers how to interact with her peers and become the person she wants to be.
Posted by Paul at 11:14 AM No comments:
Monday, December 21, 2015
P.S. I Still Love You, by Jenny Han
A cluttered, less focused, and weaker follow-up to one of my favorite Jenny Han books. In general, Han does a wonderful job exploring not only themes of romance but also of friendship and of familial ties. All that is present here, but it so much more awkwardly assembled. She's put in a whole bunch of subplots (cyberbullying, an elder sister's absence, a party for the nursing home residents, getting Dad to start dating again, etc.) and little of it fits together. The writing, usually so brilliant, is sloppy (and sloppily edited) (howlers include a metal box which "has eroded from the rain and snow and dirt" that the protagonist "wash[es] in the sink so it gleams again"). The ending is even more annoying, doing a last minute flip that contradicts much of the rest of the story -- the worst sort of surprise ending. All of this is shocking given Han's excellent prior track record and even the strong start of this novel.
Posted by Paul at 1:57 PM No comments:
Friday, December 18, 2015
Conversion, by Katherine Howe
An interesting premise where Howe, inspired by a real-life outbreak of mysterious symptoms at a private school in 2012, combined that story with her knowledge of Salem's unfortunate events, to create a novel about the intense emotional pressures that girls face around graduation. I found that to be a clever concept and the storytelling to be exquisite. I'm less of a fan of the actual story, but that is because the subject matter has always seemed distasteful to me. The combination of egocentricity, prejudice, and sheer spiritual vacuum that is exhibited at Salem holds about as much appeal as a slasher movie for me. But the story works and I certainly finished the book.
Posted by Paul at 11:46 AM No comments:
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Galgorithm, by Aaron Karo
Billed as a book for John Green fans, Karo has some of the funny attitude of Green, but lacks the insight and the depth of that author. The story moves briskly, but Karo is entirely too self-conscious about the potentially offensive nature of his material and refuses to play it for full comedic effect. And rather than run with it (and apologize later), he bends over backwards to show that Shane is really a Good Guy. That he may be, but it makes him look like a bit of a wuss (as Shane himself notes, you should never run around and apologize all the time -- perhaps Karo should have taken his character's advice?). There's a lot of romantic tension between Shane and Jak, but you kind of expect them to work through it at the end so you don't hold your breath a lot. And the teachers are pretty dopey for what tries hard to be a smart comedy (hint: awkward teachers are not funny!). In the end, the story couldn't really ever get serious enough to talk about what makes relationships work and it refused to go over the top and make the whole thing funny.
Posted by Paul at 8:55 PM No comments:
Monday, December 14, 2015
The Secrets We Keep, by Trisha Leaver
Leaver goes through great pains to explain how the story is even remotely plausible, but I think that misses the point. While this novel is a fairly pedestrian high school drama, full of mean girls and jealous plots, it has a more interesting parallel track. In this higher story, Ella's struggle to be her sister becomes a means to grieve for her, moving beyond both her childhood love and her adolescent jealousy to achieve a mature acceptance. Seen in this light, the story (while still predictable) is quite clever and original.
Posted by Paul at 10:15 AM No comments:
Saturday, December 12, 2015
Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, by Sara Farizon
She knows that she likes girls and is fairly convinced that this is not a temporary phase, but she struggles with coming out for fear of how her friends and family will react. Her father, in particular, is quite conservative and she has observed how other gay Iranian-Americans were treated by the emigrant community when they announced their sexual identity. The arrival of a very exotic foreign student at her school adds urgency to the matter and also gives Leila some additional problems.
I found the book both amusing and touching. Leila has a great sense of humor and there are lots of fun moments through the book. This in no way detracts from the seriousness of her concerns or the struggles she goes through, but rather keeps things light and draws us to her. The characters, in general, are largely portrayed in a way that makes them sympathetic and familiar, whether it is neglected friends or anxious parents. Aside from the sheer evil of the bullying Saskia (and even she can elicit some sympathy!), these are characters with whom we can relate.
Posted by Paul at 1:34 PM No comments:
Wednesday, December 09, 2015
When You Leave, by Monica Ropal
This is a surprisingly effective story and I can easily call it one of the best novels of 2015. I was hooked from the beginning by one of the grittier and more interesting romances I had read in a long time. So I was pretty ticked off when the guy got murdered. But Ropal has a lot of skills in her pocket and, out of that crucial plot twist, she produces one of this year's most memorable heroines. Cass is no shrinking violet and she has a dedication and bravery completely unknown to YA. All of the characters are strong, in fact, and there is a refreshing bluntness to the way that they interact with each other. I particularly liked the development of Cass and her silent friend Mattie's relationship that will have many readers scratching their heads.
