Saturday, December 30, 2017
Bluff, by Julie Dill
That is, until Chelsea stumbles over the idea of gambling as a means to earn cash. Sneaking into a casino as an underage player is scary, but Chelsea is driven and determined. She's also talented and discovers that poker is an easy way for her to make serious money. But what she is doing is illegal and dangerous, and affecting the rest of her life. As gambling consumes her, she has more and more trouble sorting her life so that no one at school or at home figures out where she spends her nights.
Through fast-paced storytelling, Dill does a good job of showing how Chelsea's skills at the table develop, as well as the growing appeal of the gambling addiction. In a brief story like this, Chelsea gets most of the attention while the other characters are largely neglected. The romantic interest never gels and thus seems a bit of a waste. An interesting subplot about a fellow gambler held similar lost promise. All that said, I really enjoyed the story. However, I think it is fair to say that the ending is a bit cruel.
Posted by Paul at 11:13 AM No comments:
A Short History of the Girl Next Door, by Jared Reck
I'm never a fan of the random plot twist and this one delivers quite a punch half way through the book. Perhaps, the love triangle is an overdone story, but Reck really does a nice job with it. The strength of Reck's storytelling is Matt, who he's fleshed out with authentic sensitivities and anxieties (transcending the obligatory bro-nonsense that permeates depictions of adolescence masculinity). So, why not let the story be about what it started being about: boy learns to simply love his friend and be friends with his love? The plot twist seemed more an invention for Reck to extend the story, as if he had run out of things to say and wanted a higher page count. And it ruined a good story.
Posted by Paul at 10:42 AM No comments:
Friday, December 22, 2017
The Lonely Ones, by Kelsey Sutton
It's not a story that breaks any new ground, but it works as a pleasant exploration of the bonds of family and friendship, a meditation upon risking one's heart, and thoughts on taking risks in general. The format is not a great style with which to develop characters and the temptation to produce anodyne "poetry" is always strong. But good examples are effective mood pieces and I found this one pleasant and enjoyable.
Posted by Paul at 3:02 PM No comments:
Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green
John Green can be very good, but when he misses, he misses big time. I found this particular book to be aimless, aiming for deep meaning but mostly ending in navel gazing. The title itself is a reference to a pretty meaningless analogy about the meaning of life. The whole book is like that. And the characters are pretty flat. Daisy and Aza have some interesting sparks and their friendship is the best part of the book, but nothing really develops from their arguments. The romances just peter out (let's say that Green's strength is not in the romantic literature department). And the key strength of a Green novel -- humor -- is strangely absent in this largely earnest novel.
Posted by Paul at 10:29 AM No comments:
Fragile Like Us, by Sara Barnard
Caddie and Rosie are inseparable best friends until the day that Suzanne shows up. Initially, Suzanne is clearly Roz’s friend, but Caddie wishes she could know the dangerous and carefree Suzanne better. And, as if to answer her wish, Suzanne opens up and confides to Caddie, but it is a bit more than Caddie expects.
Suzanne comes from an abusive home and as Caddie learns more, she wants to help the girl and be a good friend. But Caddie is definitely out of her depth and her parents, Roz, and even Suzanne herself try to warn her away. Caddie however is in too deep, unable to reject her new friend and unable to judge that things have gone too far.
While slow starting, I was taken in by the familiarity of the story. Of how urgent everything seemed in adolescence and how hard it was to tell just how far friendship should go. Like Caddie, I often flattered myself imagining that I had the knowledge and skills to take care of any problem I came across. And I didn’t know when to get help and when to pull back. So, to say I related to Caddie’s anxiety about doing the right thing and being a good friend is a bit of an understatement.
As the story progressed, I ended up really caring for these three girls and the bond they have. The signs of destruction are everywhere, and Barnard so realistically depicts the development of these friendships that it all seemed quite believable. Suzanne can be disgustingly manipulative, but it is easy to see how Caddie and Rosie exploit the situation as well. And those tangled threads were very seductive to read.
Posted by Paul at 9:51 AM No comments:
Friday, December 15, 2017
Words on Bathroom Walls, by Julia Walton
Adam suffers from schizophrenia, seeing and hearing people who are not there. He knows that there is no cure and it is a condition that he will always have to live with, but a new drug trial gives him hope for a means of coping with his hallucinations. And, if he can cope, he might be able to live a normal life. That’s important to him for fitting in at school, and also for winning over his new girlfriend Maya. But what if Maya learns of his condition?
Tracing the difficulties of managing adolescence and a serious mental illness at the same time, Walton touches on a variety of different facets including school, family, and long-term survival skills. Still, the story never really sought great depth. I get that it is difficult for writers to express the ways that adolescent boys really do have feelings, but it gets frustrating to have Adam toggle between the cliché horny/thoughtless/violent impulse that I have complained about here before, at the neglect of the hurt and frustration of living with an illness. Maya is an interesting character but told through his eyes, we don’t really get much chance to get to know her. And we don’t really learn all that much about mental illness either.
