Monday, March 30, 2015

The Break-Up Artist, by Philip Siegel

Becca is a cynic about love.  While most of the school swoons over the perfect couple of Steve and Huxley, Becca knows that love is an illusion and nothing ever lasts.  Witness how her older sister got stood up on the altar or the boring love-less union of her parents.  At the same time, there is no denying the destructive impact on friendships caused by these romances or the bitter rivalries that they set off.  Becca has an answer for that:  for $100 she offers clandestinely to break up any couple.  And she's been successful so far.  So, when she is contracted to break up Steve and Huxley, it's just another job, right?

I hated the story and loved the author.  The premise (and Becca's behavior) were a big turn-off.  As becomes apparent pretty quickly, she's got serious underlying motivations for her bitterness, yet doesn't really come clean about them.  The business itself, while intended to be biting satire, is mostly mean spirited (as is weakly brought up in the end).  However, the writing is another matter.  Siegel is, to me, a heroic author: completely busting the stereotype that boys can't write chick-lit.  This isn't just a story where all the major characters are girls, but also a story about girls' relationships first and foremost.  If anything, Siegel could be accused of poorly portraying his male characters (who are creeps at best, and overwhelmingly two dimensional).  I want to read much more from this guy!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

No One Needs To Know, by Amanda Grace

Olivia is a rich snooty girl from Point Ruston.  Zoey is the scholarship student from Hilltop with the slutty reputation.  As far as the social circles go at Annie Wright, they couldn't be further apart.  But a shared school project and the fact that Olivia's twin brother Liam has started to date Zoey brings them together. 

When Liam starts getting serious about Zoey, Olivia is startled.  Liam never gets serious about girls!  And when Olivia starts to really look at Zoey, she discovers that she shockingly actually likes her too.  And the two opposites find that they have more in common than they ever could have guessed.  But how will they break the fact that they like each other to Liam?

It's the love triangle that the blurb harps on, but the love triangle isn't even introduced until the last seventy pages.  For me, the real story is about the social chasm between these two girls (and a lot more could have been done with it!).  In fact, the underlying problem with the book is that a lot more could have been done with all of this.  Too many interesting sources of conflict (Zoey's family life, her relationship with Liam, Olivia's best friend Ava, the two girls coming out, Olivia's failing gymnastics career, the absence of Liam/Olivia's parents, etc.) are introduced but neither developed nor exploited for their dramatic potential.  What we get is a great sketch of a story.

Now, even if I found the story a bit too brisk, I have to give a special shout out to the effort put into the setting.  I've spent two years in Tacoma WA and the attention to the local detail in this book is great.  Grace knows her town and she isn't afraid to use accurate local geography to tell her story.  I loved that I could picture the settings and not be distracted by inaccuracies.  Take note authors:  if you're going to place your novel in a real place, be sure to get your facts correct.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Years ago, three sisters were abandoned in the woods and cursed by a witch.  The harmonica in which they were entombed would carry them far away, but would itself be a magical instrument that would bring both good luck and misfortune to its owners.  First, to a boy lost in those woods and then on to a young man in Hitlerite Germany, passed to an orphan boy in Pennsylvania, sent to a young Mexican girl in California, and finally into the pocket of a soldier deployed back in Germany.  Through happenstance or destiny, the people who carried the harmonica become bound together in the end.

Depending on how you look at it, the ending is either overly convenient or sweetly poetic, but regardless the story is epic and gripping.  Ryan writes beautiful fairy tale-like novels that I have enjoyed in the past.  I did once make the criticism that she had painted herself into a creative corner of always writing novels that seemed like they were trying to recreate Gabriel Garcia Marquez-style "magical realism" novels -- setting every story in Latin America with earthy half fantasy/half realistic storylines.  Here, she proved me wrong.  The beauty and fun of her story telling remains, but she places the bulk of this story in unfamiliar territory. 