Ropal doesn't waste time with the misunderstandings that so many writers use to drag a story out. This is a story that instead continually puts out and just as steadily surprises. And it does hurt to have a female character that can fight off the bad guys without a big bad boyfriend to defend her. These are coarse characters and the story isn't pretty, but the storytelling is compelling.
Posted by Paul at 7:51 PM No comments:
Tuesday, December 08, 2015
Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen
A bit darker than Dessen's more recent novels and notably better than most of them. Dessen is, as always, a great writer, but she has grown complacent in the last decade or so as she has found a successful formula and stuck to it. Too often, her stories become tired rehashes of the old romantic boy-helps-girl-open-up chestnut. To this work's credit, the romance doesn't even kick in until page 251.
In this one, she tries try to expand a bit, but it's mostly back into territory she explored in her earlier novel, Dreamland -- girl is unable to seek help from grownups and so suffers until she finally gets brave enough to ask for help. So, we're basically waiting for that moment to arrive. At the same time, not much else actually happens and there's a real pacing problem. So much so that the last ten or so pages of the book is a massive epilogue in which all the loose ends get wrapped in retrospect (i.e., rather than actually showing us the resolution, we get told how it all ended). This is pretty unsatisfactory, but after 400 pages of build-up, Dessen probably needed to close down the story. I wish she had started that wind-down about 200 pages earlier!
Posted by Paul at 2:26 PM No comments:
Sunday, November 29, 2015
The Last Time We Say Goodbye, by Cynthia Hand
While Hand acknowledges that the story is inspired by her own tragedy, I'm prone to accept her assertion that it is a work of fiction. Still, having lost a loved one to suicide obviously helps her to flesh out a story which is rich with detail.
Premature death and grieving for it are common YA themes and this story does not break any particular new ground, but it is exceptionally well-written. So, of all of the many options available for this subgenre, I'd recommend this one in particular. The setting is realistic, the characters deep and compelling, and the story well-told. Unlike so many other examples, Hand manages to tell her story without the tired tripe of recounting the Five Stages of Grief (in order!) -- Lexie's progress is more organic. And finally, for the detail-obsessed, Hand's description of Lincoln Nebraska is spot-on (although lacking the much-anticipated Runza reference!).
Posted by Paul at 10:57 AM No comments:
Finding Mr. Brightside, by Jay Clark
From the odd premise, the unrealistic freedom that these kids enjoy, and the beautiful way everything sorts out, this is a hard one to swallow. And while some lip service is paid to what should be awkward in this story (grief, guilt, and impact of drug abuse), not much is developed. The story isn't too big into consequences or repercussions. In fact, it isn't really too much into detail. The characters are interesting and the premise has potential, but little is developed.
Posted by Paul at 9:11 AM No comments:
Saturday, November 28, 2015
Everything That Makes You, by Moriah McStay
The novel, according to the blurb, is a what-if thriller about how one girl's life would be different if a crucial moment in her childhood had turned out differently. However, you would never realize that this was the purpose of the novel if you hadn't read the blurb (which I in fact did not do until after I finished reading the book). So, instead, what I read was a story that alternated chapters between two girls with similar names (Fi and Fiona) who seemed to move in the same social circles (they had the same friends) but for some mysterious reason never interacted with each other. One of them starts off with a sucky life but rises above her set-backs. The other one starts off golden and goes down in flames. The idea that they were supposed to be the same person (in parallel universes) never even occurred to me.
Now, the fact that I completely missed the entire premise of the story would normally lead me to disqualify myself as a reviewer, but in this case I think it's my point: When the writer can't tell the story without a summary (and the summary is not actually part of the book), the story isn't well told and cannot stand on its own. Knowing the premise now, I love the idea of the story, but I shouldn't need a publicist's intervention in order to appreciate the book.
Posted by Paul at 3:14 PM No comments:
Little Peach, by Peggy Kern
This short, tightly written, and utterly brutal story is as compelling as it is stomach churning. Michelle is a rough and crude character, and her behavior can be at times mystifying, but the story is told with such sympathy and insight that I felt drawn in the entire time. I wished for a more uplifting ending to provide some sort of catharsis, but Kern knows better than to sweeten a story where, as Michelle puts it, "there isn't a magic place for kids like us." Haunting and essential.
