Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Mousehunter, by Alex Milway

In an alternate world, mice come in all sizes and shapes, and have proven to be the most versatile helpmates a human could long for. And in this world, young Emiline yearns to fine tune her mousekeeper skills to the point that she can one day be considered a mousehunter. But in the meantime, she has left the employ of her eccentric mouse-collecting Lovelock to join the privateer Drewshank on an expedition to capture the dread pirate Mousebeard. Through storms and sea monsters, Emiline and her trusty gray mouse Portly take the adventure of their lives.

An extremely developed and colorful fantasy read, Milway's descriptions of all of the various mice that populate his world are the true highlight of this book. And the book certainly has enough twists and turns to keep things busy. However, Milway seems to delight in throwing in these details and twists not so much to keep the story exciting as much as to fill the story with activity. Far too many storylines are introduced and die with a whimper. And I found the constantly shifting narrative voice (sometimes with the girl, sometimes with the privateer, and even sometimes with the villians) very distracting. This is not a story for character development (or even growth) and that makes for dry reading. Very creative but dreadfully dull (in spite of its frenetic activity level).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Everything Is Fine, by Ann Dee Ellis

Mazzy's mother is sick, lying at home slowly vegetating from grief. Mazzy's Dad is away from home pursuing his dream job of being a sports commentator on ESPN and avoiding facing th truth about what is going on at home. People come by to help (a home health aide named Bill, the neighbors, a hired woman who brings the groceries, a concerned social worker, etc.) but each time Mazzy tries to drive them off with her "karate chops" and an assurance that "everything is fine," even if it most certainly is not.

The story seeks poignancy by telling the story entirely through Mazzy's voice and her drawings. That would work if Mazzy wasn't such an unlikeable character. Some of this nastiness is a result of her need to protect her family, but there is also a terrible selfish streak to her that really turned me off. And as the story promised that everything would be revealed, I wanted to find out that Mazzy had some good reason for behaving as she did (autism, ADHD, anything!) but that never came. Once I hated the main character, my interest in what happened to her plummeted. And my desire to read her (realistically) scrappy narrative declined. An interesting concept but a book that you will probably want to give a pass on.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

House of Dance, by Beth Kephart

With her mother distracted by an affair with her married co-worker, Rosie is left alone to help her dying grandfather go through his possessions and decide what to give away. It's an eye-opening journey for Rosie who has not known that much about her grandfather before. Determined to give him something very special before he is gone, Rosie organizes a party for Granddad with the help of the dance students at a local studio.

Beautifully written and inspired by the death of Kephart's mother, this story of family and dealing with change is striking and memorable. It is not, however, a YA book, despite its teenaged heroine. I have no doubt that some young readers might enjoy it (and many adult readers will be taken by the gorgeous narrative and adult observations of the characters), but it is being mis-marketed to a teen audience. Moreover, it suffers from one of my least favorite attributes of the adult modern novel: the tendency to use characters and story to sell a point, rather than letting the characters find their way into your heart. As beautiful as the story was, I never found myself caring for the characters at all.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Fancy White Trash, by Marjetta Geerling

Abby has developed a series of rules (You Don't Need Him, No Baggage from the Past, etc.) to help save her from the fate of her sisters and mother. Mom's been married three times already (twice to Abby's biological Dad) and she's now pregnant with the child of The Guitar Player (who's also managed to get Abby's older sister pregnant). Add to all this that Abby's about the only one in the family so far that hasn't been a teenage mother, and you can appreciate why she's trying to live by some sort of order. But her life is really just a Jerry Springer episode in the making -- her best friend is an in-the-closet gay boy with immaculate taste, and she can't tell if she's ready to date the older brother of that same best friend (she's hesitant because she's convinced that he might be the father of one of her sister's kid). Oh yeah, she likes to watch soap operas...can you tell?

If you take this story as light entertainment, it works pretty well as a farce. It's a little too serious to be comedy though and way over-the-top for serious drama. So, I just sort of waded through it, never quite managing to get connected with the characters. It's cute and it's original at times (skipping over a very tired cliched portrayal of the gay friend), but it's not very compelling.

