Friday, August 18, 2017

Alex, Approximately, by Jenn Bennett

Bailey loves classic movies and shares her passion with an anonymous online friend "Alex." She doesn't know much about him, except where he lives (which happens to be the same California town where her Dad lives).  So, when she ends up moving in with her Dad, she really should give Alex a heads up that she's in the neighborhood.  But she's afraid of what will happen and keeps her move to herself (although she is curious enough that she initially tries to figure out who Alex is by sleuthing around town).

Meanwhile, she settles in to her new home, quickly makes friends, and finds herself alternately attracted and repelled by Porter, the son of a local surfing legend.  Soon, that relationship takes off, placing Bailey in a jam between her former crush on Alex and her burgeoning relationship with Porter.

Now, of course, the identity of "Alex" is pretty easy for a reader to figure out, so it is the one plot point that can't keep the novel together (nor can it be resolved too soon).  Instead, the story is filled out with the usual romantic stuff (featuring a few pretty hot scenes, but otherwise average), some quirky family members, an embittered and unstable bully, and a few unresolved threads (like Bailey's absent mother). Bennett relies on lots of action to keep the story going.  What gets lost in this approach is the human growth story: Bailey's transition from being a conflict-avoiding "artful dodger" to learning to take risks.  It's lost amidst all of the other plotlines and spottily developed.

The Warden's Daughter, by Jerry Spinelli



There are two things Cammie is known for – being the the daughter of the warden and being the girl whose mother was killed by a milk truck twelve years ago when Cammie was still a baby.  Now, in the summer of 1957, as Cammie is about to enter Junior High School and become a teenager, Cammie has only one thing on her mind – she wants a mother.  And she knows exactly who she wants:  Eloda – their maid and a convicted felon finishing up her sentence at the jail.

That Eloda doesn’t quite return the interest doesn’t dissuade Cammie from her mission.  But in this summer of Elvis and American Bandstand and Sputnik, Cammie will learn some powerful lessons about love, loss, and serving her time.

An extremely well-written work by an established master (he’s got a Newbery and a Newbery Honor, and he’s the author of Stargirl – one of my all-time faves).  The book has lots of things going for it. Spinelli captures the details of time and place well.  The characters are compelling, although Cammie herself can be hard to like as she makes many mistakes and is so angry.  And the emotional whammy at the end is breathtaking – the sort of climax that takes you completely by surprise.

The story is a bit mature (not in terms of subject matter, but in format and delivery) and one could worry that this is likely to be banished to Book Report Land (like, The Book Thief).  Hopefully, kids will discover it's also a fun story!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Defy the Stars, by Claudia Gray

Many centuries in the future, Earth has become an overcrowded and exhausted world, with its people anxious to immigrate to newer worlds. Noemi Vidal is a young soldier training for a desperate suicide run to save her planet Genesis from that invasion. For Noemi, she has nothing left at home anyways, so she is eager to make what little contribution she can make.

But while training for the mission, her group comes under a surprise attack and Noemi ends up on an old wrecked vessel.  There, she comes across an abandoned mech (android) named Abel.  Mechs are a common tools for Earth's people, doing their labor and fighting their wars, but this is not an ordinary soldier or servant.  He's stronger, smarter, and has developed a sense of self that is almost human.

Despite a strong mistrust of each other, the two of them embark on a mission to save Genesis (and maybe Earth as well) that takes them through several universes and adventures.  As one would expect from such a girl-boy set up, there's a relationship brewing as well, but not necessarily with the ending that one expects.  Mostly, their journey takes them to mutual understanding and some personal growth.

Nicely written and lively, the novel doesn't do much downtime.  Whenever one issue is resolved, Gray introduces another one.  There was a lot of potentially interesting stuff to be made out of having a girl with no faith in her future meet a "boy" with lots of future in front of him.

But the human growth story is fairly smothered in the fireworks of sci-fi cliche. All the usual elements are present, from "blasters" to tractor beams to wormholes and star gates to robots acquiring humanity.  It's comfortable ground, but all very formulaic.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Hidden, by Miriam Halahmy

Alix struggles to take care of her Mum and she has plenty of worries, but she can't help but notice the unfair way that some of the kids at school treat Samir.  Samir is a refugee, but to hear the kids talk, you would think he was a terrorist or worse.  She knows that they get such ideas from their parents and Alix wonders if she is the only one who feels that treating people badly because of where they came from is bad.

Then, one evening, walking on the beach with Samir, they find a dying man.  He's delirious and speaking Arabic.  In a split moment, they decide to rescue him and, at Samir's urging, hide him away. Now, they struggle to keep him alive and hidden, while they figure out some way to save him.  But as teens living in a small British coastal town, they don't have many resources.

It's a book with a definite agenda and mission: to raise awareness about the refugee crisis, which is of course quite topical (especially in Europe).  It's a little hard for me to picture Alix being so naive and uninformed about the state of the world, but doing so allows Halahmy to lecture the reader about the situation (I also assume that Halahmy is pitching the situation softly to make it more palatable to adult readers, who may feel the material is inappropriate for children).  As for the story itself, it is lively, but a bit hard to track due to cultural differences (parental, teacher, and even law-enforcement behave strangely in this world).  I found it all a bit odd, but certainly readable.


Friday, August 04, 2017

Radio Silence, by Alice Oseman

Frances has two major obsessions -- doing well enough in school to get into Cambridge and listening in the evenings to an enigmatic science fiction podcast about a survivor in 26th century Earth by the name of Radio Silence.  No one know who writes and performs these podcasts, but uncovering the identity of the "Creator" (as he is known in the fandom) has Frances and a few hundred other diehard followers are obsessed.  Then, quite by accident, she discovers that the Creator is actually her old friend Aled and a new world opens to her.

However, the anonymity of the podcasts turns out to be a crucial ingredient and, as it is cracked open, Frances discovers disturbing truths about Aled and about herself.  The publicity threatens not only to destroy the joy that Radio Silence brings her but also causes her to question every thing else she's ever valued.

Quirky and engrossing, Oseman's second YA novel creates a unique world with vibrant and authentic characters.  The mood is dark and gloomy, but the story is fast-paced and never boring.  I didn't really see the appeal of the podcasts, but I didn't need to in order to appreciate the characters and their motivations.

It Started With Goodbye, by Christina June



Getting busted for shoplifting with her best friend threatens to ruin Tatum's entire summer.  Forced to do community service during the day, she is kept under virtual house arrest by her stepmother.  That’s OK, since her best friend isn’t talking to her.

Tatum is miserable – her Dad’s gone away on business for the summer and her stepmom and stepsister are horrid to her. But she still has plans and ideas: starting a web design business, a guy she corresponds with, and her stepgrandmother who revels insights and secrets that help Tatum solve her problems.

Ostensibly inspired by Cinderella, Tatum is a lot more self-reliant than a fairy tale heroine.  She uses her wits, hard work, and a lot of personal drive.  She also has a strong enough character to forgive others and move on with her life and not overly dwell on her misfortunes.  All of which are very useful character skills that the author holds up as life-transforming. 

The story suffers from a lack of background development.  Tatum misses her friend, but given that we never see much of their friendship, it is hard to understand why.  And even the romantic story seems underdeveloped and lacks spark.  The ideas are all there, but aside from each character’s assertions, there’s no evidence to back up the motives.