Friday, August 28, 2009

Ash, by Malinda Lo

In this altered version of the story of Cinderella, Ash is the orphaned daughter who is indentured to her stepmother and daughters because of her father's debts. There's all the cruel abuse from her former family, the denied ball, the dance with the gallant prince, and plenty of magic. But there is also a debt to a fairy, a beautiful huntress, and a very unexpected love story (let's just say that it isn't with the prince!).

Lo's retelling of the story is more of a riff on the entire genre of fairy tales, pulling in a wide variety of tales (and tales within tales) to tell at least two stories: first, the give a nice reinterpretation of what a fairy tale's meaning truly is about; and second, to speak of a friendship which is deeper and more important than any Disney romance has ever dreamed up for it. Lo very quickly focuses our attention on the dark side of these stories and, as for the romantic princess stuff, she directly criticises that as well (one of her heroines opines that she'd love to be a princess, just as long as it didn't involve having to marry a prince! and, in another case, the story finds Ash advising one of her evil step sisters to seek more from life than marriage). If this were really an attempt to tell the Cinderella story, this modern interventions would be distracting, but for Lo's grander mission, they fit in just fine.

It's not all smooth sailing. I found the beginning to be a bit of a drag to get through and the constant recitations of fairy tales didn't always interest me, but in retrospect everything had its place and its purpose. The strengths of this book are far more important: originality, compelling characters, and strong narrative. Most of all: being surprised along the way as the story I knew well could turned in directions that had never occurred to me.

The Treasure Map of Boys, by E. Lockhart

This third outing in Lockhart's Ruby Oliver series picks up where the second one ended. Ruby is weighing her feelings about at least three boys (Noel, Jackson, and Hutch) plus a few others on the side, and feeling a bit like an emotion ping-pong ball. Ag. And a bit like a teen-aged Woody Allen, Ruby is struggling to articulate all of this to her therapist. But what she can't say out loud, she is perfectly capable of expression in some of the most hilarious prose in YA.

It would be tempting to complain that the Ruby Oliver franchise was worn out by now, but that really is not the case, and it deserves a little exploration. In my mind, there are at least two things that make this third book an unusual example of a sequel that is better than the original. First of all, Lockhart has so much fun with Ruby and she is such a greal narrator that you really can't stop wanting to hear from her (the footnotes alone had me in stitches in the middle of the airport lounge at SEA-TAC). More importantly, this is much more than a re-tread of the previous books. Lockhart is very subtly showing us Ruby growing up. Yes, she is still a little bit neurotic and anxious, but she goes through some serious maturing in her perspectives about friendship (and boys) in this novel. We are not stuck just getting the same old Ruby as we saw in the first and second books. In sum, Lockhart scores again!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Watersmeet, by Ellen Jensen Abbott

Because of her dark skin and the lack of a father, Abisina has always been an outcast in her town of Vranville. But when an evil beast (disguised as a beautiful enchanting prophet) named Charrach shows up at her village, things change for the worse. Abisina must now flee for her life, in search of the mythical city of Watersmeet where she hopes to find both allies and her father. She finds both allies and enemies along the way, but even when she arrives at the site of her quest, the stakes increase and her mission becomes one of saving her world and bearing witness to a battle that will settle the injustices of her past or enshrine them forever.

A colorful and interesting setting, full of a wide variety of characters, Abbott has created the requisite world for an engrossing fantasy. But she also has greater ambitions than simply telling an action tale. As Abisina reaches Watersmeet, the story shifts from being a quest to becoming a philosophical piece about forgiveness and the cost of war. This is a valiant effort to provide depth to a hack-and-slay fantasy story. However, it didn't work for me. Abbott would like to use Abisina's inability to forgive to illustrate human foibles, but mostly it makes the character seem shallow and the sequences where she struggles with her desire for vengeance just seem like wasted time. The problem is that you can't really tell a war story and a forgiveness tale simultaneously (after all, they are contradictory notions) -- either the folks are going to fight or they aren't. And a YA fantasy is not a good pasture on which to breed indecision. Rather than establishing depth to the story, it read like waffling. And since we know that the characters are going to kill things at the end, all of this talk about peace is basically an empty gesture. That said, the book is impressive and opens all sorts of options for a sequel, so I imagine we'll be hearing more from Abisina. And that might not be all that bad.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Selkie Girl, by Laurie Brooks

Out on the Orkney Islands, Elin has always stood out as a bit different from the others. It is not simply the webbing on her hands, but also her strong tie to the sea and the Selkies who live out there. The truth is that she is the offspring of a Selkie mother who was captured sixteen years ago. Now, in one fateful evening, she helps her mother escape and flees herself into the sea. But as a half-breed, she stands out even in the sea. With time, she comes to understand that her heritage comes with both liabilities and strengths, and that she has a destiny to bring her two worlds to a better understanding of each other.

