Monday, May 30, 2011

The Girl Who Became a Beatle, by Greg Taylor

With perhaps the coolest book cover of 2011 so far, this is a playful fantasy on the dangers of wish fulfillment. In this case, Regina is obsessed with The Beatles and her tribute band (The Caverns) is her means of relating to the world. This all starts to look unhealthy when her band breaks up and Regina loses it. As she hits bottom, she makes a desperate plea for fame (keep the band together and make them famous). When she wakes up the next morning, her wish has been granted. She has become as famous as The Beatles or, more to the point, she has replaced them -- taking credit for both Lennon and McCartney and all of their compositions. Naturally, the question that arises is whether fame is everything it is cracked up to be.

It's a clever idea with a satisfying ending that moves beyond the fantasy to say some original things about wishes and self-empowerment. This, in spite of the fact that the ending won't surprise anyone (and isn't meant to). And the story, which is very much at risk of becoming ridiculous, saves itself quite handily by not being entirely predictable. After all, the idea that The Beatles (or a band like them) could exist - even in an alternate universe - in the contemporary day is ludicrous. The music of The Beatles was very much a product of its time and was essential for what followed. So, the idea that Dr Dre, the Edge, and Madonna could be hearing "Yesterday" for the first time in 2011 is implausible (since they probably wouldn't exist without The Beatles paving the way). But taken less literally (and the novel offers its own explanations), the concept works well as a medium for an allegory.

A minor criticism would be the need for better editing. Taylor packs in a lot of subplots (reconciling Mom and Dad, Regina's relationship with her mother, fighting for her bandmate Lorna) that simply get lost in the story and which would probably have been best left out altogether.

Exposed, by Kimberly Marcus

Liz prides herself on her fine eye for a photo and her ability to frame an image. So, it takes her by surprise when her best friend Kate suddenly stops talking to her after a sleepover. She's even more surprised when Kate comes out and accuses Liz's older brother of raping her that night. Liz wants to believe her best friend, but it's hard to see her own brother as such a monster. When Kate decides to press charges, Liz finds herself torn between her loyalty to her best friend and her ties to her family.

The plot has wonderful dramatic potential, but the decision to write it in verse adds a challenge that Marcus never really rises up to. Verse works when it has something to say. In this case, it sounded more like an attempt to avoid having to writing annoying transitions. To me, the decision in this case felt like lazy writing.

And the cost of choosing to write this in verse is that it is much harder to fill out the characters and give them life. Kate never really gets the development she needs and Liz's family is similarly flat. As a result, I didn't really feel the pain that Liz was going through choosing between them. And the potential impact of the story was diminished.

Delirium, by Lauren Oliver

In Lena's world, falling in love is a disease - the deliria nervosa. Thankfully, the state has a cure for it. Unfortunately, you don't get the treatment until you are 18. Lena can hardly wait. Her own mother died of the disease and Lena is determined not to follow in her footsteps. However, when Lena meets Alex, she begins to fear that it might be too late. Alex is beautiful and enchanting and Lena is swept off her feet. She can feel the disease getting its grip on her. But Alex is far more dangerous than Lena suspects. He reveals another side to the world she lives in -- a side of darkness and deceit. Soon, the stakes are much higher than any love-struck delirium.

As dystopias go, the premise of this one is silly and implausible. Only an adolescent could really believe that grownups want to take away your ability to love. Even as a metaphor for human agency, the set-up doesn't really work. In the end, the setting is really just there to create the action. And for that, Oliver certainly throws up the volume pretty high. There is plenty of action and enough visuals here to power the film that is slated to go into production soon.

The writing suffers from poor pacing. I got pretty bored of the constant mention of "unbearable shooting pain." As they say in Princess Bride, "you keep using these words, but I don't think they mean what you think they do." How much agony and terror can Lena take? And how much more of it do I have to read about? At the very least, I wanted Lena to admit that the pain/terror/fear she felt twenty pages back was nothing compared to what she was feeling now. The ending (and its accompanying cliffhanger) won't really surprise anyone either. I'd suggest waiting for the movie and skipping the book.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Inconvenient, by Margie Gelbwasser

Alyssa has the normal problems of a 15 year-old YA heroine (a boyfriend who may or may not like her, a best friend who has grown distant, etc.), but then she also has some less usual issues (being a Russian-Jewish-American and having an alcoholic mother). Her father, in denial, tries to convince Alyssa that her Mom's struggles are just an "inconvenience." However, Russian stereotypes aside, we get to see how Alyssa's mother's disease grows and threatens the entire family through the course of the novel.

I loved the Russian cultural details (reminding me of my many Russian-Jewish friends in the 1980s). I really liked the sensitive and nuanced way that Gelbwasser handled the topic of alcoholism (particularly in a culture that has trouble admitting that it is a disease). Avoiding any melodrama, we get a knowledgeable and sympathetic portrayal of how addiction destroys families. And the ending, as devastating as it is, felt honest and authentic.

With such a strong setting and a superb theme, I was maddened by the cluttered state of the rest of the story. So many themes (racism, the romance with Keith, teen substance abuse, and even the beautiful butterfly imagery that starts off the story and graces the cover) never get developed. I wanted the number of themes weeded down and the ideas allowed to grow. There is so much beauty in the writing, but a more ruthless editor could have made more happen with it.

