Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Miles Between, by Mary E. Pearson

There are amazing coincidences in the world, days when everything goes completely right or, as Destiny Faraday puts it, "one fair day" to counter all of the terrible ones in life. And Destiny has plenty of things to deal with: being abandoned by her parents at the age of seven and shuttled from one private school to another, never visited, and afraid to grow attached to anyone because she will inevitably be sent away when things go bad. But on this magical day, a mysterious stranger accosts her in the school's garden while she is playing hooky and challenges her to make a wish for a perfect day. This is quickly followed by her stumbling across an abandoned car which she takes with the help of three of her fellow students. Before they know it, one piece of good luck will lead to another and another and another....

A bit more like her Adoration of Jenna Fox (in the sense of being a fantasy about children with rich parents) and less like the creepy and desolate Room on Lorelei Street (of which I was in a minority of critics), this is a very lighthearted and harmless story about a day when things go right. As a story about endless good luck, there is not a lot of suspense in this story (one or two big surprises though). Instead, the story is anchored in the premise that four kids getting to know each other on a very strange road trip is enough of a story to keep us hooked. For the most part, it really does work, although the twists of luck vary widely in believability and I was less credulous about some of the more bizarre turns that the story takes. It is decent escapism, but not as thought-provoking as her earlier works. There simply isn't that much profound to say about good things, except the way that they help us to understand the bad.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Princess and the Hound, by Mette Ivie Harrison

Prince George may be heir to the throne, but he bears a terrible secret: he possesses "animal magic" which allows him to communicate with the animals. This is such an evil thing that anyone found to have such powers is usually burned alive. And so it must remain a secret. Princess Beatrice is shy and private, preferring the company of her loyal hound Marit over the company of any human. And she too bears secrets that may be even more horrible than George's magic. When their fathers ordain that the two should be married, their match seems unfathomable. But George and Beatrice are both dutiful and will obey the will of the kings.

A strikingly beautifully written fairy tale, told in an unusually fairy-tale like voice (avoiding the typical first-person action novel approach used in most fantasy). Harrison's PhD in Germanic Lit is put to good use as this story, while bearing no resemblance to any one legend, bears the style of the best of them -- part Brothers Grimm, part Parsifal. You can read the story literally and enjoy it heartily, but there are numerous additional layers to entertain you: from the "magic" that dare not speak its name to the struggle that Beatrice and Marit have to define their identity to the troubled relationship that both of the children have with their parents. There is an awful lot here to be explored.

Some of the most memorable scenes in the story creep up on you unexpected (the confrontation between Marit and the pack of wild dogs, the duel in the Game of Kings, Lord Peter daring George to plunge into the moat). Others are much longer to develop and grow with the dramatic arc (the bear, the demise of the kings, George's coming of age). What is so marvelous is that they all flow so well together.

The funny thing is that the "animal magic" stuff, so central to the story, is the part that worked least well for me. Perhaps because it is always being suppressed and concealed, it seems underdeveloped, even non-essential for the story. Its purpose (for me anyway) seemed more to illustrate a nice symmetry between human and animal world that makes this story stand out.

And yes, I will turn to the sequel in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rapunzel's Revenge, by Shannon and Dean Hale

I'm not a big fan of graphic novels (see below), but Shannon Hale is one of my favorite authors, so I couldn't pass this one up.

It's the story of Rapunzel, but with a bit of a twist. Exiled to a tower in the woods by her evil witch stepmother, Rapunzel (named after the lettuce) manages to break free in the nick of time (before she starves to death or gets "rescued" by a pig-headed prince) through some fancy lassoing with her abundant hair. Those braids make a mighty fine weapon as she teams up with a boy named Jack and the two of them hunt down the witch. This isn't like any fairy tale you or I know -- Rapunzel kicks some serious cowboy butt in this rowdy Westernized variant of more than a couple familiar stories.

