Saturday, September 29, 2007

Just Ask, by Melody Carlson

In the first book of a new series, we are introduced to Kim, adopted Korean daughter. And while she flirts briefly with the idea of practicing Buddhism, she finds the Lord after watching The Passion of Christ at a friend's church. But the story is also framed around a teen advice column that Kim writes for her dad's newspaper, handing out rather mature advice (much of it advocating prayer) for addressing teen issues.

Somehow (and you may find this hard to believe) I did not quite clue in on the Fundamentalist agenda of the writer until I was halfway through the book. Mostly, I was annoyed at the meandering plot and the sanctimonious advice column (let's just say that Kim's perspective on things is a bit unrealistic). By the end, I had pretty much had enough of the character and the writer. I'm sure the series is popular with the converted, but otherwise give this a pass. If you want to read a more honest examination of faith (and other important topics), go back to classics like Judy Blume.

My Lost and Found Life, by Melodie Bowsher

Ashley is a rich, beautiful, and shallow high school senior when her mother disappears, accused of embezzling millions from her employers. Suddenly, Ashley's life is turned upside down and she loses everything and everyone around her. And for the first time in her life, she has to learn how to survive on her own, starting off with finding a job and a place to live.

A promising dramatic beginning gets bogged down mid-way as Bowsher runs out of story to tell. Various subplots and twists get muddled with rambling conversations that seem unrelated to the story. And by the end, Bowsher resorts to melodrama to create a climax. As a result, I found myself tempted to flip forward to the end for some payoff. It comes, but it's awfully rushed. The author shows promise, but she ran out of steam after the first 100 odd pages.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Skin, by Adrienne Maria Vrettos

As his parents separate and the family disintegrates, Donnie's sister slips into anorexia. Donnie focuses his energy on trying to keep the peace and keep his sister alive as she grows thinner. But the pressure of it all is eating away at him and his ability to keep things together.

This is a heartrending story, as you can imagine, since it opens with the sister dying and then backs up to trace the events that lead up to his death. The writing is sharp but the plot is strangely undeveloped. As much as this is intended to be a story about Donnie, we never quite get that story, and the pressure he is experiencing is something we can only surmise (rather than see). That's surprising as there is certainly enough pain in here. Overall, this is not a pleasant read, but a decent illustration of what it is like to have an anorexic sibling.

My Almost Epic Summer, by Adele Griffin

The summer starts off badly for Irene as her own Mom fires her from a job at the beauty salon, crushing Irene's plans to create a hair stylist business that specializes in reproducing the fashions of famous literary heroines. But Irene's new job (babysitting) gives her the opportunity to meet the obsessive and gorgeous lifeguard Starla and Starla's jealousy-guarded ex-boyfriend.

A fairly light and entertaining read. You could fault it for skipping blithely from one scene to another, but Griffin creates strong fun characters and the overall theme of the book is sufficiently fun. No great depth, but a pleasant read.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, by Robin Brande

Mena has gotten in a lot of trouble. Because of her whistle-blowing, her church and its members have been sued and she fears that her parents will lose their business. None of her old friends are speaking to her. But a new lab partner in her biology and her ex-friends' campaign against the teaching of Evolution in that class, trigger a series of changes and a crisis as she struggles with questions of faith and values.

The story makes very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are and never really lets up. The mean kids are just mean and the good ones good. The parents are not just annoying, they are as abusive and mean as the Evil Stepmother of a Grimms Tale. In sum, the story may be a breezy read, but you don't really buy any of it. I found that in itself annoying enough to not recommend this. There was plenty of conflict to make good drama here without painting the bad guys as cruel as Brande felt the need to do.

Polly, by Amy Bryant

Polly tells her romantic and sexual biography from early teen years through early college, detailing her eight most significant relationships (some good, some not) and her parallel interest in music and art. Her relationship with her mother and step-father play a minor role, but the focus is definitely on Polly's development as a person as she struggles through the minefields of teen romance.