Posted by Paul at 12:51 PM No comments:
The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, by Lauren Karcz
Mercedes’s grandmother is dying back in San Juan and Mom has gone back to care for her, leaving Mercedes and her sister to their own devices. Mercedes should be working on a follow-up to her hugely successful painting, Food Poisoning #1, but she is stuck in a rut. At this rate, she'll have nothing to submit for the annual show and her chances of getting into art school are dimming. But she is simply not able to capture any inspiration and instead endlessly listening to her favorite band The Firing Squad.
But then neighbor Lilia offers to take Mercedes to her own studio, which turns out to be an abandoned apartment building. It is a magical place. Seemingly alive, strange things occur, but it is also a place where one can find one’s muse and where Mercedes is able to create amazing works of art. There’s only one big catch: the artwork can never leave. She is faced with a choice: between living in this space where her art can bloom or denying it all and being stuck outside in the real world.
An odd and dreamy work which explores artistic creativity as a concept through this rather unusual setting. The studio itself is creepy, but never entirely scary. And the story never quite commits to being fantasy or horror, just as it never quite commits to realism. That leaves it in an uncomfortable place. The pace is slow and dream-like, with most of the action – so to speak – taking place in alternate realities. It’s hard to know where we are heading. I found it hard to focus on and missed a few details (having to go back and re-read passages) so that part was frustrating.
Posted by Paul at 12:46 PM No comments:
Friday, December 08, 2017
Gravity, by Leanne Lieberman
I have a soft spot for intelligent books about faith. And while this one doesn't resolve its central crisis, it introduces and explores it in a very informed way. Orthodox Judaism would be easy to caricature or demonize (think of the novel Hush) and Lieberman touches on some of the community's darker corners. But the key focus of the story is the spiritual journey of Ellie and her family -- each of whom have slightly different paths to explore. I also appreciate that as far removed from her faith as Ellie got, Lieberman still wanted to depict the tie it holds over her and honor that rather than see it as a burden. This is not a story about breaking free from faith, but of finding new meaning in faith.
Posted by Paul at 2:42 PM No comments:
The Lake Effect, by Erin McCahan
Briggs has what ought to be an easy summer job: helping an old lady take care of her beach house on Lake Michigan. He’s good with old ladies – charming them the way he charms most women. The summer is just a minor detour on his long-term career plans to go to college, law school, and make a lot of money. Spending some time on the beach, taking care of an elderly woman, and perhaps meeting a local girl for some fun is just a chance to relax.
But he isn’t expecting stubborn and determined Mrs. Bozic. Nor the girl next door who is resistant to his charms. And during a summer of home improvement, the quest for the perfect blue paint, funeral shopping with Mrs. B, and more than a few discussions about death, Briggs will learn a lot about life and plans.
At times charming and hilarious, I found myself ultimately defeated by the unevenness of the novel (the overuse of chapter breaks didn’t help much either!). The story's strength is its characters. Mrs. B was, of course, hilarious and a lovely foil to Briggs’s cavalier arrogance. Girl next door Abigail seemed less valuable (this is not a story that really needs a romance and it did not get too far). Briggs was the usual snarky crude boy with a heart of gold that YA writers love and girls will apparently tolerate.
I do wish we could move beyond the idea that boys’ books need to have fart jokes and petty humiliation to attract male readers. It’s a tiresome cliché and ultimately promotes the idea that boys should be callous and rude to each other (if there is a more fundamental cause of rape culture, I don’t know it!). And in this case, it is such a contrast to the decent things that Briggs does.
Posted by Paul at 9:26 AM No comments:
Saturday, December 02, 2017
The Secret of Nightingale Wood, by Lucy Strange
So, it falls on Henry to rescue her family from the doctor and his nefarious ambitions. With the help of the neighbors, an old family lawyer, and a witch in the woods, Henry will do so. And in the process uncover some historical mysteries along the way. Set in the early 1920s, this story will appeal to fans of The Secret Garden, with its combination of adventure and personal development.
Either derivative or a tribute to that long tradition of young girls exploring scary woods and saving the day, there's not much new here, but it's an enjoyable read. I found the ending drawn out and full of far-too-neat wrap-ups, but the story itself contained suspense and a brave girl to root for.
[Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. When I am finished, I will donate the book to my local public library]
Posted by Paul at 11:48 AM No comments:
Summer Unscripted, by Jen Klein
When Rain becomes the recipient of heartthrob actor Tuck’s impassioned monologue, she’s starstruck. He needs her! She knows that she has to spend the summer with him, which is going to be difficult because he's away for the summer playing a role in the cast of Zeus! (a musical based loosely on Greek mythology). She knows nothing about the theater at all and spending the summer working musical theater has surprises.
But the biggest surprise of all is finding out that Tuck doesn’t turn out to be quite the pick that she imagined. Instead, it is moody staff photographer Milo that captures her fancy and takes her to parts unknown.
Pretty silly stuff in all. And, as Rain’s roommate protests, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a girl with two cute guys who like her. The summer stock stuff is fun, of course (especially, if you’ve ever done the work) but there’s not a whole lot else here except the usual escapism. Light entertainment.
Posted by Paul at 11:33 AM No comments:
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