Recommended audience is a different matter.  The majority of the story is fairly grim and perhaps not so appropriate for younger readers, but it's lively and rewarding for older ones.  The book may be thick (587 pages), but the type is large and the lines are spaced wide apart.  It doesn't take very long to read!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

We Can Work It Out, by Elizabeth Eulberg

In this sequel to Eulberg's The Lonely Hearts Club, Penny Lane is still heading the club that gave her and her friends a fresh perspective on the importance of friendship over romance, but there's trouble afoot:  mostly, as the girls try to balance their priorities.  It was relatively easy to make a principled stand for girl bonding, but harder when you're also trying to make a relationship work.  And, for Penny, the Club is a far too easy excuse for avoiding her fears about committing herself to another person (even if he is hot!).  Old enemies from the first book (Todd and the principal) make a reappearance and a few new friends pop up, but mostly this is more of the same.

I went back and read my review of the first book (from May 2010!) to see how I received it, and it reminded me of how fresh that first book was.  I enjoyed the strong young women and the liberating message of girls being friends instead of competitors.  Sequels always suffer from the lack of novelty and this one rather more so.  Many of the flaws I noted in the first book (uneven pacing and inconsistent character development) are found her as well.  Constantly plot activity stifles the character development and things get toss in left and right.  Eliminating pointless subplots like Penny Lane's sister's wedding might have provided the space to tighten up a good story.

Eulberg doesn't seem to have much to offer for variety -- as even Penny Lane notes, there are only so many times one can say "sorry!" The pitfalls of Penny Lane and Ryan, in particular seem like an emotional hamster wheel, endlessly cycling over the same landscape of neglect and jealousy until they basically give in to each other -- which feels less like love winning out and more like mutual surrender.

In contrast, there were so many things that could have benefited from further development.  For example, I wish there had been more of two side characters:  Missy (the insecure girl who throws away her self-respect to put herself behind a guy) and Morgan (the only girl with a stable committed relationship in the book).  They each represented important alternative paths and deserved more than the cursory attention they received.

[Disclosure:  I received a solicited reviewer's copy of the book without charge and without any promise beyond providing an unbiased review.  I will donate the book to my local public library.]

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Your Constant Star, by Brenda Hasiuk

Three young people search for meaning in their lives.  Faye is the adopted Chinese girl who is dutiful to her parents and lives up to expectations.  Bev is the wild child who doesn't care about anyone or anything, but is forced to deal with reality when she gets pregnant.  Mannie is the father of the child, lost in a drug-induced stupor, yet aware (barely) that something great and meaningful is passing him by, and that he should be a part of it.

Rather than telling the story through alternating chapters, Hasiuk devotes entire sections of the book to each of them.  By far, the most interesting character is Faye and she gets the first third of the book.  As the Good Girl, it is fascinating to watch her flirt with danger and rekindle her friendship with Bev at such a pivotal moment.  Bev's section is a bit harder to stomach, simply because she is such a less appealing person.  As she blithely blows off the people around her and professes not to care about anyone, it's really hard to be sympathetic with her plight.  And Mannie, the stoner, is really a bit of a waste to the story.  I get that Hasiuk wants to show that he has depth, but his anger and self-destructive behavior is a huge turn off.  I just didn't care if he messed up his life or not!  And what a whiner!  Give me a story about Faye (and throw Bev in for some danger and drama), but the rest of it drove me nuts!

That said, a book where the characters drive you this nuts can't really be that bad, can it?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Even in Paradise, by Chelsey Philpot

When Julia Buchanan arrives at St Anne's, a New England boarding school, in her junior year, rumors fly around. Everyone knows the Buchanans -- a powerful Yankee dynasty with both money and political connections. And everyone knows about the tragic death of Julia's older sister.

Charlotte couldn't be any more different -- a scholarship student, who also has considerable artistic talent. Much to Charlotte's surprise, Julia takes a fancy to Charlotte and adopts her into the family. Intoxicated by the family's power and generosity, Charlotte does not realize until it's far too late that there is a dark side to the beautiful world of the Buchanans.

