Sunday, December 09, 2018

Invisible Emmie, by Terri Libenson

Seventh-grader Emmie isn't geeky or ugly or unpopular -- she's simply invisible.  Talking to other kids (especially boys!) makes her revert to a puddle of slime.  She lacks the confidence of her BFF Brianna (who's also a bit bossy!).  Instead, she races through the hallways and hides in class trying to avoid being noticed.

The contrast couldn't be any stronger with cool, outgoing, and popular Katie, whose life is bigger and brighter than anyone in the room.  But when a particularly embarrassing and humiliating moment happens, Emmie and Katie discover a common bond and both girls find that they have something to learn from each other.

Ostensibly a story about finding one's voice, this charming graphic novel navigates the familiar territory of building interpersonal skills, dealing with bullies, and forgiving human frailties.  And while much of the material is cliche, Liberson approaches it with a delightful mixture of respect and knowing elder wisdom.  While I have no doubt that children will Emmie's observations about school and parents, this is the sort of book that is almost more fun for those of us who have been through it all.  It is fun to look back with a knowing smirk that no matter how horrendous it all seemed at the time, this too shall pass (and perhaps to imagine that we were as much fun as Emmie)! 

Liberson's approach is full of warmth.  I especially liked the supportive relationship between Emmie and Katie, who (despite being attracted to the same boy) don't let it get between them.  A small twist at the end threatens the book's message, but I think Libenson has still managed to convey the idea that kindness in the end is what matters.  In sum, a cute look at seventh grade through a witty and funny narrator.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Spooksville #1: The Secret Path, by Christopher Pike

Adam has just moved with his family to the town of Springville.  The first kid he meets is the loquacious Sally, who between being obsessed about her identity crisis and helping herself to a Coke that Adam was sent to the store to buy, informs Adam that the kids around the town refer to the place as "Spooksville." She then proceeds to tell him tales about all of the crazy things that happen in the town involving ghosts and witches.

Meeting up later with Sally's friend Watch, the three of them embark on a quest to find a secret path that leads to another dimension where the town is replicated, but everything is dark and scary.  There they must struggle with large spiders, a giant black knight, and an evil witch who wants to steal Adam's eyes.  It's all in a day's adventures in this first of a long-running series popular in the 1990s and reprinted regularly since.

I picked this one up on a recommendation from a friend who enjoyed reading the series as a child.  It's easy to see the appeal.  While hardly fine literature, the characters are endearing (Sally, with her snarky commentary and observations, was my personal favorite) and the action brisk.  While much of that action doesn't make much sense, it doesn't stop us from enjoying an exciting ride.

Sadly, the current cover fails to capture the lovely campiness of the first editions and makes this softcore horror book seem like it might actually be scary, instead of a fun read for middle schoolers.

The Gone Away Place, by Christopher Barzak

An atmospheric disturbance that spawns several huge tornadoes rips apart Ellie's hometown, wiping out most of the structures and killing nearly all of her close friends.  In the aftermath, Ellie struggles with guilt, both for surviving when so many did not and for never reconciling with her boyfriend over the fight they were having the morning of the disaster.  In the weeks that follow, Ellie becomes aware that she can sometimes see victims who are dead.

Not only see the dead, but she can also actually communicate with them. She has the opportunity to visit with her late friends, help them reconcile to what has happen, and assist them (and her) in letting them go.  But the person she most wants to see and with whom she most needs to reconcile -- her late boyfriend -- is the one she cannot find.

A strange novel that struggles a bit with what it wants to be.  At its heart, this is a novel about grief and recovery.  One of the most interesting parts of the book, before it veers into the supernatural, is simply recounting how physical recovery works after a natural disaster of this magnitude.  And then, the book moves on to the emotional struggle with such a great loss of life.  The ghosts represent a furthering of that, but then the story starts to suggest more sinister activity with ghosts taking possession of the living.  This latter source of drama seems headed for some sort of violent showdown, but it never quite develops.  The resulting storyline is meandering, as if the story has had a number of different endings and the author never quite cleaned it up.