Posted by Paul at 3:02 PM No comments:
Saturday, October 31, 2015
My Heart and Other Black Holes, by Jasmine Warga
Roman looks like a popular guy and seems to have lots of people who like him. But since the day that his younger sister died while he was babysitting her, he hasn't been able to forgive himself. When the two of them meet, ostensibly to plan their mutual suicide pact, they find that they have a lot in common. And Aysel, who has never imagined that someone could ever like her, begins to doubt that she wants to go through with killing herself with him.
An interesting take on the subject of teen suicide and depression, but the story is terribly predictable. While we are supposed to see these two as clinically depressed, the presentation of their condition makes them seem terribly self-absorbed, which makes them hard to sympathize with. They are richly drawn, but come off as mopey and stuck on themselves.
Posted by Paul at 7:02 PM No comments:
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Vanishing Girls, by Lauren Oliver
Oliver has a good collection of best sellers under her belt now and that tends to encourage experimentation. This novel is full of the stuff. In addition to a complex narrative that switches back and forth between the girls' voices, the timeline also shifts between past and future, leaving the reader just slightly off-balance. She's interspersed online news stories (complete with readers comments) and some random photographs. The former works pretty well and speeds up some of the more tedious details in the plot, but the photographs really didn't work for me. They are marginal to the story and mostly distract the reader. Overall, I get why Oliver would be itchy to experiment with her storytelling, but the resulting novel becomes hard to read. The plot twist at the end takes a while to digest and seems a bit of a stretch.
Posted by Paul at 4:19 PM No comments:
Friday, October 23, 2015
Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch
But as Meira's mission to recover a piece of the locket goes horribly wrong and the resistance fighters flee overland to the Kingdom of Cordell, the game grows more complex. Ambitions and plots are unveiled, and Meira finds herself betrothed against her will (a situation she only frees herself from to fall into an even more precarious position). And so on it goes.
It's a complicated story in a complex setting with a romantic triangle, lots of blood and mayhem, and some good old destiny fulfillment. The action keeps moving but doesn't really amount to much in the end. The romances lack warmth (aside from a short hot kissing scene oddly juxtaposed in the midst of a battle), some subplots about gaining respect get sidetracked, and the final climactic showdown is a fizzle out in the end. And, throughout, a rather monotonous repetition of decapitations, endless blow by blow battle scenes, and exaggerated barriers (what's the point in telling us that doing something is impossible and then having the characters do it?). If you like detailed descriptions of every sword swing, you'll enjoy this, but the story seems to always take second place to the combat.
Posted by Paul at 6:42 PM No comments:
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Paper Things, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson
Gut wrenching and touching, this is a great novel in search of an audience. Who is the target audience for this book? The age of the protagonist would normally slot this book for middle schoolers, but the subject matter is far more mature for that. Outside of those of us who are "not acting our age," I fear there isn't much of a readership for this moving story of a brave young girl. More problematic is Ari, herself. She has a voice that is wise and mature far beyond her years. And so it is often quite jarring when she grows foolish and forgetful in a way that is entirely appropriate for a fifth grader but so out of character for her wise narration.
Posted by Paul at 8:16 PM No comments:
Sunday, October 18, 2015
Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale
A wildly convulsive story that combines material from the first two books, while introducing new and interesting characters to the adventure. We move through life in the swamp to dealing with exploitative adults to invasion and war -- the pace is unrelenting! It also felt very rushed at the end and failed to gel as we are pushed into a series of crazy coincidences and convenient resolutions.
This last book in the series is notably more political than its predecessor (which is saying something!). The Disneyfication of the covers of the books in the series (now featuring wide-eyed princesses) seems symptomatic of a storyline which has become far too self-conscious in its message-making. If this is truly the last book in the series, then I will be happy that it wrapped before becoming too precious in its social commentary.
But let me wrap on a positive note. From the beginning, I've enjoyed the strength of the female characters. Even in the face of men with weapons and greater physical strength, the girls always manage to come up with plausible counter-strategies that rely on intelligence, cunning, and bravery (although admittedly more violence in this book than the predecessors). And even in a story that accepts that girls are subjected to training in poise and demeanor that boys are spared, Hale finds empowerment instead of shame in such feminine curricula. Yes, you can have your cake and eat it daintily too!
