Monday, December 28, 2009

Aurelia, by Anne Osterlund

After a third attempt to murder Crown Princess Aurelia, the king asks for help from his old friend to help uncover the killer. Instead, the friend sends his son Robert. Robert and Aurelia are old friends of a sort (having attended the same school) and they have an odd chemistry (more on that later). While Robert is supposed to hide the purpose of his presence, Aurelia quickly figures it out and (no shrinking daisy) she becomes his partner in uncovering the source of the threat. Told in a vaguely 18th century setting, but with thoroughly modern teenagers, this book combines princess romance, whodunit, and bitchy High School dramatics into one cooly calculated book.

The book appears to be quite popular (based on the large number of library holds and positive reviews posted on book selling websites), but I'm at an honest loss to explain why. The romance seemed weak to me, the characters flat, the setting implausible, and the plot simplistic. This is historical romance for people who don't care about history and have fairly limited demands for a romance (the characters apparently kissed, but the heat didn't exactly radiate off the page). The author makes a point of reminding us repeatedly that the young people all went to school together, but I never could quite fathom the nature of Aurelia's and Robert's relationship. No attempt was ever made to get inside their heads or explain their motivations. And the far more important relationship betweem Aurelia and her step sister is largely neglected until it suddenly becomes crucial to the story at the end. There are so many decent historical novels out there (and even so many better written exploitative teen romances) that I think you can safely give this one a miss.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Breathing, by Cheryl Renee Herbsman

Savannah was named by her mother after the destination of a hurricane, but she hardly feels that powerful. Instead, coping with her strict Mom, her obnoxious little brother Dog, and her asthma, she struggles to get through her 15th summer in her rural Carolina home. While abandoned by her friends who have gone to see family or attend sleepover camp, Savannah figures that her days are going to be pretty long. But then (as is inevitable in books like these) she meets the Boy who sweeps her off her feet (and who happens to be a real gentleman). That happiness is short-lived though when the boy moves away and Savannah doesn't know if their long distance relationship can last. While no one else believes that her young love is worth such a struggle, she knows in her heart that it is.

On the face of it, this is a light summer romance read (much like the types of books that Savannah herself dives into), but Herbsman has crafted an above-average version of it. I can single out several things I really like about this book.

First of all, there is the setting. I'm not a huge fan of Southern fiction (the cliches wear thin) and I tend to prefer the Southern-light of Dessen or the over-the-top folksy charm of a Because of Winn Dixie. I initially cringed when I read all the "ain'ts" and "ruthers." But Herbsman originally is from these parts and she has a good ear for how people really talk. And so I began to appreciate the dialogue as I got into it. By the end, you began to realize that the community represented in the story wasn't just flavor, but an essential ingredient to the story. And I definitely had a chuckle over some of the sayings in the book (my personal favorite was "feeling as disappointed as a raccoon after the trash truck comes").

Savannah herself is a winner. Never too good nor too horrible, she has a big heart and an irrational stubborness to drive you nuts, but every move seemed true. She is the teen that teens might try to deny they resemble, but she had the right mix of responsibility and carelessness for me.

And finally, there is the mother (this is where I show my age, I suppose, appreciating the parents) who is no saint, but is as far away from the clueless parents of most YA books as you can be. I didn't always like her and she could be hard on Savannah, but she gave good advice and was one of the more successful single parents I've seen in literature. And it was great that the reward for being such a good parent was that she had a good realtionship with her daughter. Adolescence is dramatic enough without always having to pump up the parents as the bad guys.

Kudos to Herbsman for avoiding so many trite stereotypes!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Princess and the Bear, by Mette Ivie Harrison

Not so much a sequel of The Princess and the Hound as a story inspired from the myth of King Richon first told in that earlier book. This novel takes Richon's story of involuntary transformation into a bear and expands upon it, telling how the bear and his companion hound encounter the evil phenomenon of "unmagic" and fight to defeat it. The struggle takes them to find the Wild Man, who in turn sends them back in time to set all things right (which involves not just defeating unmagic but also saving Richon's kingdom from both internal and external enemies). Themes of compassion for animals and animals' rights are interspersed throughout to add some moral gravity to this fantasy.