While largely a fantasy, Brooks also has a strong ecological agenda in this story. Overall, the story itself works. It is original, the characters are string, and Brooks has infused the book with lots of local charm. But it is tough going. Perhaps there is too much local charm (the lingo takes some getting used to) or perhaps the story just takes a long time to kick in. In short, I found this hard to read and easy to get lost in.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reality Check, by Peter Abrahams

Cody has dreams of becoming a professional football player and he's started to be noticed by the scouts. But when he is injured, all those dreams come crashing down. Depressed, he quits school and starts working real jobs. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Clea has been sent away to an expensive boarding school in Vermont by her protective father who doesn't want the girl hanging around with Cody. Cody is thinking his life can't get much worse until word reaches him that Clea has gone missing! Cody decides to go to Vermont to join the search for her and gets far more than he bargained for in the process.

A suspense thriller about a football player -- not my usual cup of tea, but I'm expanding my horizons a bit! As is to be expected, a bit too much action and a bit too little thinking and emoting for my tastes, but this is a pretty good story if action is your interest. Cody is surprisingly well-drawn. Never too bright or too dumb, he does most of the right things and is a decent, sympathetic character. Abrahams does less well with the female characters, but he seems to have the gruff outcast male thing down well.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Because I Am Furniture, by Thalia Chaltas

Anke is completely invisible in her family, but in her family that is probably a good thing. To be noticed would make her a target for abuse, which he liberally dishes out to her brother and sister. Watching her family being destroyed, Anke wonders why she cannot find the strength to speak out. In the end, after gaining confidence through a volleyball team she has joined, she is able to confront her father and save her family.

Verse novels, as I have often observed, are either insightful and touching or superficial and trite. The plot of this one -- heavy and oppressive as it sounds -- certainly carries the promise of being moving. But the verse itself is so thinly written that it never really hits the target. As a result, this book never quite lived up to my expectations.

Going Too Far, by Jennifer Echols

When Meg and her friends get busted trespassing on a dangerous railroad bridge, they get sentenced to having to spend their Spring Break riding along with local safety officers. Meg is horrified to learn that she is going to be stuck with the cop that arrested them in the first place. But what starts as mutual disgust blossoms into romance as the two of them discover each others' vulnerabilities.

This is actually somewhat better literature than the synopsis of the trashy plot would make it sound. Still, this book never did much for me. The characters are well-developed and the story stays on focus, so this is technically proficient writing. However, I didn't find much heat in the romance and found the story itself dull. I suspect that it is a complete matter of taste and your results may certainly differ.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The School for Dangerous Girls, by Eliot Schrefer

Angela has established a reputation for herself of being incorrigible. And when she goes to stay with her grandfather and he dies, she gets blamed for that. Her parents have given up hope and decide to send her to Hidden Oaks, a school for "dangerous" girls. The institution, which is cleverly disguised as a tough love rehabilitation school, is actually a prison where the girls are systematically broken down. Now, Angela and her fellow inmates must find a way to escape at all costs.

This book takes trashy to whole new level. The story came highly recommended to me so as I read it, I kept expecting some sort of vindication for the effort, but in the end it never came. This is complete garbage. The characters are stupid and foolish, and hardly believable. The story is implausible in the extreme and full of holes. The premise is offensive. I could go on but I'd rather not. I'd really prefer to get back several hours of my life instead. Consider yourself warned.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks, by Lauren Myracle

In this riff on sibling bonds, Myracle gives us the typical girl-chases-the-wrong-boy story. It's formulaic and we all know that she'll end up with the right boy at the end, but there's a lot more going on. Really, this is the story of Carly and her younger sister Anna, having their ups and down, but coming through for each other in the end.

As a story, there are lots of problems, among which are a meandering narrative and way too many subplots and threads. The book, in sum, is way too busy. Ironically, like so many other stories that race around, this one really doesn't say much in the end (friends come and go, but sisters are forever?). It's a sweet story and if you are just in the mood to read a book about two nice girls who look out for each other, this isn't a bad read, but there's not much here.
But, at least unlike Jodi Picoult, we can skip the lawsuit bit. :)

It's Not You, It's Me, by Kerry Cohen Hoffmann

The title of this book is just about the only line that Henry does not use on Zoe when he unceremoniously dumps her. The novel then traces, in cringe-inducing day-by-day detail the process that Zoe goes through to get over him. It's a story that is probably familiar to almost all of us (although some of Hoffman's target audience may not yet have had the pleasure) but it's still an important story.