Red Riding Hood, by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright

For years, the village has been victimized by a werewolf, but the town has had an implicit deal: regular sacrifices are left and the monster leaves the villagers alone. But something has changed and the werewolf has begun to attack the villagers brazenly. Valerie, unbeknownst to her neighbors, has always felt a link with the creature, just as she has also been drawn to outcast bad boy Peter. Her parents would have her marry rich boy Henry, but her heart belongs to Peter. And Peter may be far more than he initially appears. With peace and order disturbed, an inquisitor and professional werewolf slayer arrives to rescue the town, but his efforts unleash blood and mayhem across the village.

While loosely inspired by the fairy tale, this book (and the movie on which it is based) is largely drawn from the success of the Twilight series and represents (in my mind) the quintessential werewolf fantasy -- girl falls for local bad boy who is probably also a lycanthrope, she forsakes her family and friends (who conveniently disown her), and she gives herself over to his ... er... desire. Neither she nor the boy really have much more than lust going for them, so this is basically YA porn. But you all know that, whether you like it or condemn it.

I haven't seen the movie, but my sense is that it must be fairly violent based upon the body count and the graphic descriptions in the book (the sex is pretty graphic too, but I'm more bothered by the violence). The characters seem pretty shallow here, which is striking since a novelization should have afforded the opportunity to expand where a film could not. And the plot is nonsensical (or missing the details from the screenplay that explained the flow). In sum, I wasn't terribly impressed. The exercise seemed largely derivative, even though the idea (riffing of the Brothers Grimm) was promising.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Exile of Gigi Lane, by Adrienne Maria Vrettos

Gigi Lane is an A-list girl, and an over-the-top caricature of the popular girl, or in her words, a "head hottie." In her junior year, she has her sights set on one thing, being inducted into the position officially, as leader of the "Hot Spot" (the very highest clique in her school -- Swan's Lake Country Day). And the cliques at Swan's Lake are carefully and explicitly regimented: the "Mr. T's" (drama), "Vox Foxes" (school paper), Cheerleaders, "Whompers" (LARPers), and so on. In this world, it really would seem that Gigi's self-affirmation ("I'm Gigi Lane and you wish you were me") was true. She's the top dog and destined for greatness.

But then, a major scandal at the year-end Founder's Ball endangers Gigi's ambitions. She is disgraced and sent to Alaska for the summer to clean fish. When she returns, she has lost all of her status and has to rebuild her disgraced brand from scratch. While readers will expect her to eventually succeed in her rehabilitation (and maybe to develop a conscience and a soul along the way), the ending is so completely unexpected and bizarre that readers have an exciting surprise to look forward to. Suffice it to say, that the mean-girl genre never was skewered so brilliantly before!

If you read the book straight, Gigi's utter meanness will be very unappealing. And the exaggerated portrayal of high school cliques will bother most readers as unrealistic. But both criticisms miss the point in this social satire. The usual cliches are all present, but sent up in such a ridiculous fashion that they cannot be taken seriously. The result is a contemporary novel in the grand tradition of Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw, but without all that pesky literary mustiness. Enjoy the laugh!

The Queen of Water, by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango

Born in a poor rural area of Ecuador, Virginia had a tough beginning. In a community of subsistence farmers, where alcoholism and domestic violence is rife, no one really expects to make much of their life. Children are seen as commodities and, at the age of seven, Virginia is given away to a middle-class family in the city as a servant. While Virginia thinks that it is to be a temporary arrangement, the family enslaves her, subjecting her to physical (and eventually sexual) abuse, until she manages to escape and rebuild her life. Strikingly, despite the years of abuse she has endured, Virginia remains thankful for the opportunities that the family has given her and goes through regular struggles with rejecting them altogether.

From an early age, Virginia realizes that a good part of her struggle is fighting the racial prejudice that exists between the indigenous peoples and the mixed-race (and lighter-skinned) mestizos. Without any direct help, she figures out the logic of this system of inequality and develops her own strong viewpoints and sense of self-worth. The strong tear-jerking ending provides the emotional payoff that the reader needs having survived Virginia's struggles and near-disasters along the way.

In gripping detail, The Queen of Water outlines the true story of Virginia's efforts to overcome her roots and society's prejudices. It's a magical story, made all the more enticing by Resau's beautiful writing and her multi-layered approach to Latin America culture. The fact that this is a biography narrated and co-written by its heroine makes it interesting, but in lesser hands than Resau (who acts as an experienced cultural translator) it could well have become pedantic and dull. Instead, Resau brings in extensive local color and just enough education to make the book seem "good for you" but not so much that it seems like a reading assignment.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Cryer's Cross, by Lisa McMann

It's a huge shock for the small town of Cryer's Cross when freshman Tiffany Quinn goes missing. Nearly the entire town turns out to help with the search, but she is never found. When Kendall's best friend (and possible boyfriend) Nico also disappears, the shock hits closer to home. She is devastated. And while the town's suspicions fall on brooding newcomer Jacian, Kendall develops an alternative explanation when she starts hearing voices and seeing signs that no one else notices. Is she going mad or does she have access to clues through her OCD that could lead her to Tiffany and Nico?