I really enjoyed The Princess and the Hound a lot and I was really looking forward to this book for more of the same. So, it was shocking to find not only a very different story, but such a poorly written one. In her first book, Harrison showed an immense talent for writing deep and richly textured fairy tale, but here the narrative utterly drags. In part, the story is hubbled by characters that cannot communicate verbally for a bulk of the book (not a single word of dialogue is exchanged between them for the first fifty pages). The prose is written past passive and is lethargic and boring. The characters, their actions, and what motivates them are difficult to follow. In sum, I found the whole thing a chore to get through. Everything I loved about the first book (originality, engrossing characters, beautiful story) is missing here. It is as if unmagic has sucked everything good out of Harrison's writing and left behind a gray mass.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beautiful Americans, by Lucy Silag

Four teenagers (Alex, Olivia, Zack, and PJ) get to spend a year at the Lycee de Monceau in Paris. As you would expect, there will be joy and tears, mischief and love. But in this story, there is also scandal, sex, drugs, and a shockingly askew moral compass. If that works for you (or doesn't bother you), then there is plenty to enjoy here.

Alex is the spoiled and narcissistic one, who thinks mostly of herself and freely spends her mother's money until her Mom shuts off the Amex and stops sending money. Then Alex resorts to stealing and exploiting the other kids. Surprisingly, she is surprised when this all comes back and bites her on the derriere.

Olivia wants to dance in the ballet and has a real talent for doing so. But when her family comes for a visit, she has to face up to the fact that she doesn't want to pursue her dreams the same way that her parents do. No major breakthrough here, but a little ol' standard Afterschool Special scenario...with a little ol' R-rated twist.

Zack is the closet gay boy. Running to Gay Paree to explore his other side (and to get away from his stereotypical Southern conservative upbringing), he proves reluctant to actually make the moves. It's sweet, but again never moves far away from the second dimension of character building.

And finally, we have PJ, who has barely escaped from the United States before her parents are arrested. She tries to get herself into the graces of her host family so she doesn't have to go home to the US and have folks know what happened to her parents. What she doesn't expect is that her French host family have much darker secrets to hide...and what she also doesn't seem to realize is that there is a US Embassy in Paris to which in-danger Americans can turn (but since Silag is more interested in creating drama than realistically addressing problems, I'm sure THAT small important detail was judged to be too boring!).

It's not a badly written story. The characters are a bit flat and more than a little repellent, but the setting in gorgeous and there's enough action to keep the story moving. What is lacking though is plausibility. This is, without a doubt, the most poorly supervised group of teens in France. Authority figures never play much of a role in YA, but the extremes to which these kids go suggest outright child neglect (and not even the French would tolerate this sort of situation). I'm OK with a little fantasy here and there, but when it's stretched this far (and when it borders into child abuse, neglect, and endangerment) then I have to put my foot down. This is a trashy book -- a well-written, but ultimately trashy book. You may like it, but don't take it too seriously.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sea Change, by Aimee Friedman

Miranda hasn't had a lot of luck or experience with boys, but when she joins her mother on Selkie Island to help clean up her grandmother's house so it can be sold, that looks set to change. Most of the boys on the Island are rich trust fund types, but Leo is different: intelligent, sensitive, local townie...and maybe something else. As Miranda gets to know him better, she becomes convinced that he is actually a merman.

For the most part, this book is fairly standard teen romance material, but the hint of the supernatural spices things up nicely. Is Leo just different because he's the right sort of boy for Miranda? Or is he actually a merman? For that matter, what of Miranda's bloodline? Does it make her susceptible to the charms of the sea? In the end, most of these questions turn out to be unimportant, but they add a nice metaphorical layer to the budding romance.

I was a bit annoyed by the ending, though, which not only wrapped things up too conveniently but resorted to adding information that should have been added (or hinted at) earlier in the story. My sense was that the ending was rushed. Aside from that, this is an above-average romance.

When the Whistle Blows, by Fran Cannon Slayton

Seven Halloweens over seven consecutive years told in seven chapters. Each one reveals a different aspect of Jimmy Cannon's life and that of his friends and town. But most of all, each one tells a part of Jimmy's relationship with his father -- a railroad worker in their town in West Virginia in the 1940s. The stories are boys' stories (spying on a secret meeting, vandalizing a car, winning a championship football game, etc.) and told with a nice folksy warmth that evokes the spirit of Mark Twain.

Given the timelessness of the stories, the individual independent strength of each chapter, and the literary flavor of the entire endeavor, this book has "instant classic" written all over it. I'm sure it will be quickly picked up on by school teachers and other book-report assigners. So act fast if you want to enjoy the book on its own innocent merits. As for me, I can recognize the greatness, but it wasn't the type of book I really like. Historicals don't tend to appeal to me and nothing makes me glaze over faster than male bonding (and football). Still, I'm sure others will like this.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Shift, by Charlotte Agell

In a dystopian future, state religion has replaced the world we know with a fear-driven society. The only alternative to the HomeState world are the nuclear wastelands of the Deadlands and the wilds of the north (current day Maine) beyond them where the crazies live.

