Monday, July 28, 2008

A Curse Dark as Gold, by Elizabeth C. Bunce

In this retelling of the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, the Miller family's spinning mill has survived under The Curse for many years. Ranging from little things like windows that break for no reason to the fact that no male offspring born at the house has lived to adulthood, the family has had a lot of bad luck! But as the last living Miller daughters attempt to keep things together, a stranger shows up who can perform miracles, and he promises to fix their promises. Instead, the truth is somewhat more complicated.

Rich and engrossing, this fairly long novel (nearly 400 pages) is well worth the read. This complex story is blessed with excellent delivery as all of the pieces fall into place as the mysteries are revealed. Add to the deft storytelling some wonderful historical and cultural detail about the period (late 18th century wool spinners) and you get quite a gem!

And what can you say about one of the prettiest covers of the year so far in YA!

The Vanishing Point, by Susan Bonners

Kate comes to the beach to spend the Summer with the Harris family (friends of her parents) and their daughter Alison. Kate and Alison spend the Summer trying out the 44 flavors of ice cream at the Purple Cow, rescuing orphaned animals, and taking art lessons. An impulse purchase at an auction launches Kate on an investigation into the history of a local famed artist.

Random and poorly written, this is a rough read. The subplot about the mysterious painting is interesting, but most of the book is jumbled. The plots that do develop are missing key points and at the same time, the author finds space for significant unrelated digressions. A mess!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley

Terra is a strikingly beautiful young woman at first glance. But when people see the large flaw on her face, they always cringe. Between that and her abusive father and beatten-down mother, Terra has struggled to come out of her shell. But when an accident and a terrible Christmas gathering send Terra and her mother into the globe-trotting unknown, things start to change.

An unusual premise ripe with potential and a story with a comfortable predictableness. Yes, you know that Terra is going to find herself and recognize her true potential at the end. Yes, the metaphors sometimes come on a bit too heavy. But there are wonderful surprises in this book and scenes (like the one in the orphanage) that will have your eyes welling up. Headley makes the story poignant without being exploitative (a very tricky and important balance). And the ending - while predictable - is satisfying and sufficient.

Don't look for this one in stores yet. It's a rare (for me) advance reading copy (thank you!). It won't be out in general release untyil February 2009. But put it on your wish list now because it is well worth reading!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reaching for Sun, by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer

Josie has cerebral palsy. In verse, Josie tells us about an eventful year, when she turned 14 and was friends with the boy genius Jordan, when her grandmother had a stroke, her Mom got a job, and Josie herself found the voice she needed to confront her family and speak the truth. Kids at school may call her a "retard," but she is no baby.

Verse novels have two basic pitfalls -- being thin on character development and overdoing on pathos. This novel is guilty of both. It's a nice idea though as there are not a lot of books out there about CP. And the verse itself has several clever moments. But it's not enough to save this rather slight story.

Larger-Than-Life Lara, by Dandy Daley Mackall

When Lara comes to Paris Elementary, the kids in 4th grade can't help but make fun of her size. But no matter how much they tease her and how mean they are to her, she just smiles back and responds with a rhyme. Not that it helps any as the kids (and even the teachers) pick on her. But in the eyes of the narrator (her classmate Laney, who has problems of her own) she is a great hero.

A moderately clever book for middle readers, with an obvious debt to Stargirl. It has a few original additions to the formula (the narrator likes to explain her literary devices and her grammar/voice is authentic). But the narrative has so many loose ends that one wishes the author had tried to do less (for example, cutting out the subplot about Laney's home life, which basically goes nowhere).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Get Well Soon, by Julie Halpern

Anna Bloom recounts her twenty-one days spent in a mental hospital. As expected, the story tracks her recovery from an anxious and nervous young woman to one with slightly more confidence, as she discovers that she can make friends and even find a boyfriend in a supportive environment.

Not a bad novel, but not an overly ambitious story either. There have been plenty of good novels about teenagers in mental institutions. This one simply doesn't do much. Anna's problems are never quite articulated and, in fact, seem to have more to do with the incompetence of her caregivers than any real issues. One gets the sense that her entire treatment experience was a waste, but even that particular angle is not explored.

Madapple, by Christina Meldrum

Aslaug has lived a very isolated life in the wilds of Maine, raised and heavily controlled by her mother. When Mother dies, Aslaug is set adrift but finds the aunt and cousins that she never knew she had. But if life with Mother was a bit odd, her new family is even stranger and things quickly descend into madness. Told in flashback (and in the present through courtroom testimony), we gradually piece together what has happened.

