Saturday, February 26, 2011

Girl, Stolen, by April Henry

Griffin's attempt to carjack goes terribly awry when he finds Cheyenne in the backseat of the car. At first, Griffin is afraid that Cheyenne will identify him, but when he learns that she is blind, he realizes that she cannot. And being blind and addled with a case of pneumonia, Cheyenne is in no position to cause much trouble.

But Cheyenne is no passive victim. Her handicap has taught her to be self-reliant and she makes several decent attempts to escape her kidnapper. Griffin might have even let her go as he mostly just wanted the car. However, when Griffin's father learns how much money he could make from ransoming her, the situation turns decidedly more dangerous. Eventually, Griffin and Cheyenne find themselves as unlikely allies in a desperate attempt to escape with their lives.

For the most part, this is pretty innocuous suspense stuff. There's some attempt to inject educational material about blindness, burn recovery, and dyslexia into the story, but this is not a story with any deep literary pretensions. I really liked how resourceful and tough Cheyenne is and that she avoids being a hapless victim. Unfortunately, no one else really ever gets interesting and the adult bad guys are uninspired.

Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly

In the aftermath of the violent death of her younger brother, Andi struggles with depression and survivor's guilt. Her concerned father brings her to Paris to separate her from her equally-depressed mother and to give Andi a fresh start. There, she stays with a family friend who is researching the French Revolution. Amongst the papers and other memorabilia of the period that this friend is collecting, Andi discovers a two hundred year-old diary written by Alexandrine Paradis, caretaker to Louis-Charles, the youngest son of King Louis. Alexandrine is nearly the same age as Andi and she finds herself quickly drawn into the account of Alexandrine's doomed efforts to save her charge, finding parallels with her own failure to protect her brother. But as the story veers towards its inevitable tragedy, Andi finds it harder and harder to separate present from past, and reality from illusion and madness.

This very rich novel combines fine historical detail with contemporary hipness in the streets of Paris. There's an awful lot going on (Andi's worries about her sick mother, struggles against her father, on-and-off relationship with a Parisian taxi driver, her music, and never mind all that French Revolution stuff!). Thankfully, there's 470-odd easily-turned pages to get through it all! While I had some minor quibbles with Donnelly's shaky grasp on contemporary music, her 18th century material is strong and her storytelling more so. I was sucked in, even when the story seemed to jump off a cliff (or a tall building?), I wanted to see what happened next.

All of that said, this novel isn't really YA despite its younger heroine. The teens in this story are mostly grown up and definitely independent of any pesky authority (Donnelly explicitly acknowledges the lack of a cultural concept of adolescence in 18th century France and makes little attempt to explore it in 21st century either). This isn't a story of coming of age, as much of making life-changing decisions, that is, standard adult novel material. As such, it is excellent.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Wager, by Donna Jo Napoli

When a young and spendthrift Don Giovanni has his fortune wiped out by a tsunami, he finds himself a beggar on the roads and through the towns of Sicily. In a moment of dire desperation, the Devil approaches him and proposes a trade: he will give Don Giovanni a purse that produces endless money in exchange for a pledge that Don Giovanni will not bathe or change his clothes for three years, three months, and three days. In the ensuing ordeal, Don Giovanni learns many lessons about himself and the people around him, but can he make it to the end?

Napoli does a wonderful job of retelling classic stories. Through thorough research, she is able to pull out details that elucidate period history and use them to point out modern relavence. Her work, in sum, is the classic example of what a historical novel should be.

Given the sheer volume of her work, it is natural that some of it is better than others. This particular book falls somewhere in the middle. The source material of only 2-3 pages is a bit thin for a full-length novel, as Napoli herself admits. The story itself suffers from being spread over such a long time period (with the inevitable result that the long stretches of time are hard to fill with anything of interest). And so the tale plods along and is laden with repetitive and extended references to hunger and disease, which simply grows tedious. Don Giovanni, while he shows some growth from being vain and self-important, really starts off as a not-so-bad guy and ends up pretty much the same. His personal growth is simply not terribly obvious.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Under the Green Hill, by Laura L. Sullivan

With a fever spreading in the States, Meg, Rowan, Silly (Priscilla), and James get sent away to spend the summer with their distant relations in England. While the parents think that this is safe decision, the relatives realize that it is poor timing. During the approaching summer, the fairies that populate the woods around the house are preparing for their once-every-seven-years war. The children, through their curiosity and disobedience, manage to get themselves involved in the conflict. The solution involves the help of two other children who were sent to England with them. In the process, everyone learns lessons about cooperation, respect, and getting along.

Sullivan's writing is beautiful and evokes the sheer innocence of the Narnia series or classic adventure books for young readers (like Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys). While set in a world that claims to be contemporary, the children's lives are strangely devoid of iPods, cell phones, and American Idol. Instead, they are enmeshed in good clean outdoor fun (if attempting to slay your great-grandfather in order to avoid a fairy curse can be counted in the category of "good" and "clean"!). The sheer naivete of this world doesn't really work for me (contemporary children's lit is more knowing and cynical) but I appreciate its beauty and the nostalgia for a time when children's lives were simpler. The richness of the vocabulary used in this book may flummox some readers (it sent me to the dictionary a few times!), but even that comes from a bygone era when children's lit was written in sophisticated prose.

Stork, by Wendy Delsol

When Katla and her mother move back to Minnesota, Katla manages to offend two popular boys (sleazy Wade and enigmatic Jack -- guess which one she's going to end up with?) within her first weeks there. She also stumbles across a secret society of elderly women. The women, convinced that she is a "stork" (with a power that allows her to foretell when a woman is about to conceive), induct her into their coven. The plot thickens as long-suppressed memories and some ancient vendettas get inserted into the mix.

It's a story that is a bit complex to explain (especially, without revealing the more interesting plot turns). At times, I honestly got a bit annoyed at some of the more improbable twists (e.g., the suppressed memories), but the story all comes together pretty nicely in the end. The actual story elements will not surprise anyone. The key ingredients for YA fantasy (magic, peer competition, a dance, and the expected parental conflict) are all present. However, the story itself has enough unusual developments to keep the story interesting.

Her and Me and You, by Lauren Strasnick

Alex and her mother move to Meadow Marsh after her father announces that he is leaving them for a younger model. Meadow Marsh is Mom's hometown, but she's so lost in despair that Alex has to fend for herself. When Mom's friends' children end up being poor allies, Alex befriends Fred and his twin sister Adina. From the start, Alex observes that the twins seem really close (and wistfully notes that it is like Alex and her estranged BFF back home used to be). However, as Alex and Fred's friendship starts to grow, Adina's response turns from jealousy to something a bit more psychotic.

I really liked the premise of this story. It's fresh and original and has a lot of potential as a psychological thriller. The characters are interesting and the portrayed landscape of jealousies and insecurities feels very honest (albeit a bit painful to read). Unfortunately, the actual story is thin. Strasnick gets the job done, but it could have gone so much farther. The drama and tension could have kicked up a notch or two without growing exploitative, by extending the time it takes everyone to observe Adina's unusual behavior. Stretching things out, would have made more of a page-turner! The relationships with the adults are left grossly undeveloped, despite their importance in explaining the motivations of the kids (Alex's susceptibility, Fred's denial, and Adina's dependency). Relationships between these three kids and their peers would also have been ripe with possibilities (despite the importance of Alex's separation from her friend back home, that plot thread is never explicitly tied to the overall issue). In sum, I like what is here but I wanted more!