When 15 year-old Adrian's best friend is seized by the police because he is Jewish, Adrian sets off on a trip into the North. The disappearance of his mother (right after she has been found babbling about a coming "shift" that will change the world) is just one more motivator. Terrorists, crazy computers, and a penguin figure in as well.

The overall result is a seemingly random story. It all starts off well enough as a road trip tale, but as soon as the characters cross over into Maine, that storyline gets abandoned. And what it gets replaced with simply doesn't make sense. After a while, I simply gave up trying to follow the story. I'd like to suspect that the earlier drafts did make sense but somehow it all got mangled in revisions and editing. What I did get out of it was that the author was trying to merge some of the wonder of life in Maine (and witnessing the Aurora Borealis in particular) with a diatribe against religious fanaticism, but what a frustrating mess!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Nobody's Princess, by Esther Friesner

Helen of Sparta is your typical modern fantasy heroine -- terrible at needlework, bored by feminine duties. She'd rather take up the sword, learn how to ride a horse, and set out on a grand adventure. Along with her older brothers, she gets her wish as they travel through the Hellenic Empire.

The adventure itself is surprisingly mundane and mostly serves to illustrate Grecian beliefs and culture -- the most noteworthy part of which for Friesner is the rampant misogyny of the period and the struggles that a woman who wanted to question them had to face. But as is usual in this genre, nothing is really beyond a young woman if she is wily enough to attempt it.

In other words, there is no new ground being broken here. The warrior princess archetype has now become as well worn as the helpless princess type of yore. And Helen is not the most interesting manifestation of the character. Her assertiveness, unbalanced by any humility, comes across as selfishness more than virtue (although I thought the beginning of the novel started out promisingly enough when she started challenging the gods) and overall just seemed like stubbornness. There are some interesting possibilities raised by the grown woman warrior Atalanta, who serves well as a mentor and inspiration to Helen, but she is sent away before the storyline can develop fully (perhaps to return in a sequel?). This is functional historical fantasy, but it doesn't go any where new.

It seems to me that what the genre really needs is a heroine who straddles the gender barriers more convincingly. A young woman who masters needlepoint, poise, and ALSO kicks serious butt with a sword would be interesting. Or one that struggles between not wanting to be perceived as weak and feminine yet also doesn't want to prove otherwise by killing things? So many possibilities to make deeper characters. And I think readers are hungry for female characters who get to be both interesting and introspective at the same time. After all, (to choose an off-topic example) Bella doesn't become the most interesting denizen of the undead world by being either kick-ass or wimpy all of the time (she is interesting precisely because she can do both).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Nothing But Ghosts, by Beth Kephart

In the days since her mother has died, Katie and her father have found their own patterns of living in a house that feels too big. He works away at restoring art and she takes a job gardening at the estate of a reclusive old woman. By chance, she also gets the opportunity to sort through several boxes of ephemera donated to public library. All three plot lines come together in the form of a mystery from long ago and Katie uncovers the truth about the reclusive woman.

I liked Kephart's previous book Undercover because it was an ambitiously-written YA novel, but this one may push things a bit too far. Her intent is to invoke a mood and once it is there, the story/dialogue/characters really don't matter as much (I call this the Curse of the Modern Novel). It might work for high brow adult fiction, but it makes for deadly uninteresting YA. It is a beautiful book, but without the blurb and the author's notes at the end, I really couldn't tell where this was going or why. Disappointing!

Princess Ben, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Told in the form of a memoir, by the aging Queen Ben(evolence), this is the story of her youth, beginning with the murder of her parents and her tutelage under Queen Sophia. Ben at this age is hardly an aspiring royal. She despises her dancing, embroidery, and poise lessons, stuffs herself with sweets, and generally causes havoc where she goes. By accident one day, she discovers a secret portal in the castle that leads her to a book of spells. Events then fall into place for her to become a much better person and to truly bloom into a princess.

The story is all good fun, full of the requisite fairy tale elements (magic, dragons, battles, fancy dresses, etc.) but with a good dose of modern sensibility thrown in (Ben's rebelliousness, the narrator's advice to young readers, etc.). It never really takes off though. As with any adventure story, you turn the pages waiting for the next surprise and this one delivers, but the characters are remarkably flat and uninspiring. The romance, such as it is, never really takes off. Ben's coming of age (so crucial for this narrative) is never believable. Worst of all, the passive narration throughout (and some unnecessarily "forsooth" language) serves mostly to distance the reader from the story and the characters. It isn't a boring book, but there are so many better recent examples of this genre to try out.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Raggedy Chan, by Camille Picott

This is a pretty hard-to-find book, so you'll have to put some effort into locating it. Is it worth the effort? That depends on what you are looking for. Let's start with the story...