The story is cute, but undeveloped, as I often find graphic novels to be. The irony is, of course, that I was a huge fan of the genre as a kid (Tin Tin, Raymond Briggs' Father Christmas, and a good number of adult graphic novels when I became a teen). This stuff reminds me of them. But they are still glorified comic books. The stories tend to be heavy on action and light on character development. The plotting is all-important, the narrative secondary. So, they are fun to read, but not very filling. And most of them are not what I would consider literature.

Take this example. Hale writes some pretty good and original fantasy fiction (Princess Academy is a wonderful book, as are the Books of Bayern), but this current story is terribly thin. It's original and contains a healthy amount of modernization (Rapunzel is pretty good at taking acre of herself). There's some humor and plenty of frenetic action, but no moments that I want to go back and read. Rapunzel is an amusing heroine, but not anyone I really care about. And if one were to translate this story into straight fiction, it would have a hard time running beyond short story length.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Red Glass, by Laura Resau

Growing up with her Mom and Stepfather in Tucson, Sophie has been exposed fairly often to migrant workers and while friendly to them she has stayed largely detached. When a young boy comes to live with them (after his parents are killed while crossing the border), Sophie abandons her usual fears and opens up to him, dubbing him her Principito (little prince) after the title character of her favorite book. And when the family discovers the little boys living relatives in southern Mexico, Sophie agrees to accompany the boy on the trip back. Going with her are her eccentric aunt Dika (a Bosnian refugee), Dika's boyfriend Mr. Lorenzo, and Lorenzo's son Angel. For Sophie, who's been afraid of nearly everything around her, it is the trip of a lifetime, exposing her to strange and scary new worlds.

A beautifully written journey through Central America. The multicultural flavor of the book (Bosnians, indigenous Mexican, and Guatemala) will appeal to the folks who worry about such stuff, but like the very best books that straddle multiple cultures, none of it really matters in the end. Instead, Resau has written a book about human beings, showing how we are all creatures of circumstance. Sophie's transformation from "weakling" to fuerto is as wonderful as it is expected, but she don't neglect the others. Almost every character in the story undergoes some sort of transformation, which draws us to them (even to the bad guys).

There's a fair amount of adventure and action in here to keep restless readers occupied, but more than anything else there is good dramatic payoff in the end that makes you feel like you have been more than entertained.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

OK, it's only the most hyped YA book of the year and it's been out for two months already and I haven't read it (nor did I score an ARC like the real reviewers), but I would be very remiss if I didn't get around to reading the sequel to The Hunger Games and posting my thoughts.

At the end of Book I, Katniss and Peeta have both won the Games through some nice manipulation of the rules, but things will hardly get quiet. Their little trick has unwittingly made them symbols of a rebellion -- a notion which doesn't even occur to Katniss until she is visited personally by the President. To stave off the movement and save their families from the leader's wrath, they must convince the world of their loyalty to the Capitol and to each other. But even that won't be enough when the next year's Games are announced -- a special round called the Quell -- and the results of the reaping are known.

It's not really worth talking about liking or disliking this book (there have been 100s of reviews -- most of them favorable) and the general consensus seems to be: if you liked The Hunger Games and want to read more of the same, this is a good read. If you're expecting much that is new, then you're probably in for a bit of a let down. But either way, this is quick, got-you-at-the-jugular reading. It is suspenseful, powerful, and good reading.

So, instead, let me talk about the tone of this book and its predecessor. These are gory books, to say the least, with more than a fair share of suffering and bloodshed (one might even argue that they are inappropriately violent for younger readers, but that isn't a topic that interests me). Rather, it is the message of this set up. What inspires the creation of a world that is this bloody? Does Collins believe that there are places like this? Or that we need to envision such worlds? What purpose does it serve? Most dystopian novels create their worlds as instruction to the reader (warnings, if you will, of what to avoid). It's hard to tell what this world's purpose serves except as a horror. And I find that a bit unnerving.

Yes, we have the eventual triumph of good over evil to look forward to, but at such a terrible cost that it's hard to really enjoy it. And what would feeling good about such a triumph say about us the readers? I'm really not sure what to say about all this yet, but it's the feeling I'm coming away from right now.