In setting, the story reminded me a lot of E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, with its patrician family and dark family secrets (there must be a thing about Vassar girls writing about rich New Englanders!). But the story itself is quite different. And while it is interesting, it is not so compelling or as shocking as Lockhart's novel. The characters are interesting but the story doesn't have a good flow. The dynamics of Charlotte and Julia's relationship, complicated as they are, are hard to track. The romance between Charlotte and Sebastian is abridged. Everything felt sketchy and superficial, much like the Buchanans themselves.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

When My Heart Was Wicked, by Tricia Stirling

The last couple of years, living with her stepmom, have been heaven for sixteen year-old Lacy.  But her mother has come to reclaim her and with her father now dead, Mom holds the legal claim for her.  Being dragged back to Mom's carries special danger.  Mom has always brought out the worst in Lacy and the years that she lived with her mother are fraught with memories of cruelty (to herself and others) and black magic.  Lacy wants to believe that she's healed and that she's stronger now, but within days of being back with her mother, the evil feelings have returned.

A short and deceptively simple story about the fear of one's own ability to commit cruelty, harbored within a story that mixes real concerns like reconciling with estranged parents and interpersonal relations with peers, with darker subjects of magic, curses, and spells.  The book has definite supernatural elements, but anyone looking for a fantasy will be frustrated by Stirling's insistence on contextualizing the magic within the mundania of adolescent life.  For anyone who's ever checked a spell book out of the library in hopes of putting a curse on a bad boyfriend, an evil girl at school, or one's own mother, the feelings that Lacy goes through will resonate particularly strongly.  I found this story utterly fascinating!

[Disclosure:  I solicited and received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing an unbiased review.]

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart

Dying of cancer, twelve year-old Mark runs away from home with his dog Beau.  Mark is angry and desperate.  What is the point of living, he wonders, if we all die (some sooner than others)?  But before his time comes, he plans to fulfill his grandfather's wish that he climb Mount Rainier.  And while he experiences many set-backs in his quest, he finds that even strangers can be friends and that there is much that makes life worth living.

A simple story and a lightning-fast read, this book focuses on the trip and dwells surprisingly little on Mark's emotional journey.  That isn't exactly Gemeinhart's plan and a number of carefully set-up elements of the story seem to remain undeveloped.  The key wasted element of the story is Mark's best friend Jess, who mostly sits on the sidelines and stresses about her sick friend in alternating chapters that add little to the story.  Sensitive readers are forewarned that the climax features a particularly chilling scene of animal endangerment.

[Disclosure:  I received a solicited reviewer's copy of the book without charge and without any promise beyond providing an unbiased review.  I will donate the book to my local public library.]

Wildlife, by Fiona Wood

An eight week wilderness program allows a high school class, and two young women in particular, to reexamine their lives and friendships.  Sibylla has recently had the fortune to appear in a billboard advertisement.  This covergirl exposure has gotten her noticed by the popular clique at school (and by the handsome Ben Capaldi in particular), but her best friend Holly doesn't seem so friendly anymore.

No one knows what to make of the secretive and enigmatic new girl Louisa.  Her secret is the recent death of her boyfriend, and her inability to cope with it (and the anger she harbors) become challenging in the tight quarters of cabin living.  Surprisingly, it is Sibylla that will help her break through and Lou will return the favor.

The story is a bit hard to follow, not least because the two heroines (Sib and Lou) don't really have distinctive voices.  I found myself fading in and out of interest in the story and the characters.  The setting was a bit odd (and of course the cultural oddities of this Australian story were hard to follow), but mostly I think the characters just didn't gel.  So, when they were doing something, I could focus on the action, but when I was supposed to be gaining insight into their psyches, I drifted and lost focus.  There just wasn't much there to care about!