When her mother returns to work, half-Chinese and half-Irish Emma gets babysat by her Aunt Gracie. The aunt, who comes from the Chinese side of the family, is a fount of Chinese culture and obviously disapproves of how Americanized (and Westernized) her niece is becoming. To rectify this situation, she devotes the day to exposing Emma to her Chinese roots. This begins with Aunt Gracie giving Emma a rag doll with black hair and almond eyes to replace the rather more traditional rag doll given her by the Irish side of the family. During the day introduces Emma to the joys of chopsticks (useful for eating the marshmallows in Lucky Charms!), making wontons, and playing mahjong. This part of the story follows fairly traditional ground of introducing an initially reluctant child to new things and simultaneously exposing the reader to some cultural diversity.

However, the story has much broader ambitions. Auntie Gracie also shares a story with Emma about Raggedy Chan (her new doll), who is actually a Chinese princess named Yao-chi. When the benevolent and rain-making Winged Dragon is stolen from her lands by the demon Drought Fury, the princess must cross the ocean to the land of the Jung-wu (America) where she befriends Paul Bunyun and Babe, who help her with the rescue.

At this point, the story probably sounds a bit like a merger of Princess Bride with The Joy-Luck Club, but Picott's ambitions go further still as the fairy tale (and even Aunt Gracie's culture lessons) become an overall story about the Chinese-immigrant experience, racism, and the pain of leaving home.

The result is an unusual book that is hard to categorize into a convenient niche. The story is complex and multi-layered. At times, it is a bit hard to follow and young readers might get distracted. The mixtures of culture and themes struck me as a particularly Californian viewpoint of the world and readers in other regions might have trouble understanding how it all fits together.

I found myself admiring the ambition of the work more than the actual result. There really are at least two (if not three) separate stories in this book and I wanted more focus, especially in a book which is probably intended for younger readers. As an unrealted issue, more sensitive younger readers might find some of the scenes (eyes being gouged out, skin being flayed) a bit too intense, or at the very least confusing.

I haven't yet mentioned the illustrations by Joey Manfre, but they deserve special note. The styles are a bit diverse (sometimes Disneyesque, sometimes quite abstract) but the artwork is consistently vibrant and interesting. Given the story's iconoclast nature, the drawings are quite appropriate and added greatly to the experience of reading the book.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

After, by Amy Efaw

OK, so I'm prejudiced on this one, as it is placed in Tacoma WA and the author has definitely done her homework (the geographic details are superb). When you spend your day working at Tacoma General and then you find that your nightly read is situated there as well, it's pretty cool. And hey, the last time Tacoma featured in any part of YA culture it was as a stand-in for Seattle in Ten Things I Hate About You, but I digress....

As our story opens, Devon finds herself lying on the couch under a blanket and feeling sick to her stomach. But within a dozen pages, we learn that she's just given birth and abandoned her baby to die in a trash can out back. The problem is that Devon has no idea that it has happened. She can't even remember being pregnant in the first place.

It takes the rest of the story to help us understand how that could happen and what Devon has gone through. It's not a terribly pleasant trip (neither the subject matter nor the heroine are easy to deal with), but ultimately Efaw has a lot to teach us about teenage pregnancy, juvenile justice, mental states, and the lengths to which people will go to deny reality.

Devon is a difficult character to like, and my more regular readers know that I'm not a big fan of the unlikeable character. However, I found Devon fascinating and thus irresistible. She does some amazingly stupid things throughout most of the book (some would say all of the way through the book!), but I could understand her motives and even sometimes sympathize with them. And, far more importantly, she didn't do anything out of meanness or viciousness. Teen stupidity I can tolerate. Most significantly, Devon's cluelessness had a purpose and was part of the story. In sum, it worked.

The story suffers a bit more. Efaw is so interested in downloading information to us (about the juvenile justice system, dumpster babies, etc.) that the book has to resort to lecture mode (usually done through the mouths of an expert -- the lawyer, the psychiatrist, etc.). It gets old and it gets boring. I call this the Judy Blume curse -- the writer wants so badly to teach us something that she doesn't care what it does to the pacing of the story. The only solution to this literarry misfortune is the editorial axe: if the information cannot be revealed as part of the story, then it doesn't belong in the story.