Posted by Paul at 5:26 PM 1 comment:
Saturday, October 17, 2015
Better Than Perfect, by Melissa Kantor
A number of other readers seem to focus in on Juliet's decision (twice) to cheat on her boyfriend, but that particular bad choice worked for me from a dramatic standpoint. What I found harder to stomach was Juliet's privileged and coddled existence, and the lack of consequences for any of her decisions. Yes, I was a bit relieved (plot spoiler!) that we are saved from the predictable boyfriend-finding-out scene, but the fact that she can blow off her school and her scholarship and basically accepts no responsibility for flipping off all of these fantastic opportunities she gets handed was what bothered me. And I never could quite figure out what was so wonderful about her perfect boyfriend.
All that said, the plot is the classic learning-to-understand-yourself trope that fulfills all of the basic dramatic requirements of a YA novel. You start with the clueless slave to parental and peer expectations, you throw your little sheep for a loop with a few traumas, mix stuff up for a hundred+ pages, and end up with a cathartic Moment of Truth where the young person throws away their perfect life and decides to become a llama herder in Peru. It's beautiful and touching, and utterly unrealistic.
But hey, it's well written and a good read! Kantor does human interaction beautifully, capturing the imperfections of child and adult fairly and evenly. This makes Juliet's scenes with her parents particularly memorable and authentic. And they work so well, because these characters are anything but perfect, which is probably what makes them better....
Posted by Paul at 3:28 PM No comments:
Monday, October 12, 2015
Flashes, by Tim O'Rourke
Based on a popular self-published series of crime stories, this novel suffers from much of the hubris (and dearth of editorial intervention) that I tend to associate with the self-published. The author is a former police officer and he shows great comfort with writing about the profession, but his characters are stuff and lack much depth. The cops and the killer are stereotypes, and Charley herself lacks much of interest as a YA character. So, instead, the novel relies on its plot, which moves briskly (if somewhat improbably) towards a conclusion that some may find unsatisfactory but which is probably the best possible solution for its set-up.
[Disclosure: I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The book is scheduled for release on October 27th.]
Posted by Paul at 7:18 PM No comments:
Saturday, October 10, 2015
The Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes
With a plot not-so-full of surprises, the quality of this novel turns upon Holmes's strong writing and strong characters. In the beginning, I found Hallie's whining pretty annoying (and I could easily see why she didn't have any friends anymore!) but that made her blossoming into a strong-willed protagonist that much more compelling. The romance with Jonah never quite reaches its full potential, but you've got a lot of action to plot out here and some things had to give. I also wanted a more cathartic ending, but Holmes got everyone to where they needed to be (physically and emotionally) by the end, so the story did its job. I found it bracing, but realistic and thoughtful. A great combination of emotional growth drama and survival story.
Posted by Paul at 1:54 PM No comments:
Tuesday, October 06, 2015
I Was Here, by Gayle Forman
An interesting riff on both the themes of suicide and of finding the strength to live your life. Cody has a lot of strikes against her ranging from rural poverty to a broken family. And she makes a fair share of poor choices along the way. But she's got strength and perseverance and that makes her interesting. Less so the supporting cast and the love interest (I could have given all of them a pass!). But the story hits the good points and moves along at a crisp pace. Nothing spectacular, but a decent read.
Saturday, October 03, 2015
Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle
This novel is a rough story -- entertaining, but ultimately flawed. It works best as an apocalyptic thriller and less well as a polemical diatribe against religion and consumer culture. Unfortunately, it's the latter that really interests Coyle. We've seen paper tiger depictions of the evils of Evangelical Christianity before, and her particular take would be offensive if it were not so ludicrous. Even if you aren't distracted by her silly religion-bashing, the plot has an annoying habit of relying on belated reveals of plot points essential to the story (when the story makes less sense in the re-reading, you know you're having trouble!).
But hey, there's a sequel, so people found it entertaining enough to buy it!
Posted by Paul at 9:08 PM No comments:
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Faceless, by Alyssa Sheinmel
Maisie has suffered severe burns on her face -- damage which is so extensive that it has destroyed parts of her. The only solutions are skin grafts or another more exotic solution: a face transplant. This procedure will replace parts of her face with the parts of a cadaver. With misgivings, Maisie opts for the procedure, knowing it will be ghoulish to be "wearing" someone else's face for the rest of her life. The novel itself traces the recovery process and the difficulties of adjusting to life as her family and friends each have to come to grips with the change.
While the novel follows pretty familiar recovery territory (with plenty of grieving, anger, and acceptance to come down the pike), I liked it. Maisie can be awfully stuck on herself and convinced she knows what everyone else is thinking, but she reasons things out and her insights are fascinating to read about. Her friends and family are similarly multifacted and I enjoyed the growth in her relationship with her boyfriend Chirag and her best friend Serena, as well as her ongoing struggles with her mother. Sheinmel takes her time and devotes a lot of energy into these relationships, allowing us a number of different perspectives and, in the end, a fuller understanding of the ethical, moral, and emotional dilemmas of face transplants.
[Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. When I finish with it, I will donate the book to my local public library. The book was released on September 29th.]
Posted by Paul at 7:45 PM No comments:
Sunday, September 27, 2015
Hidden, by Donna Jo Napoli
Napoli always does great historical research to get her subjects right. But what makes her stories work best is when she is able to weave a compelling story to place into all that researched setting. One could fault her for some wishful modern sensibilities about the role of women, but nothing which clashes with or detracts from the story. The result is a beautifully-written tale about a strong and resourceful heroine with an ability to see far forward and change the lives of others.
Posted by Paul at 4:14 PM No comments:
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Tell Me, by Joan Bauer
And if you're confused by all this, you aren't alone! Joan Bauer, who excels at creating driven single-minded characters with quirky tastes, has created one of her most unfocused books. There are any number of plotlines here and most of them unravel before the book is done (most notably, the potential mean girl and nefarious entrepreneur subplots which fizzle away, but even the human trafficking story never really crystallizes). The end result is a story which never materializes, in striking contrast to Bauer's other novels.
Posted by Paul at 8:48 PM No comments:
Monday, September 21, 2015
Gone Too Far, by Natalie D. Richards
Borrowing a page quite liberally from Heathers, but without the black comedy, we have a classic story of revenge blown out of control. Piper is a believable young woman whose passion for justice slips into vengeance, without regard for the consequences. The fact that her adolescent mind then grossly overestimates her own importance is plausible and tragic. Thankfully, the adults provide a similarly plausible reality check. These are not terribly nice people, but they know their faults and the story has a very satisfying conclusion with a good last minute punch to the gut.
Posted by Paul at 8:28 PM No comments:
Saturday, September 19, 2015
Frosted Kisses, by Heather Hepler
What it isn't, however, is organized into any sort of theme. There's plenty of activity and stuff to read about here, but nothing which gives this novel a purpose. And no matter how likable Penny is or readable the writing, that gaping hole is a big deal. Simply tying some of the various ideas together (for example, the importance of family or loyalty to friends) would have done a lot to improve the book. But aside from the fact that parents (and fathers in particular) come across as pretty horrible in this story, there isn't much here.
[Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. After finishing with it, I will be donating the book to my local public library. The book is scheduled for release on October 27th.]
Posted by Paul at 12:09 PM No comments:
Monday, September 14, 2015
Upside-Down Magic, by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins
The first of a series that merges a Harry Potter magic school theme with that very American sensibility for celebrating diversity, and aims it at a younger audience. It's probably a winning formula and the trio of heavy hitters behind it is impressive. Much more impressive for me was that for a team-written book it was surprisingly difficult to identify each writer's contribution. Jenkins in particular has a very notable dry humor which permeates the story, yet Mlynowski and Myracle are formidable presence as well. I'm not a fan of middle grade series books, but I imagine this will be around for a while!
[Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. Once I finish with it, I'll be donating it to my local public library. The book is scheduled for release on September 29th.]
Saturday, September 12, 2015
The Sound of Letting Go, by Stasia Ward Kehoe
I get the conflicted state of Daisy's mind over whether she wants Steven there or gone, but there really is no attempt to come to peace with the decision. Instead, she waffles back and forth and mopes. Nor does she ever really confront the other issues in her life (her relationship with boyfriend Dave, her applications to music schools, etc.). That lack of closure left me feeling like the story just sort of stopped and never properly finished, and while I got a clear sense of how difficult it is to have an autistic member in the family, I got no sense of growth or revelation.
Posted by Paul at 1:12 PM No comments:
Thursday, September 10, 2015
All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven
A rambling and somewhat disjointed look at teen mental illness. It starts off as a quirky romance that is filled with marvelous facts about the State of Indiana -- the kind of cute novel where oddball kids make appealing partners. But somewhere towards the end, Niven decides to take the story into darker territory and have Finch completely unravel. She claims in the Afterword that that was her intent from the beginning, but the story could have gone in many directions and it felt like a detour to me. And because of that shift, I felt like we lost a lot of Violet's story. I get that Finch's illness makes for a more dramatic ending, but it is the less interesting story in the end.