Strikingly realistic, one suspects that this is autobiography. It certainly rings true for the era (which I can say with some authority as I am nearly the same age as Polly the character and I grew up in the same area). And the details of the relationships and what she goes through will also ring true.

I understand that writers should write about what they know, but I have to take Bryant to task for not attempting to pull her story out of its era. Even with the strong interest in 80s hardcore punk, a more enterprising writer could have pulled the story into a more contemporary context. To really measure if Bryant is a good writer, I'd like to see her tackle less familiar territory (and with her bio saying that she now is writing short stories about life in NYC -- where she happens to live now -- I don't get the sense that she can grow). As a result, I'll give this novel a mixed review (realistic, interesting, but ultimately a lazy autobiographic exercise).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How It's Done, by Christine Kole MacLean

Grace grew up in a state of awe and fear of her father, but at 18 she is not so willing to follow his commands anymore. When she falls in love with a young college professor, her father disapproves. But rather than obey his order to break off the relationship, she decides to marry the man instead. As much as she hopes this is a good decision to spite her father, she slowly begins to realize that getting married is just transferring one prison for another. If she is going to find out what makes her special, she needs to start thinking - and desiring - for herself.

In this fairly catchy story, Grace's search for self has a realistic tone. Still, while it may be a comfort to the reader to always be a few steps ahead of the heroine, it's hard not to notice how terribly naive she is. This is hardly a feel-good novel, but it is affirming and portrays both decency and flaws.

I haven't yet mentioned the religious thread at all (Grace's family is Fundamentalist Christian). It's far from subtle (there's a great deal of Scripture-quoting in the book), but it also makes sense and fits in the story quite seamlessly. The family's faith is drawn with very little sensationalism - its just another factor of who they are. Given how easy it would have been to demonize the family's religious beliefs, MacLean has definitely taken the high road.

A Swift Pure Cry, by Siobhan Dowd

In a quiet Irish village, Shell tries to keep her family together -- younger brother and sister and alcoholic father. It's been hard since her mother died, but they have managed. But then things go horribly wrong and rumor, ambition, and pride make them worse. To make things right again, Shell must confess truths to her family and the people she has grown up with -- a terrifying prospect that she cannot face.

Written more as an adult novel with its elliptical style, thi is a hard slog for an allegedly YA story. The characters grow on you as you read, but it is still a maddening read (I'm not a big fan of dramatic tension that is based upon human stupidity). I'd suggest giving this one a miss.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Ruby Parker Hits the Small Time, by Rowan Coleman

Ruby has been on the popular soap Kensington Heights since she was six. But now that she's 13 and "frumpy" and "awkward," she fears that they may jettison her from the show. But far worse, her parents have announced that they are getting divorced. But when it seems that things are really headed downward, suddenly they take a turn up.

This rather strange and unpredictable novel promises us from the start that things will go bad, making us expect a tragedy. Instead, it never does so you end up wondering what all of the fuss was about. What we do get is a lot of uptight people breaking through their insecurities and talking to each other (the nasty girl turns out to simply be misunderstood and once that is established everyone becomes close friends!). But in the end, there is no dramatic payoff to match the hype. Manipulative and ultimately dull.

Parrotfish, by Ellen Wittlinger

Angela has always been struck by the obsession that the world has about dividing everyone into boys and girls. And even more trouble understanding why it bothers her and why she has always wanted to join the boys. When she figures out that she is really a boy and changes names to Grady, a brave voyage begins. While Grady realizes that he will face resistance and misunderstanding, his new friends and enemies show up in surprising places. But in the end, it is really all about discovering yourself.

It is no coincidence that the jacket bears an endorsement from Julie Anne Peters, whose Luna covered the TG world (much better!) from the other direction. This book is a bit preachy, relying on author intervention rather than a strong narrative to tell its story. That makes it a bit more ungainly than Wittlinger's other books. I also found the ending overly convenient and corny, but I'll admit that a book with such a heavy topic probably needs some lightening up. I'll give this a qualified recommendation -- good topic, good characters, but it needed a tighter story.