(Oh yeah, I may like the book, but I absoluteley hate the fact that Book II doesn't stand on its own -- having neither a beginning nor an end, but rather being an installment to get us to Book III -- like Back to the Future II)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Jumping Off Swings, by Jo Knowles

Teen pregnancy is one of those subjects that's been done quite a bit in YA and so it really wouldn't seem that there would be much new that could be done with it. The story itself is predictable and always follows the same basic pattern (girl has sex, girl misses period, girl can't believe this is happening, tears, crying, etc.). However, never get so jaded in the reading business that you underestimate the ability of a writer to totally surprise you.

Told in the alternating voices of Ellie (the pregnant girl), Josh (the guy), Corinne (Ellie's best friend) and Caleb (Josh's friend, previous admirer of Ellie, and blossoming lover of Corinne), we have a typical writer's challenge: how do you fit enough character-building narrative into 230 pages to effectively develop not just one teen, but four? Much to my astonishment, it actually works. Ellie gets to play the typical regretful and fretful expectant mother, but she's far from sympathetic. Instead, she make a series of errors along the way that have you wringing your hands, but you can't help but understand why it is happening (her distant mother, on the other hand, you will completely want to throttle, but even that minor side character is understandable). Corinne and Caleb have the interesting role to play as the shining example of what love should be all about. But of the four main characters, Josh was the one that caught my interest the most.

I've read some BLOGs claim that Josh's struggles with his feelings seems unrealistic, but I'd rack their inability to accept that boys have deep feelings as well up to the reviewers' age (young) and sex (female). (Hey! for all the years of abuse I've taken for being an old guy and not understanding teen girls, I think I'm entitled to my dig here!) If you ever have been in Josh's shoes (and yes, I have actually been in his position) then you totally know how hard it is to be the guy in this situation. Josh's balance of anger, frustration, and grief was utterly on the mark. And Knowles gives it just the right amount of balance -- neither playing him up as a saint nor claiming any greater rights than he gets (he's never portrayed as the victim). I'd have been pleased enough that Knowles wanted him to be something more than a sperm donor, but she goes much farther towards trying to explain him.

Ellie is the one who pays the greatest price, of course, but her story is less interesting because it is so well known. The strength of this novel is that Knowles wants to show how the pregnancy affects all four of the characters. It's a more nuanced read of the events. It doesn't change one thing about the facts portrayed or the shock you will feel, but it fills out the story.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wings, by Aprilynne Pike

After ten years of homeschooling, Laurel starts school at Del Norte High in Crescent City. She quickly befriends a boy named David in her bio class and things proceed relatively normally, but Laurel is anything but normal. She's a strict vegan, hates swimming in the sea, and one morning comes to find a flower growing out of her back. She and David are mystified by the latter development but quickly they discover lots of other odd things (she has no pulse, no blood, and she doesn't breathe oxygen). That would probably keep the story interesting enough, but when her father gets sick, things start getting a bit more frantic.

While the pacing in interminably slow, I actually rather liked the direction the story was taking in the beginning. Pike has a lot of fun re-imagining puberty from the perspective of a plant. That itself would have made a pretty good book. However, the point is really to bring this around to be a story about faeries and trolls and (a little) magic. That works too, but it's not nearly as interesting. The latter half of the book becomes a fairly standard fantasy adventure with death-defying and guns and battles, which seems a bit of a let-down (or as if Pike felt that the story needed to go somewhere else). I wanted something more ambitious and less formulaic. This isn't bad, but it's nothing new.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Trouble, by Gary D. Schmidt

Trouble is the one thing that Henry has always figured would pass him by in his safe blue-blood family and the idyllic sea-side ancestral abode where they live. But when Henry's brother is struck by a truck and lands in the hospital, Henry's world seems full of trouble.

Things get complicated. The young Cambodian boy Chay who is accused of driving the truck that caused the accident becomes the focal point of racial tensions in the community. Vandalism, revenge, and counter-revenge explode across the quiet Massachusetts community. Finally, Henry decides that the only way to escape trouble is to fulfill his brother's wish to hike Mt Katahdin and he sets off to Maine to do so. Accompanied by a rescued stray (who he calls Black Dog), his best friend Sanborn, and an unlikely compatriot (and fellow sufferer), Henry embarks on a trip that will change his life and the way he looks at trouble.