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, by Kiersten White

Elizabeth is rescued from penury to become the childhood playmate and companion of Victor Frankenstein.  With good sense and resourcefulness, Elizabeth knows it is vital for her to be unfailingly loyal to her benefactor.  Without him, she will be back out on the streets.  And while the role of faithful companion comes easily, it is not without challenge.  Victor is emotionally unstable and prone to "fevers" and sadistic fancies.  Keeping those things secret is crucial to prevent him from being institutionalized (a matter that Elizabeth realizes would directly affect her place in the Frankenstein household).

Victor's lapses of sanity become more pronounced as he grows up and Elizabeth's ability to control him less and less effective.  Behind them is something dark.  People begin to disappear, body parts reappear, and a monster that pursues her and the rest of the Frankenstein family enters their life.  By the time Elizabeth realizes the nature of the monster that has been created, it is all very much too late.

In this studiously fine crafted period piece, White has rewritten Mary Shelley's classic from the perspective of the female characters in the novel -- characters to which Shelley herself never gave much attention.  There is some speculation from the author that Shelley might have done it this way in a more enlightened time, but that is a moot point.  What is striking is how well the rewrite actually works.  Having familiarity with both the life of Shelley and the original novel, I appreciated her nods to both of them.  But without that knowledge, this is still a fine story, written convincingly in the style of the original.  Creepy, romantic, and natively gothic.


Saturday, December 01, 2018

Things Jolie Needs to Do Before She Bites It, by Kerry Winfrey


Jolie has an underbite.  It's made chewing difficult and can be quite painful, but most of all, it's made Jolie shy and averse to being seen in public.  But right after eleventh grade, she is having surgery to correct it. And when she does it, she knows that it will change everything.  She’ll no longer have to hide, she’ll fall in love, and she’ll finally be able to compete with her perfect older sister Abbi.  But she’s also afraid of the possibility that it could  all go very bad.  She might even die!  At seventeen  So, with help from her friends Evelyn and Derek, she drafts up a list of things she wants to do before surgery in case she doesn’t survive.

One of the goals (to kiss her crush) obligates her to try out for the school musical.  Prior stage experiences have gone poorly and she's terrified of appearing before people.  But to her surprise, she is cast as the lead and has to face her fears.  Other parts of her plan go astray.  Getting the chance to actually spend time with her crush (he’s the male lead) teaches her that maybe she doesn’t like him as much as she likes her loyal best friend Derek.

Well, there’s not a lot new here.  The story of the girl who wastes a whole novel searching for Mr. Perfect, when he is actually her best friend all of the time is old hat.  Throw in a school play, a drunken cast party complete with vomiting on your friends, and the female BFF who gets neglected because you're obsessed with a boy.  Oh, and add in a pregnant older sister -- why not?  I’ve read this story a dozen+ times before.  The oral surgery angle was interesting and different, but there simply isn’t enough here to justify another run at this tale.

Neverworld Wake, by Marisha Pessl

One year after the death of her boyfriend, Beatrice returns to the elite boarding school in Rhode Island where they both attended, for a mini reunion.  The remaining members of the gang are there, but things are strained.  The tension feeds an angry vibe that climaxes with a wild drive through the night that ends in a car crash.  But instead of being dead, the five young people find themselves stuck in a time loop where they are forced to live the same day again and again.

They have fallen into the "neverworld wake," explains a stranger who calls himself the Keeper, and they will remain in it until they take a vote.  One of them will escape the wake and the others will die.  Who gets to live?  That is what these five angry and distrustful former friends have to vote upon.  And the result must be unanimous or the loop begins again.

At first, the five of them refuse to even vote.  Then, as desperation sets in, they try voting but find that they can't achieve consensus.  It is only after thousands of repeats that they begin to understand what they must go through to get out -- but will they succeed before madness and entropy condemn them to be stuck inside the wake forever?

An original, but weird story (actually more What Dreams May Come than Groundhog Day).  It's part science fiction, with a dose of mystery and psychological thriller, and even a little humor thrown in. More a mood piece than character developing, the protagonist and her peers never get all that interesting.  I found it very hard to get into.  The novel's saving grace was the story and its many twists and turns.  When the plot is brisk, it is a fun read, but it drags just as often as it soars.