Posted by Paul at 8:40 PM No comments:
Monday, September 07, 2015
Monkey Wars, by Richard Kurti
This nuanced allegory about the rise of totalitarianism set amid the feral primates of Kolkata is one of the more imaginative books of the year. Superficially, it will call to mind the Planet of the Apes, but Kurti's writing is more informed by history. He makes numerous sharp observations about the psychology of terror and propaganda, and the way that totalitarianism both rises and falls. It's an extremely gory novel, but one with extraordinarily important observations to make about human behavior.
This is a "boy" book, in the sense that it focuses on action, at the expense of depicting most emotional growth (with the important exception of Mico's emergence as a liberal thinker). Most of the characters die by the end, so it's best to not get invested (Kurti cruelly spends significant time developing characters who are doomed to be brutally murdered within a chapter or two). And the story is stubbornly androcentric. Females play bit (although sometimes crucial) parts in the story which is overwhelmingly about males posturing and jostling for authority and power. One could blame that on the species depicted, but it is a shame in a story which otherwise uses the primate cover as a thin veil for the human souls expressed.
Posted by Paul at 5:01 PM No comments:
Wednesday, September 02, 2015
The Lightning Queen, by Laura Resau
Resau has a bit of niche writing rich stories about the indigenous people of Mexico that combine a Hispanic magical realism tradition with a modern kid-friendly sensibility. The results are wonderful novels where the story itself is less important than the characters. And thus a story synopsis cannot do justice to the immersive fun of the book which sends us to another world full of colorful characters and meaningful human relationships. This book does it all one better, bringing two very unique cultures together: the Mexteco people (of whom Resau has written before) and the less-known world of the Mexican Romani. Truth be told, I hadn't even realized that the Romani had reached the Americas and loved the idea of bringing them to light. While I might well have enjoyed even more about the gypsy caravan and its people, what is present is fascinating and interesting.
[Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. After finishing with the book, I will be donating it to my local public library. The book is scheduled for release on October 27th.]
Posted by Paul at 8:47 PM No comments:
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Royally Lost, by Angie Stanton
There are all sorts of reasons to hate this book. You can despise the whiny Becca who gives a black mark to teen cheeseheads by constantly complaining about her horrible privileged existence. Or you can despise the paper tiger of Nikolai's parents who effortlessly are convinced of the virtue of Nikolai's plans to reform their country simply by listening to him speak. Or you can hate the overly simple fourth-grade vocabulary that the book is written in. Or, while your at it, you can hate the superficial tour-guide narrative of Europe (courtesy, undoubtedly of notes from the author's own trip).
But the one thing you can give the author credit for is getting the details of Dane County Airport (MSN) down correctly. I'd have never forgiven her for screwing that up! And you can give the book credit for at least being an interesting story (albeit written for little children or teens in remedial English classes). I get that it's a fluffy beach read, that intends to exploit young women's fantasies about meeting a real-life prince. I didn't expect great literature, but at least give your readers credit for being literate!
Friday, August 28, 2015
Dangerous, by Shannon Hale
I love Shannon Hale's fantasy books -- the Bayern series and the Princess Academy books are great -- but she really doesn't know what to do with science fiction. She's not a science geek and whenever this book tries to get into the hard science it falls into absurdity. And meanwhile, while trying to provide a plausible scientific background for the story, Hale lets the plot slip away. Most of the story makes little or no sense.
No where is the story less incomprehensible than in the "love story" between Maisie and Wilder -- a coupling that is at best like the more obnoxious elements of Rory and Logan's relationship in Gilmour Girls (sorry, if you were a fan!). How can we possibly believe that she is lusting after the guy who tried to kill her family twenty pages ago? And, if that's really how she feels, how can we feign interest in someone so shallow? Yes, it's silly (and Hale is trying to go for silly), but it's also an ungodly mess!
Sunday, August 23, 2015
Zac & Mia, by A. J. Betts
But things don't end up quite the way the two of them expect. And in the ensuing months, these two young people go on a trip across the country and across their hearts that has them exploring what it means to be alive and asking what second chances are really worth.
The story bears a superficial resemblance to John Green's The Fault In Our Stars, but eschews much of the humor and irony of that more famous work. Obviously, both books dwell a lot on death, but Betts isn't trying to answer the Big Questions that Green went after. And the tone of this book is much lower key. For that reason, Zac & Mia is a much harder book to digest. I found it a bit jumpy, with awkward transitions between major plot developments and an annoying obsession with the turning of tables and plot twists. But it is also harder reading because Betts's book lacks the Hollywood ending that made TFIOS so filmable.