A remarkable and beautifully-written novel. From the very first page, I was blown away by the richness of Schmidt's prose. And while I sometimes wanted the story to move along at a quicker pace, there was little in retrospect that I would have gone without. Schmidt impressed me some time ago with his Wednesday Wars but here he absolutely outdoes himself. It's very rare for me to admire a story without even the slightest girlie element (and you really can't get more manly than the roadtrip-boy-and-his-dog genre), but this is truly a stunning book.

What's to like? I've already mentioned the writing, but there are other things that make this book shine. Characters. Every character in this book (even the supporting cast) are outstanding. Henry's struggles between grief, anger, guilt, and vengeance play surprising well (given the complex evolution he undergoes in this story). Chay is amazingly complex and his own grieving process is quite moving in the end. Sanborn provides some levity. But the best part is Black Dog, who utterly steals the show as the most lovable literary canine since Winn-Dixie (and I am not a dog lover, so you should be very impressed by this endorsement).

And then there is the story. It would have been so easy to just write a stages-of-grief book (Henry passes from denial, anger, grief, etc. and ends up with acceptance), but Schmidt has much higher expectations for this book and he surprises us even on the last few pages. Nothing is predictable, yet it is all plausible and when everything is revealed and in the open, the sheer tragedy of it all is devastating. No detail is superfluous. In sum, this is a master storyteller.

So, what are you waiting for?? I'd rate this the best book I've read in 2009 (unfortunately, it was actually published in 2008 so it can't qualify as a best book for this year).

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Fade, by Lisa McMann

Back in August 2008, I reviewed Wake (the first book in this series). Now, we have the sequel...

Janie has now taken on part-time work for the police, working undercover with her Cabel. Their mission is to track down a teacher who is sexually preying upon students at the high school. What this all has to do with Janie's ability to experience other people's dreams is a bit unclear, but it does plunge her into some apparent danger. There are also some visits from the Beyond by the late Miss Stubin to keep things interesting.

I really liked the concept of Wake but complained that it suffered a bit from clunky writing and a weird ending. Unfortunately, this book picks up in the midst of the weird stuff and stays there. And the writing doesn't improve. McMann attempts to write the entire book in present tense, which is very challenging to keep up and to make readable. She does succeed.

She also continues to try to simulate dreams with short micro sentences.

And paragraphs.

That aren't.

It's enough to drive you completely nuts or make you want to scream or just close the book.

In two words: it stinks. And it isn't writing.

In addition to being poorly written, this book suffers from a nonsensical plot, a lack of suspense, a romance without even a flicker of heat, and some of the most inane dialog ever put in a published YA book. I think it is safe to say that I despised it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

So Much To Tell You, by John Marsden

Told through the diary entries of 14 year-old Marina, this story traces Marina's recovery from an assault. The details come out only slowly and the reader is left mostly in the dark about the circumstances, focusing instead on Marina's struggles to communicate with her peers and caretakers. For that reason, it isn't really possible to say much more about the story without giving out spoilers.

This spare story is short and actually quite straightforward, complete with a feel good ending towards which it is inexorably hurtles. It's a classic (book of the year in Australia) and it has its charms. Marina's voice is very clear and her recovery is quite believable. The problem is that this story of a young woman who loses her ability to communicate has been done so much better since (Speak being an obvious example that jumps to mind). The book feels more like an Afterschool Special than a YA classic. The device of the diary entries allows Marsden to skip over events as he pleases which helps move the story along, but it also distances us from the other characters in the book. Only Marina herself gets developed and we are left to wonder what really is going on with the other girls (who we are told go through all manners of heartache and suffering -- based on the crying and histrionics -- but of which we never learn much in the way of details). It's a pleasing tear-jerker but an opaque and largely unfulfilling work in the end.