Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hush, by Donna Jo Napoli

In this sprawling epic, based loosely on a real Irish princess of the Tenth Century, Melkorka goes from Ireland to captivity as a slave in Russia to a new life in Iceland -- a grand journey indeed! But she is also an unusual heroine: finding strength (and her "voice") through silence even as she loses everything around her that she values and everyone that she loves.

Napoli continues to be one of the strongest writers of YA historical fiction (and also myth/fairy tale retellings), combining rich details about the epoch and its customs with good storytelling. While this particular novel never really rises above the genre to make a significant point, it is an entertaining read and an engrossing story. As fair warning, the events in this novel may be a bit intense for younger readers, but even at those moments, Napoli is never exploitative.

The Missing Girl, by Norma Fox Mazer

There are five girls in the Herbert family, which is a lot of mouths to feed and times are not good. But as the family struggles with money and the girls go through typical sibling issues, no one notices the man in the gray coat who is watching them. He's the kind of person you pay no mind to until it's too late. One day, one of the girls goes missing.

There are two reasons I ended up really disliking this book. The first reason is the Ick Factor. The entire premise of the story (kidnapping and child molestation) was totally unnecessary. The second problem for me was the pointlessness of the story. Made up of unconnected ideas and undeveloped plotlines, the story (such as it is) meanders around. What was the point? Entertainment? (that's a sick thought, although the book is actually just boring) Education? (no lesson is ever taught -- neither characters nor reader learn anything) Message? (hardly present, beyond the ol' don't-talk-to-strangers chestnut) Pass!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Wake, by Lisa McMann

Since she was eight years-old, Janie has been able to see other peoples' dreams. But it isn't just about knowing what people dream about, she actually gets sucked into the dreams. And what started as an annoyance on sleepovers has become a serious liability now that Janie is 17 and getting ready for college. Then an encounter with an elderly lady and a friendship with a stoner-outcast boy (who has an uncanny ability to directly communicate with her in his dreams) sends Janie off in a new career direction with fascinating potential.

A strange and interesting premise that veers into weird territory in the end. Things are not helped by the writing style, which is intended to simulate dreaming, but comes out clunky and awkward. The characters never really develop and I found myself feeling cut off from any emotional connection with them. Great idea but the story just didn't deliver. But if you like this one, you can look forward to the sequel coming out in 2009.

What Happened to Lani Garver, by Carol Plum-Ucci

When the majorly androgynous Lani shows up in the Jersey Shore island of Hackett, his looks raise a lot of suspicion. It is only a matter of time before the rumors and accusations start to surface. But Claire doesn't believe any of it and, as she expresses doubt, the hostility she encounters from the people she grew up around leaves her wondering why all of the fuss is happening and leads her to question events from her past. Far too quickly, things come to a deadly head.

This is an ugly story with a nasty edge. It is hard to not come to the conclusion that the author hates small towns with her demonization of the people of Hackett. The characters are overwhelming weak or repulsive and the story shies away from any moments of redemption. There are some nice observations about group think and denial, but they are drowned in an unrelenting mean streak. The subplot about angels becomes rather meaningless in the end, and is largely used as an excuse to temper the horrific ending with fuzziness.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Alive and Well in Prague, New York, by Daphne Grab

When Matisse's father gets so sick with Parkinson's that he can no longer do his sculpture, her parents decide to move out of New York City and go Upstate to the tiny town of Prague, where excitement is a hayride and the art teacher does not know the difference between Matisse and Monet. It's a rough transition for Matisse and she does little to ingratiate herself into Prague's cliques. But then, she is also struggling to accept her father's condition and deal with her mother's denial.

As with the last book I reviewed, this one has a good premise for a story, but Grab's novel lacks subtlety. The narrator's voice (which never sounds authentically adolescent, but rather borders between selfish and jarringly reflective) does not quite work for me and the resulting story is clunky. I liked what the author was trying to do, but I can't really recommend the book.

The Other Half of Me, by Emily Franklin

Jenny is the odd one out in her family. They are all physically adept and athletic, while Jenny is clumsy and uncoordinated. Jenny isn't sure where her talents lie, but it may be in art, if she can ever finish a painting. But even if it is, her family couldn't care less. But there is more: Jenny is the offspring of a sperm donor and only a half-sibling to her brother and sisters. Feeling not only like an outsider, but also as if she is missing a half, she searches for (and finds) a half-sister (from the same donor). But meeting her half-sister has a complicated impact on her family and herself.

An interesting premise with some nuanced understanding of human interaction, but the parents go from clue-less to caring far too easily for me and everything wraps up too neatly. The conflicts are set up a bit too artificially and fall away without a struggle. Without any tension and a minimum of character evolution, this is a functional story, but no more.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

How To Build A House, by Dana Reinhardt

Harper decides to spend the summer doing some good for the world by joining a group of teens who are helping a family in Tennessee rebuild their house after it has been destroyed by a tornado. But this trip is more about running away from her disintegrating family at home than learning to build a house. However, as far away from her family as she has gone, she can't quite escape reminders of what is back there. And the friendships she will develop in the summer will simply complicate those issues.

I liked Reinhardt's previous Harmless a lot and Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life was a near perfect pick for me, but this latest effort never quite engages me. Perhaps it is the story itself rather than the writer. Reinhardt, in my opinion, is fast rising to challenge Sarah Dessen's mantle as the Queen of YA, and How To Build A House has the same beautiful writing of her previous works. It still has the great insights that make you sigh. But I found the flashbacks to her past at home to be quite jarring and the housebuilding analogy was overextended. This is a good book, but not her best one.

The Compound, by S. A. Bodeen

Six years ago, Eli's father evacuated the family to an underground shelter to save them as the bombs started to fall and before nuclear winter descended on the planet. But after all these years trapped underground, Eli and his sisters have grown suspicious that there are secrets being withheld from them. This becomes more pressing as conditions grow more desperate. Their food supply is running out and Dad has turned to drastic measures.

A surprisingly gripping story, despite the fact that you really do know how it is going to end. Good pacing and a decent number of twists and turns keep things interesting up to the conclusion. As a result, this story ends up being a decent action/suspense piece with enough of a human element to keep it engaging. A few days after reading it, I'm questioning a few of the weaker plot points, but while I was reading, I was pretty engrossed.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Ghostgirl, by Tonya Hurley

The problem with dying to be popular is that if you want it too much, you may in fact really die. Or, at least, that is the premise of this wickedly funny satire of teen angst. After a fatal choking incident involved a gummy bear, Charlotte goes from being invisible at her school to being dead. This actually changes things for the better as people start to see her and she may yet win a chance to snag the boy of her dreams and go to the Fall Dance with him. But first, she must pass Dead Ed, convince the school's goth girl to switch bodies with her, and deal with the horrid Prue (who is to the Afterlife what snotty cheerleader Petula is to the high school). After all, it's a matter of life or.... (well, you get the idea!).

An extraordinarily clever story that finds the meeting point between self-absorbed adolescent melodrama, gothic romance, and horror -- a surprisingly compatible mixture -- and stirs in some pee-in-your-pants one-liners and cultural references from at least three decades of YA/horror/high school. My personal favorite was the Dead Ed movie (a direct reference to the sex-ed movies of the early 80s that I was subjected to) - yes, your body is indeed changing! OMG! The first 100 pages of this quick read had me dying from laughter.

That said, the cleverness is marred a bit by a plot that veers off into weirdo land in the next 100 pages and never really comes back up for air. Hurley never loses her satirical edge (although some of the puns get tired), but the story could have used some rethinking. That is a terrible shame since the boom is otherwise an enjoyable romp!