Chilling and creepy, this is a story that will give you goosebumps while you read it and nightmares afterwards. It combines McMann's signature obsession with voices from beyond (see the Wake series) and gives it a moderately more plausible situation in the form of OCD-suffering Kendall. The result worked for me and is not nearly as silly as it might sound.

Kendall is also a much more interesting character for me than Wake's Janie (who went from tortured soul to whining super-detective a bit too quickly for my tastes). Kendall's OCD is easier to grasp and her rather human hesitations and weaknesses seemed more real. The potential romance with Jacian is predictable but handled nicely and doesn't interfere with what is otherwise a nice creepy ghost story.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Never Been Kissed, by Melody Carlson

Elise is almost sixteen years old and she's never been kissed. While she impresses a younger girl in her apartment complex with her (exaggerated) worldliness, Elise knows that she's a fake. But when she meets a cute boy named Asher, she wonders if he could be the one. He's friendly enough and is sending her flirtatious emails. The problem is that he's taken.

From there, the story could have predictably become a sweet romance about boy and girl trying to find each other and Elise (maybe) finally getting her kiss. But that's not what Carlson has in mind. Instead, the subject of being unkissed gets sidelined by serious criminal accusations lodged against Elise. She must do everything she can to protect her reputation. Thankfully, she has faith in God to pull her through.

I am always on the lookout for YA books that address honest explorations of faith, but this sort of "inspirational" literature makes my skin crawl. Harping on about how "being a Christian" making you better than Lutherans (or anyone else) and proving your faith by attending services and judging others who do not isn't faith -- it's prejudice and arrogance. So, I tried my best to ignore the gratuitous references to faith here and didn't bother taking them seriously.

Oddly enough, the book actually worked as a decent whodunit. Yes, I think I might have preferred a more innocent book about kissing, but I enjoyed what the book was really about (integrity and making good decisions). There were a few plot points that seemed blazingly obvious, but the story unfolds nicely and I kept eagerly turning the pages.

This isn't a book for those with an interest in strong character development. The characters are flat and some of them (like the adults in authority) are grossly exaggerated, but Elise herself is appealing and multi-faceted. In many ways, this helps to keep the focus firmly on Elise and keeps the pace brisk.

Banished, by Sophie Littlefield

Hailey has always been at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Trashtown MO. But when a girl in her gym class suffers a serious injury, Hailey discovers that she has the ability to heal people. That's when things start to go terribly wrong. Strange men show up looking for her. Her grandmother starts acting suspicious. And when Hailey's long-lost aunt shows up out of the blue, all heck breaks loose. Soon, Hailey and her aunt are on the run from a greedy scientist, hired goons, a sociopath neighbor, and zombies!

I liked the way the book began (with a struggling teen trying to fit in amidst some pretty dark settings), but by the time we got to the marauding zombies I had pretty much lost interest. The ending gets pretty busy and ends on a cliffhanger (which suggests a sequel, of course, but doesn't really seem justified), which left me with too many unsatisfying loose ends. Hailey begins as an interesting heroine, but once the violence level kicks up (there's an amazing amount of non-fatal gunshots here), she becomes rather drab.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Trapped, by Michael Northrop

When school is cancelled early because of a snow storm, Scotty's first worry is that his big game that evening will be cancelled. But when he and six other kids find themselves trapped at the school in the middle of an incredible blizzard, things take a more serious turn. By the time their tale of survival has drifted into days, events have grown fatal. What develops is classic disaster novel stuff, but told through the lens of a group of resourceful teens.

This isn't a very touchy feely book, focusing more on the action than the books I normally read, but there is a certain amount of male posturing and psychological drama. In addition, some intimations that a romance might develop are factored in, but as Scotty himself says, this isn't a boy-meets-girl story. What it is is a pretty decent adventure story with a group of fairly believable teens, who make a couple of decent choices as well as a fair share of stupid decisions. It all seems in character.

The novel is hardly earth-shattering, but it's entertaining. Northrop knows how to keep the pace up and ratchet up the suspense. The ending comes on a bit sudden but it's satisfying, even if not terribly deep.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Properties of Water, by Hannah Roberts McKinnon

When a tragic accident takes Lacey's older sister and mother away, Lace and her Dad must try to cope with maintaining the house and healing from their losses. Simply maintaining the house is struggle enough. Enter Willa Dodge, housekeeper extraordinaire, who whips things back into shape. While Lace initially distrusts Willa, she learns that she can be a powerful ally. A tiff with her best friend and a romance with an older boy also play a role in helping Lacey come to terms with what has happened to her family.

A short and nicely written novel that unfolds in a highly surprising fashion. It's hard to tell the whole story here as it would reveal too many of those surprises. Suffice it to say that there is a lot more to the tale than is immediately apparent. I enjoyed that and especially liked the way that it all grew in complexity as we went along. The characters are somewhat less interesting and I think the strength of the novel lies mostly in the storytelling and not the narrators.