Saturday, July 25, 2009

If I Stay, by Gayle Forman

When Mia is tossed into a ditch from her parent's car during an accident, she initially thinks that she has miraculously survived without a scratch, but as she wanders around, she realizes that somehow she has left her comatose body and is now a passive observer of events. And the events are horrendous: both of her parents have died, her little brother is in unknown condition, and her her own body is badly mangled. So, while her physical body lies in a Portland ICU, Mia finds herself replaying her life and trying to decide if it is worth staying alive.

This is familiar enough territory and the author is good enough the acknowledge the usual suspects like Ghost, but also a bit different. For one thing, Mia is less concerned with the present than she is with the past. That makes for awkward storytelling as we are naturally far more interested in whether she will live or die than her out-of-order flashbacks over her life. And it does not help that the flashbacks themselves sometimes fail to contribute to the story in an obvious fashion. I found it hard to connect with Mia and parts of the story dragged for me. So, in the end, it never quite worked: being not as poignant as Forman intended nor enlightening or inspiring.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Alis, by Naomi Rich

At the age of 14, Alis is informed by her parents that she must marry the 40 year-old minister of their church. Determined to avoid this fate, she finds an excuse to travel to a nearby village to delay the nuptial and to put herself in a better position to run away. But the new village is far more dangerous and Alis's trouble quickly multiply until she is forced to flee for her life to the strange and hostile City, where she hopes to find a new life. The dangers continue to appear and by the end of the story, Alis's life is in danger.

While evocative of Shaker, Puritan, and Amish cultures, Rich has created a evocative world of faith and suspicion that is at once both familiar and different from our own. The customs are beautifully laid out and the story unfolds in a believable and compelling fashion. Yet Rich is wise to never quite specify that this is a real historical past, because it allows her greater freedom to develop events in her own way and leave the reader always a bit off-balance. Also, Alis's fierce self-determination would have seemed anachronistic in an "real" setting. So, while the story reminded me of The Shakeress and even a bit of The Return of Martin Guerre, Rich was free to take her heroine in far more interesting directions than either of those stories. The result is a hybrid of fantasy and historical fiction that is rewarding.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Anything But Typical, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

This unusual book attempts to put us inside the mind of a 12 year-old autistic boy named Jason Blake. The story is predictably sad as Jason recounts his struggles to be understood in the "neurotypical" world of mainstream society. Amidst the teasing of his peers and their rejection of his differences, Jason's joy is writing and he shows great talent in written language skills. And while is does well enough in school, he shines brightest on an online writer's group, where he meets a girl named Rebecca with whom he shares his stories. It's a wonderful relationship for Jason and helps him build confidence, until Jason's parents innocently reward him by offering to take him to a writers' convention (where, as it happens, Rebecca will also be). Now, Jason is terrified of how Rebecca will react when she sees what he is really like in the flesh.

For its target audience (10-14 year olds), it is a bit hard to see how this book will appeal. Autism is a tricky condition to understand for adults and young readers (unless they are familiar with autism) will find this a challenging story to follow. Still, this is something to be commended in stories like this that at least attempt to make such a character accessible. Baskin certainly does this, never glorifying Jason's struggles or flaws. Rather, we get a nicely nuanced story which allows the reader to both sympathize with Jason and with the people he deals with. There are no good guys or bad guys here, but simply people being themselves for better or worse. And the story wraps without recourse to either any feel good or tragic endings.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Something, Maybe, by Elizabeth Scott

Hannah has a Mom who spends the evening doing live chat with (paying) customers on the internet. And her estranged Dad is the star of a celebrity reality show which mostly features him cavorting with young bimbos not much older than his daughter. With that much notoriety, Hannah does her best to keep a low profile at school. But she would still like to get noticed by sensitive socially-conscious Josh while avoiding the wisecracks of annoying Finn -- both of whom work with her at a call center for BurgerTown. So when she finds herself thinking about Finn more than Josh, she'll be the last one to realize why.

Like meatloaf, this is a story that is as comforting as it is predictable. But like a good rom com, it has a great sense of humor, good pacing, and a sweet heart. Things will work out in the end when girl finds boy and parents live up to (or exceed) expectations. I had several good laugh out loud moments so I can definitely attest that it is funny. There are even some deep truths buried in the book for those who seek substance. But most of all, you will simply enjoy it -- and that's what a good summer read is all about.

The funny thing is that I haven't been all that taken by Scott's previous books. Neither Bloom or Perfect You did that much for me (although they were admittedly good mind candy) and Living Dead Girl creeped me out too much. I think, at last, the author has found a perfect balance or wit, romance, and serious observation. A winner!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Everything Beautiful in the World, by Lisa Levchuk

With Edna's mother in the hospital fighting cancer, she gets excused from pretty much everything she doesn't want to do (going to class, visiting her sick mother, etc.) and is indulged by her father (who gives her a sports car). And when her art teacher (for whom she's always had a crush) starts to flirt with her, she thinks things are pretty good. The relationship, however, leaves her more unsettled and the lack of boundaries (or attention from responsible adults) makes things worse.

