Friday, February 14, 2020

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland, by Rebekah Crane

When Zander shows up at Camp Padua, a summer retreat for at-risk teens, she insists that there is nothing wrong with her.  That makes her stand out.  Everyone knows that Cassie is anorexic, Bek is a liar, and Grover is just odd.  But the most that can be said about Zander at first is she doesn't like apples.

Faced with a summer of group therapy and outdoor games that is about to change.  Grover's, convinced that he is destined to become schizophrenic, and similarly persistent that Zander and he are a couple.  Amidst Cassie's snarky observations about just about everyone are a few pointed ones at Zander that show that she sees far more than anyone else at Camp.  And Zander will open up and address the feelings and behavior that wound her up here.

A familiar story of institutionalized teens healing gets a lift in this case from some fresh characters.  Cassie and Grover are the most colorful and provide excellent soundingboards for Zander.  Character growth is a given in this genre but follows a less predictable arc that gives us some suspense and a better pay off in the end.  The language is smart and mixes believably vulnerable adolescence with intelligence.  A pleasant enough read but not terribly noteworthy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Oh, Rats! by Tor Seidler

Phoenix is one impressive squirrel.  The largest in his litter, his luxurious fur and big fluffy tail make him a great catch.  But unfortunately, that vanity costs him when he is caught by a hawk instead and swept away from his New Jersey home.  Making it through a series of near-death experiences, Phoenix finds himself in New York City, but without his fur and his tail now bare.  He looks almost like a rat!

While the local rats don't really trust him, he proves to be their good friend, helping to protect the abandoned wharf they call home from a greedy real estate developer.  It will take serious climbing, inventiveness, help from a bird of prey, and a few sticks of dynamite, but Phoenix is determined to save the day.  In the end, he finds that home is where you make it, even if you are a hairless squirrel from Jersey!

On a whim, I picked this up from the new middle school bookshelf.  It looked cute and even a bit funny.   It proved to be strange and more than a little bit dark. It is cute, but not very funny.  I also fail to see how it really qualifies as a book for middle schoolers, although I'm at a loss to say what the audience should be.  It's not a bad adventure, but between the violence, some mature themes (alcoholism, family abandonment, etc.) it doesn't really seem age appropriate. But at the same time, the talking animal genre tends to skew young.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

We Are the Perfect Girl, by Ariel Kaplan

In this retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, Aphra is the brave and fearless fighter.  Skilled with words and outspoken, she's a loyal friend to her little brother and to her best friend Bethany.  While Bethany definitely has the looks, she becomes tongue tied in the presence of handsome Greg.  And as much as Aphra keeps trying to encourage her, Bethany seems condemned to sit on the sidelines.  Aphra won't stand for that though and she helps Bethany find the words to capture Greg's attention.

Meanwhile, Aphra is developing a phone app that uses artificial intelligence to chat with people.  The app is supposed to be anonymous and confidential, but when the program starts failing, Aphra fakes results by intervening and writing the app's responses herself.  That's when she discovers that Greg has been confessing to the app.  Unable to help herself, Aphra responds, trying to gently nudge him towards her best friend.  It doesn't take long for Greg to figure out that the responses are not coming from a computer.  And when he calls her out, she is forced to confess, but due to unfortunate circumstances, he mistakenly assumes that the app's author is Bethany.  Now smitten, he falls madly in love with her.  This leaves Aphra in the unenviable position of coming clean with Greg about her true identity and confessing to her best friend that she's been secretly chatting with her love.  The fact that Aphra actually likes Greg as well only complicates matters.

Clever is the way that Kaplan has managed to modernize and adapt Rostand's classic play, the book also shines for its clever writing. The book is hilarious, with a whole slew of amusing and original anecdotes and scenes (ranging from an awkwardly misplaced swimsuit donut to a grand confession in front of an entire school assembly).  At times, these are so clever that they overwhelm the story itself, threatening to make the novel just one funny scene after another, but it mostly works.  Meanwhile, I loved the characters.  The dynamics with Aphra's family are particularly refreshing (I'm always a fan of parents who actually do more than forbid the heroine to do something and then ground them afterwards).  And Aphra's journey from self-obsession towards self-acceptance is real and meaningful.  A delightful read.

Sadly, the unusual and notable inclusion of rarely-seen-within-YA Russian to the story falls flat due to the multiple errors in its usage in the book.  But A for effort, nyet?

Saturday, February 08, 2020

The Undoing of Thistle Tate, by Katelyn Detweiler

At seventeen, Thistle is the author of two bestsellers.  The third installment of her Lemonade Skies trilogy is almost finished.  But as successful as she is, she carries a terrible secret: she’s not the author.  Rather, it is her father who produces the books with Thistle listed on the jacket.  After years of unsuccessfully attempting to get published, he resorted to this subterfuge as a hook to get the manuscript noticed.  At the time, they were in desperate financial straits and risked losing their home.  Thistle, just fourteen at the time, agreed to go along with this ruse because she knew it would make her Dad happy.

The home and her father is pretty much all that Thistle has left of her mother.  Dad, though, is close-lipped and reluctant to tell her much about Mom, who died when she was only three.  But the Lemonade Skies series, which features a young heroine searching through the afterlife for her lost mother, is a rather heavy handed analogue to their real life.

Dad always promised that the third book would be the last and that Thistle would no longer need to carry on the charade.  She would go to college, get her own life, and move on.  But Dad’s been wavering about the future of the series and Thistle is worried that she’ll be trapped forever.  But then those fears are swept aside, and Thistle and her Dad find their hands forced by a tragic chain of events.

While a little slow at first, the story picked up steam and gained a poignancy as the initial deceit and cover up is replaced by Thistle’s search for her mother.  The ending, while perhaps a bit overly rosy, is deeply satisfying.  Tear jerking occurs and key life lessons are expounded.  In sum, the story is good.  Thistle wallows a bit much in self-pity and makes the usual bad choices of lying and deception that seem to plague young women in YA novels, but she’s strong willed and brave and comes through in the end.  The love interests suffer more and the relationships are a bit of a yawn.  Read this for the story, not for the characters.