This spare and short novel (170 or so large-print pages) holds no special surprises. Instead, it has modest ambitions and focuses on delivering on them. Hoffman has previously established a reputation for honest and frank autobiography and this wise tome has the tone of an earnest woman-to-girl chat. Yet, moving beyond the voyeuristic quality of the story, there are more universal themes addressed here about self-respect and picking-oneself-up, so almost anyone can enjoy the story. For those who believe that books can teach and entertain, this is decent ammunition.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Willow, by Julia Hoban

Seven months ago, driving the family car in stormy weather, Willow lost control of the vehicle. The accident killed her parents. Now, she lives with her older brother, his wife, and their infant daughter, and she tries to cope with her feelings of guilt and responsibility for the deaths of her parents. Mostly, she cuts herself, which she realizes is wrong but which gives her a release that helps her deal with her fears. Enter a guy named Guy who takes an interest in her and, when he realizes what she is doing to herself, tries to help her recover. But recovery is a longer road than either of the teens initially realize.

A surprisingly effective and original story on a topic which had pretty much seemed overdone. Cutting is not a pretty thing and Hoban avoids easy solutions, so this ought to be a difficult book to read, but instead it is quite moving and inspiring. The love story that develops between Willow and Guy is authentic and organic, full of emotional complexity with great respect for the feelings they are experiencing (a scene where Guy witnesses Willow cutting herself is particularly dramatic). I wanted some sort of real adult intervention or a happier ending, but Hoban is wise to avoid these easy outs. Instead, we learn that self-mutiliation is something that can be practiced consciously even by a wise and self-aware young woman. Striking! This book should become the new classic on the subject.

The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams

Thirteen year-old Kyra lives in an isolated polygamist compound with her mothers and siblings. She's accepted for most of her life that everything around her (the isolation, patriarchy, authoritarian leaders, etc.) are natural, but she still has an independent streak that leads her to sneak out and read books and carry on a clandestine relationship with a boy her age in the compound. When it is announced that she must marry her uncle (who is 50 years older than her), she rebels. In rebellion, she discovers the ugly side of her community and her faith.

A suspenseful and fast-paced novel that pulls out most of the usual stereotypesabout cults and isolated sects (no major originality here!) and obviously inspired by real-life events of a year ago. Kyra makes a symapthetic and intelligent heroine, but I never got a sense for why she stayed around as long as she did (the answers are fairly obvious - family and faith - but nothing is really drawn out in this story). This made her motivations a bit muddled and I found myself mostly tracking the story and waiting for the great escape that I was sure would come. The result is that the book is decent entertainment but won't really get you inside of anyone's head. for a better example of a similar story, see The Patron Saint of Butterflies.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Love (and other uses for duct tape), by Carrie Jones

Belle and Em are in their last months of High School. Living in small town Maine, there might not seem to be a lot to do, but there is certainly a lot going on in Belle's mind. For example, there's the unfinished business of a dead father, a mother who mangles the words to songs on purpose, a boyfriend who is afraid to push Belle into having sex (even though she wants to be pushed), and - to top it all - Em has found out she is pregnant. Lacking any traditional sense of narrative, Jones's novel explores friendship, identity, love, and (yes) duct tape.

There is an amazing depth to the characters in this book. Jones is obviously an expert in this department and has spared no effort in bringing as much into the story as she can. It comes, though, at the sacrifice of the story. Rather than be a story teller, Jones prefers creating an extended character study. These ones are interesting enough to make it almost work (and it might work for you), but I'm a traditionalist and I wanted something to happen that I could sink my teeth into.
As a side note: I was disappointed that Jones never developed the Mom's boyfriend's interest in 3-D photography. Such a unique opportunity!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Purge, by Sarah Darer Littman

When Janie ends up in a psychiatric hospital because of bulimia, she has a lot of time to reflect on what drove her to purging. Going through denial and grief, she eventually ends up in acceptance, but not before learning a lot about herself and her fellow sufferers.

The plot on this one is fairly predictable and follows a slew of other girl-in-mental-institution books. Littman brings in a few original elements (boys with eating disorders -- who knew?) and the characters are distinct and engaging enough. The dialog sounds good. Littman avoids preaching. This is all very good, but the story is so formulaic and concluded so smoothly that I didn't see the pooint of the exercise. We've had a fair share of these books already and this doesn't break new ground. So, if you've never read a book about bulimia, this is not a bad one to start with, but there are lots of fish in the sea.