A strange story with a poorly developed ending. Levchuk is probably producing an autobiographical confessional here (the story is placed in the early 1980s), but aside from confronting her childhood traumas, it is not clear what purpose the story serves. Edna's behavior appears largely random. Her impulses, while natural enough for her age, are exaggerated and irrational. This suggests some form of mental illness, but left unexplained, they basically confuse the reader. For me, this made the story disjointed to the point of being plain annoying. I'd suggest giving it a miss.

For those who do read the book, I have a question: why did Levchuk choose "Roxanne" as the book's theme song rather than the far more obvious "Don't Stand So Close To Me"?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

Katsa is a graceling -- a person endowed with a particular skill that makes them stand out from others. Katsa's skill gives her the ability to defeat just about anyone she comes in conflict with. It's a skill that has made her very useful to King Randa, her uncle. But she has tired of being sent out to do randa's dirty work and longs for a higher calling. When she gets involved in saving the grandfather of a prince in another kingdom, she and the prince (named Po) forge a strong friendship based on their mutually compatible graces (Po is also an expert at combat) and their strong feelings for each other. However, the struggle they now undertake will stretch their talents and their loyalty to the outer limits.

Placed in a mythical land of seven kingdoms, this fantasy novel is surprisingly down-to-earth. On its face, it is a well-paced and exciting action tale with a satisfying conclusion. But Cashore has much higher ambitions for the work. Katsa and Po's struggle with both their graces and with their feelings for each other, are wonderfully familiar to anyone who has/is struggling with adolescence and much of the story works as a parable. The strong female characters are also a joy and show that Cashore (while she is happy to celebrate womanhood) feels no qualms about making her women and girls tough as nails when they need to be. The overall result is a surprisingly fast read and great summer escapism, but with substance and relevance not often found in fantasy books. Hooray!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Along for the Ride, by Sarah Dessen

On the spur of the moment, Auden decides to flee her demanding overachieving mother and spend her last Summer before college at the beach, with her father, stepmother, and their new baby. However, all is not peace and tranquility there either as her Dad (a paragon of passive-aggressive self-centeredness) is fleeing fatherhood and avoiding Auden as well. Auden copes with all of this as she usually does -- through avoidance (sense a theme to the dysfunction in this family?) and nocturnal exploration of the town. Along the way, she meets Eli, a loner with a past and a bike shop. Through their budding friendship, Auden learns to confront her bad habits, accept the faults of her parents, and conquer her fear of failure. She also learns how to ride a bike.

The arrival of a new Sarah Dessen novel is a Major Event and it took some will power to not devour this book the moment it came out (or, for that matter, to not offer abnormal sacrifices to the publicists at Viking to get an ARC). Dessen is, without a doubt, one of the very best YA writers alive and most of her books get my highest ratings. This one, unfortunately, is not one of them.

Sarah's had a baby recently. You'd know that if you read her BLOG, but you'd also know that simply by reading this book. The character of Thisbe (Auden's infant half-sister) plays a major role in the book. The reason is obvious: Dessen's own life is centered now around her own child so it is natural enough to want to share all of that with her readers. Fine and fair, but it makes for an odd focus in a YA story. And the frequency of the child-raising observations (how many times does Dessen remind us what Thisbe smells like? How many child raising tips somehow find their way into the novel?) suggests a high degree of distraction. Dessen would obviously prefer to be writing a story about the joys of motherhood. Also fine. But that is not the world of an 18-year girl and Auden (the book's alleged center) is frequently lost in the shuffle.

But moving on....the book is plagued with problems. Auden's relationship with Eli is strangely without spark, supporting characters lack either the draw or the humor of her previous novels, and the plot meanders around. The story itself is recycled, basically Auden and Eli are Annabel and Owen from Just Listen (but with a far less interesting dynamic). The ol' closed-suppressed- girl-learns-to-open-up-through-the-mysterious (but patient and kind)-boy plot is a winner and makes for lots of aw-shucks reading, but it is not original. Dessen can do a lot better.

All that said, Dessen on a bad day is pretty spectacular compared to the other writers out there. I may think Dreamland and Someone Like You are much better books, but none of that should detract from the fact that Dessen writes well, has a great ear for teens (Mid-Atlantic and Southern ones at least!), and creates some of the most beautiful literature out there.

Finally, for anyone who read the book: was anyone else bothered by the cover? Auden makes a big point of explaining how she is not a pink-wearing girly-girl, yet the young woman on the cover is decked out in a dress that Auden would not be caught dead in. What's with that?!