Unraveling, by Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman

Amanda is always getting into trouble with her mother. Her younger sister, on the other hand, is perfect and skates through life unscathed. But it isn't all Amanda's fault -- Mom's sister and even Dad notice that Amanda seems to get singled out a lot for blame. But it's complicated and no one is really all that perfect in this look at familial relationships.

A complex story that is at its strongest when it is dealing with the mother-daughter relationship. It struggles more when it attempts to deal with peer pressure and teen sex (as it is pretty obvious that these subplots really don't have much to do with the story). Also, a little more subtlety in the maternal abuse would have gone a long way (most readers will have to admit that Amanda has it a lot worse than they ever have had it).

But putting that aside, the story itself is striking and the characters true and vibrant. I, of course, have no first-hand experience with mother-daughter relationships, but this story seemed honest and accurate. The frustrations and disconnects between Mom and Amanda seemed familiar, and I am sure that all of us will recognize a bit of their struggle in our own relationships with our parents (or children, as the case may be).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ten Cents A Dance, by Christine Fletcher

In 1941 in Chicago, Ruby must find a way to support her widowed mother and younger sister. Working in the stockyards, she can barely earn anough money to scrape by and certainly not enough to get her family out of their living situation. But when a local boy tells her about a dance hall where she can get paid for dancing with men, she decides to explore the option. She loves dancing, after all, and the promise of earning $50 a week sure sounds great! Very quickly, Ruby realizes that there is much more to the job than simply dancing and comes to understand that she is going to have to make some difficult decisions in order to survive.

Appearing on several "best of 2008" lists this year, I was intrigued by this book. It doesn't fall into the category of a book I would normally want to read. I'm not big of historical novels and 20th century really tends to bore me. However, the richness of the detail and the engrossing story very quickly take over. Gangsters and jazz in Chicago is pretty tired cliche but this book never falls a foul of that. Instead, we get a glimpse of a really vibrant world and a story about a truly original heroine. Truly, a very well crafted story!

Feathered, by Laura Kasischke

During Spring Break in their senior year of High School, three girls (Terri, Anne, and Michelle) go to Cancun. The planis to meet some boys, have a few drinks, and enjoy themselves in the sun. But beneath the surface, the girls are always just a bit aware of the danger of being a young woman in such a situation. And when the fear of danger becomes a horrible reality instead, one of them struggles with her inability to cope with the changes it causes in their lives.

A beautifully-written tale (Kasischke's previous works have primarily been written in verse and it shows!) about a very dark subject. The story avoids exploitation by focusing on character themes (Michelle's search for beauty and Anne's fear of living). The juxtaposition of the characters is striking and creates a book that transcends its genre with its ambitious design.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Rainy, by Sis Deans

Rainy has troubles staying focused on one thing for any length of time and she drives her teachers (and the other kids) nutty with her outbursts and seemingly random behavior. But life with ADHD is not easy. It will be particularly challenging this summer as her parents are sending her to overnight camp for four weeks in Maine. There she must learn to adapt to life with lots of new kids but so many familiar problems.

I'll have to come clean out say that I've never been terribly patient or sympathetic to people who suffer from ADHD (it pushes all sorts of personal buttons for me on so many levels), so it's also a bit of a challenge to read a (fictional) story about what it is like. I kept coming back to the thought of "how is this girl going to survive in the real world when she grows up?"

Putting that bias aside though, the book itself is fascinating. Deans has done a fantastic job of crafting a sympathetic portrait of what having ADHD could be like. Rainy is no saint and Deans doesn't hesitate to show both strengths and weaknesses. For a reader who wants to understand how it works, this is a good primer. The story itself is fairly basic but full of enough suspense and character development to keep middle readers interested. As much as Rainy would drive me completely up the wall in person, I could appreciate her struggles. That makes this a good story.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Cicada Summer, by Andrea Beaty

Lily hasn't spoken a word in two years, since her older brother died. But in the summer when a girl named Tinny came to town and the cicadas came out of the 17 year hibernation, things will change. Lily will reveal some talents she's learned from Nancy Drew and confront both her past and the injustices that pervade her world.

A beautifully written and lyrical look at a summer of change. Perhaps too lyrical and abstract for the targeted tween audience, but a gorgeous and gentle read nonetheless. This short novel (almost a novella) has delightful descriptions and the type of bittersweet poignancy that I'm a sucker for. Recommended.