A richly textured book with exotic characters, Madapple is densely written and a bit hard to get through. After 50 or so pages, I began to get comfortable with the style and really enjoy the book, but at midpoint the writing descends into some dry religious history and starts to lecture. Apparently Meldrum became really interested in early Christian thought and wanted to share. There is a point to this (it has some bearing on the plot) but she goes way overboard and I lost interest quickly. The ending is a bit convenient (relying upon that weaker courtroom drama device of the surprise witness). Overall an original and provocative book but it gets a mixed review from me.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Book of One Hundred Truths, by Julie Schumacher

When Thea goes on vacation to her grandparents' house on the Jersey shore, she is not expecting to find the house full to the brim with family members. Nor is she expecting the gift her mother gives her: a journal in which she is supposed to record 100 true things. But most of all, she is not expecting how difficult it will be to control her compulsive lying and an annoying younger cousin whose persistence may translate to revelation.

A bit gimmicky and the conclusion is not as terribly shocking as it is built up to be. Thea is engaging enough and the targetted demographic (middle readers) will like her, but mostly this story is simply satisfactory. Not bad, but not terribly memorable or outstanding.

Good Enough, by Paula Yoo

Patti is a stereotypical overachieving Asian high schooler with overanxious parents who are convinced that without constant effort there is no way that she's ever going to get into HARVARDYALEPRINCETON. But despite her success, Patti feels that something is lacking and that she is simply not good enough.

While starting with a stereotype, Yoo quickly departs from stock notions, adding a level of detail and depth that make Patti a really likeable character. There is some underdeveloped themes about racism, the story itself is predictable, and it all wraps up a bit too neatly for belief, but even these shortcomings have their own satisfactions. More than your usual guilty pleasure, the story has enough substance and life observations to make it shine. Recommended.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

How To Be Bad, by E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski, and Lauren Myracle

Told in alternating voices (presumably by alternating authors), this novel tells the classic road trip story of three girls - rich girl Mel, Christian Jesse (whose Mom has cancer), and Vicks (for whom the road trip to see her boyfriend is officially instigated). Naturally enough, they have little in common when they start and a lot of common ground to bond over by the time they are done, as they trip through Florida and battle alligators, hurricanes, pirates, and few near-miss boyfriends.

Three powerhouse writers and enough publicity surrounding the book to make it hard to ignore, but the overall result is a big disappointment. All three of these writers have done better work on their own. As with Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist (which I also failed to appreciate as much as the other critics), strong writers don't make good collaborators. There can be some fun in watching the authors fight each other to control the story, but there is a jarring sense as we cross over each chapter that there is no consensus about what the story should really be about? Friendship? Family? Finding inner strength? Alligators? Is the story serious or silly? It's all a bit much. A clever writing workshop project perhaps, but not material for a published novel (unless of course you already have an excellent track record that you can afford to blow). Ignore the hype and skip this book.

Keeping Corner, by Kashmira Sheth

In 1917, 12 year-old Leela's husband is killed by a snake. And while she has never lived with her husband, she is condemned by custom to spend the rest of her life as a shunned widow, starting with a full year of seclusion. Set amidst real political events shaking India at the time, this semi-biographical tribute to the author's great-aunt creates an interesting setting for ordinary adolescent yearnings in extraordinary circumstances.

While the story can get a bit sluggish and repetitive, the setting makes for interesting reading. This is no milestone piece or even a particularly original story, but for a reader unfamiliar with Indian rural culture (i.e., most of us!) this is a decent read. The political angle works less well as it never fully integrates with Leela's search, despite the author's intent.

Love Me Tender, by Audrey Couloumbis

When Elvira's Dad leaves the family to take part in an Elvis impersonation contest in Las Vegas, Mom decides to pack up the family to visit Grandmother. The Grandmother is getting on a bit in years and has a tendency to set the house on fire, but otherwise people mostly just sit around and chat.

A strikingly dull book (which I should have expected since her much more critically-acclaimed novel Bringing Up Baby was similar). Couloumbis does not really have much interest in plot. Instead, her characters mostly sit around and chat. This might make for realism and decent character development, but not for an entertaining read.

The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd

When Salim, Kat and Ted's cousin, passes through London on his way to relocate to New York, he begs for a chance to take a ride on the Eye. His cousins take him and the adventure begins when Salim disappears! The adults are unable to figure out what happened, but Ted is on the case. This is all the more surprising as Ted has trouble communicating (he has symptoms that resemble Asperger's Syndrome). But Ted has a sharp mind for details and gradually he unravels what happened to Salim.

I'm reading this in flight to London, so it is strangely appropriate. However, I wouldn't consider the story to be anything spectacular. Dowd does a nice job of creating Ted's unique voice, but the mystery itself is not developed well and the story's pacing is too slow.

[Additional note: while at the Eye's gift shop later in the week, I noticed that they are carrying this book for sale. Cute tie-in!]