I liked Zac & Mia's humble scrappiness and the story line's interests roam in interesting ways. Betts, for example, develops the characters of Zac's and Mia's families and friends (in a way that John Green never would have done) and much is made of history and roots. The relationship of the two young people is central but it exists within a social network that sees healthy development in this novel. And even the relationship between Zac and Mia has nuances and complex layers of doubt and hope that felt more realistic.
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Untwine, by Edwidge Danticat
Danticat writes beautifully and the novel is full of gorgeous flowing prose, which speaks elegantly of Giselle's Haitian roots. However, the subject matter is well-trod and this book adds little new to the subject of grief. There are extensive observations about the process of healing, more than a few attempts to bring up the duality and psychic connection between twins, and a rather bizarre subplot about the investigation of the cause of the accident. But none of this really gels and we're left with a beautiful story and no place to go with it.
[Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. After I finish with it, I'll be donating the book to my local public library. The book is scheduled for release on September 29th.]
Posted by Paul at 8:30 PM No comments:
Monday, August 17, 2015
First Kiss (Then Tell), edited by Cylin Busby
It's a lightning fast read, as each of the stories are very short (you'll spend almost as much time reading the bios as you do reading the stories), but each is lovely in their own way. There is, however, a sense that we've heard the story a bit too often by the time we reach the end. Twenty-five kisses and most of them pretty much tell the same story of fear, awkwardness, and self-realization. You'll come to understand that most first kisses are disappointments, but also reference points for the later ones that really matter. That's a great lesson to tell young readers, but the kids may get tired of hearing it the tenth or twentieth time they read it. And finally, one could fault Busby for having so few recollections from boys (who apparently don't remember their kisses) or for not attempting to explore a world outside of upper middle class suburbia (are there no kisses of color?). Still, I couldn't imagine a better focus for a collection of YA short stories.
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Fan Art, by Sarah Tregay
This is a strange novel and I'm not quite sure how to read it. Tregay avoids the usual stereotypes of gay YA. Jamie's parents are accepting. There's a small amount of static from his peers, but for the most part, Jamie's reluctance to fully come out is just a fear of losing his friend's affection. But the whole thing seems blown out of proportion. Why does the publication of the fan art have to be such a big deal? How is Jamie even vaguely forced to publish it? Why do so if it threatens his ability to keep his orientation under wraps? And, why, if he is so afraid to come out, does he make so little attempt to hide it? And, as for the boys, given the constant mixed signals they keep sending each other, we're all pretty certain how this is all going to end up by the 100th page. So, what exactly was the point of it?
Still, as an example of a more liberal contemporary view of being a gay teen (in a world where prejudice does not in fact play a defining role), this could be read as a rom-com. In that mindset, the set ups would seem funny and we could just enjoy the fun of two people finding each other. But then, Tregay throws in a hint of menace that suggests that it isn't that simple and that she wants to make a statement about how hard it is to be a gay teen. And so I get confused again about what we're doing here.
Friday, August 14, 2015
Sanctuary, by Jennifer McKissack
A classic ghost story set in the 1940s with a barely adolescent protagonist, the story has a languorous pace and a classy tone. However, it is not YA and it is not even a children's book. There's a fairly low key and mature romance but none of the elements of YA (coming of age, finding one's place, evolving relationships with family or friends, etc.) that one would expect in the genre are present. It's a fine enough read, but not really the type of book that interests me, nor in fact the usual fare carried by Scholastic Press!
[Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. Once I finish with it, I'll be donating the book to my local public library. The book is scheduled for release on September 29, 2015.]
Posted by Paul at 7:44 PM No comments:
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer
For lack of a better way to describe this novel, I'll call it a cross between Dead Poets Society and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It's an entrancing riff on the boarding school/psych ward genre with an incredibly melancholy whiff of the supernatural thrown in. The story is well managed -- the narrative stays focused and the characters are kept to a minimum, each experiencing nice development and character growth. My only disappointment was with how Jam's own story gets resolved, but that may be more my frustration with the character than the author and you can't win them all! It's not a strikingly original work, but it is a good story, beautifully told.
Posted by Paul at 5:02 PM No comments:
Sunday, August 09, 2015
Panic, by Lauren Oliver
I like to think of this as a dystopian novel set in the real world. If you've ever been to Columbia county in upstate New York, you know the bitter nature of the poverty there, and it's easy to visualize how that landscape that could create a real-world hunger games. The novelty of that idea captured my interest and kept me plowing through this novel. But it became a drudge, mostly because the story is so slow moving and the characters so uninteresting. This isn't a story about heroes or rising above your circumstances, but rather about the soul crushing nature of rural poverty. And without redemption, we're stuck with characters who yell, swear, and cry, but never really grow up. And with the action spread out over 400 pages, that's a lot of yelling, swearing, and crying to get through.
Posted by Paul at 8:00 PM No comments:
Friday, August 07, 2015
George, by Alex Gino
If the story sounds familiar, there's an unfortunate reason for that. According to the author, they spent twelve years gestating this story. Gino probably should have worked faster as it is hard to not compare this book with Gracefully Grayson and unfortunately, in comparison, George comes up short. The two books tell basically the same story about a pre-adolescent girl in a boy's body trying out for a female role in the school play. But Gracefully Grayson explores not just the physical elements of being transgender (surreptitious dress up, etc.) but also goes into great depth about the protagonist's feelings about gender and being respected. George is a colder, more rational, fourth grader -- noting web articles he's read about psychological studies and hormonal treatments. The discussions between George and her best friend are largely fact-driven. The overall approach is clinical and less engaging, and the characters are flat as a result. If George was the only book on the market, it would be an important pioneering book, but arriving late on the scene it just feels timid.
[Disclaimer: I received a solicited copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. After finishing my review, I will be donating the book to my local public library. George will be released on August 25.]
Posted by Paul at 7:42 PM No comments:
The Gospel of Winter, by Brendan Kiely
A very cerebral look at the emotional ravages of child sexual abuse, placed loosely in the real sex scandals of the Roman Catholic Church in 2002. Kiely's debut is powerful and really gets deep into the psychology of denial that feeds child sexual abuse. And it's very very creepy to hear the grownups justify their actions.
That said, I would protest that this isn't YA, even through Simon and Schuster have tossed it there and promoted it as such. It's a lazy assumption that any book about teens is a children's book. Rather than being about the experience of being a young person per se, this is a story about lost innocence and the weakness of adults to protect children -- it's a book for adults to wallow in guilt.
Posted by Paul at 3:55 PM No comments:
Friends for Life, by Andrew Norriss
The mystery, though, is Jessica. She's a ghost, a lost soul wandering the Earth until she can fulfill a particular mission that is unknown to her. The fact that Francis, Andi, and Roland are the only three people who can see her lead them to think that her mission somehow involves them. They want to help her figure this out, but are also reluctant to do so because they realize that solving Jessica's mystery will mean that she will leave them.
A cute story about friendship and using it to fight feelings of isolation. Jessica's supernatural presence is an interesting twist -- giving the book a Ghost flavor -- but the story doesn't dwell on it very much. Being a British middle grade book, though, there's not even a kiss in the story and no one's parents seem to mind that the kids spend a lot of unchaperoned time together. This gives the book an innocent feel, even as it addresses the grim topics of bullying and teen suicides.
[Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book for the purpose of making an unbiased review. After I am finished, I will donate this copy to my local public library. The book is scheduled for release on August 25.]
Posted by Paul at 2:22 PM No comments:
Sunday, August 02, 2015
Isla and the Happily Ever After, by Stephanie Perkins
In general, this story follows the basic romance formula (there will be moments of discovery, misunderstandings and fights, and well-meaning but clueless adult intervention), but what makes it enjoyable are the flaws of our heroine. Isla is smart and insightful with a good mix of impulsive thrown in, and she makes some really big mistakes. However, with her intelligence and decent head on her shoulders, she owns her errors pretty well. The rather unrealistic nature of their situation (unsupervised and unrestricted access to Europe not least of all) and a disappointing (but not unpredictable) overly happy ending aside, this is an enjoyable couple to follow. Their anxieties and concerns felt real and legitimate, and you'll love to read about them.
Posted by Paul at 12:13 PM No comments:
Blind, by Rachel DeWoskin
A long and ultimately fascinating look at the process of a formerly-sighted person learning to survive without vision. DeWoskin obviously did an amazing amount of research and she confidently describes the various challenges of recovery and the process of developing strategies to compensate. She also works in a fair amount of sympathy for how normal adolescent anxieties interact with those processes. I felt like I really understood how a recently-blinded teen would act and Emma had a very authentic feeling to her.
What I liked less was the clutter of this story. My attempt above to explain the role of the suicide storyline in the novel is far more coherent than it is ever made in the book. Instead, this secondary story never really gelled with the rest and was full of many largely unanswered questions and plot points. I'm sure it initially seemed like a fantastic idea, but in the end the death of a peer simply hangs limply alongside the far more fascinating rebirth of Emma. Some brutal excising of that part of the story would have trimmed out a hundred or so pages but given this novel a better focus.
Posted by Paul at 12:03 PM No comments:
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