Sunday, December 30, 2012

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi

Scholastic has just re-released this with a new cover and a cheap price, and sent me a reviewer's copy to read...

Charlotte Doyle is looking forward to her trip across the Atlantic aboard the Seahawk.  But when the families with whom she is supposed to be traveling fail to appear, and members of the crew attempt to discourage her from showing up, she regrets the decision.  But already out at sea, it is too late!

Between storms, stowaways, and seasickness, Charlotte has a lot with which to deal.  However, it gets worse: the crew is mutinous and the captain is unhinged and cruel.  Before long, young innocent Charlotte finds herself thrust into the middle of plots and counterplots, and ends up accused of murder!

It's a vivid and exciting adventure on the high seas and a modern classic tale that has won its fair share of accolades and prizes.  It works, I think, because it is a good adventure with plenty of action, but features a girl, so draws in the girls as well as the boys.  There's great technical detail, so fans of naval adventures have plenty to bite into.  And it works on a human level as Charlotte has a heart and a strong moral core to make her an excellent heroine.  It's not much of a book for a moral or lesson, but you don't read books like this to learn about human nature.  Unfortunately, you do read books like this to be subjected to twenty course lesson plans in language arts classes (!), so if you are a grown up, enjoy the book as a free person!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lucky for Good, by Susan Patron

Yet more about the inhabitants of Hard Pan in this final installment of Susan Patron's Lucky trilogy.  This time, the story centers around Brigitte's need to bring her cafe up to code, Miles's reunion with her mother (and adapting to having a mother again), and Lucky learning more about her family and coming to terms with her father's decision to abandon her.  As in the other two novels, the style remains plain enough for younger readers, but honest enough to resonate with grownups.

At times, the unstructured format of the story makes it hard to follow and there is a frustrating way for seemingly important threads to become neglected, but the overall flavor is so unique and charming that it is easy to overlook the flaws.  Even the folksy lifestyle of Hard Pan is applied lightly -- just enough to be enjoyable, providing us with a great collection of memorable characters, without becoming cloying or condescending.

Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson

In the 1840s in Vermont, Lyddie Worthen and her brother struggle to survive on their own.  Their father has gone West years ago and mother has fallen under the sway of an End Times preacher and given up on living.  When the family's debts reach the point that they can no longer keep the farm, the two children are sent to work:  Lyddie's brother to the mill and Lyddie herself to be a housekeeper.  Lyddie works hard but can't earn enough money to make any headway on repaying the debts.  So, when she learns of better opportunities in Lowell MA, working in the wool mills, she decides to strike out to seek her fortune.  It's back-breaking work, but Lyddie welcomes the opportunity to change her life.

Less outstanding for the writing than the extraordinary story it tells, Lyddie is a well-researched historical novel that will give you pause to reflect on how hard life can really be and how we rise to the challenges that we must face. Its lessons about perseverance have a timeless classic quality to them that often lands the book on summer reading lists.  Lyddie's life is harsh, but she accepts it with a level of grace and determination that make her a very inspiring heroine.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Incarnate, by Jodi Meadows

For as long as people in the Range have known, everyone is reincarnated when they die and the number of souls (and bodies) has been remained static.  Everyone, that is, except for Ana.  She's a "new soul" (or, as her mother tells her frequently, a "non soul") and not reincarnated at all.  She is, her mother says, a mistake.

But Ana is not convinced that she is as bad as Mom claims.  And after eighteen years of abuse at her mother's hands, Ana is ready to strike out on her own.  Ana's convinced that the answer lies in Heart, the capital city.  There, she hopes to get some answers about her origins and find out why she is the only one who is not reincarnated from a previous life.  On her way to Heart, she befriends a musician named Sam who becomes her guardian, mentor, and object of affection (although not quite her lover).  Acid-spitting dragons, wraith-like beasts called "sylphs," and Ana's meddlesome and evil mother fight her along the way.

It's an interesting setting and premise, but the story itself is a bit too leaden with adolescent rebellion. Ana's evil sadistic mother is more fantasy than the dragons and the wraiths, and a bit too much attention is spent on her.  I get the appeal to young readers, but the lengths to which Mom goes to get between Ana and Sam are ludicrous and some of the weakest parts of the story.

On a whole, the story starts off strong, but loses focus midway (about the time that Ana and Sam reach the city).  At first, we have the interesting thread of how (after years of emotional abuse) Ana has trouble trusting Sam.  But once the dragons show up, it starts getting weird, and the emotional growth is displaced by shooting and killing.  With a multitude of loose ends, I became painfully aware by the end that there must be a sequel to come (sure enough, due out in January 2013!).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Second Chance Summer, by Morgan Matson

Taylor has always run away when things got tough.  Five years ago, she ran away from Lake Phoenix, from her best friend Lucy, and from her first boyfriend Henry. And she never planned to come back.  But when her father is diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, he insists that the family to return to their old summer home on the Lake for one last summer together.  How are you going to argue with that?

And so, Taylor has to return and face Lucy and Henry again.  The return is difficult and her abandonment is not easily forgiven.  She expected that, but what surprises her is how it rekindles old feelings and makes her reconsider not just the decisions of her past but how her fear continues to control her life.  Her romantic feelings for Henry return and her longing to have Lucy back in her life points out the terrible costs of her tendency to run away.  Eventual forgiveness shows that second chances are actually possible.  The slow decline of her father, meanwhile, places some perspective on all this and how sometimes even a second chance is not enough.

Obviously, the ingredients here are guaranteed to be upsetting.  Between the nostalgia, the longing for lost friendships, and a dying parent, there had better be a Kleenex box nearby when you read this book! And since I do like a book that makes me cry, I'm going to like this one.  However, there are other things going for the book:  Taylor's emotions (and her fears, in particular) are very honest and striking.  The other characters have depth as well.  In a lengthy novel like this, we really get an opportunity to get under the skin of them all and it is an enlightening journey.  (The setting is beautiful, although I'm growing disturbed at the unusual socioeconomic status of the families depicted in these books!  Where do middle class people who can't afford summer homes go to have an amazing summer of memories?).

Still, the storytelling has some rough spots.  Matson has problems pacing the story, clustering events in spots and then having to skip past "a few weeks" or so until events get interesting.  It's understandable, but one wonders if she couldn't have planned the story a bit better to have a less jumpy chronology.  Also, dealing with lost romance and dying father may be too much for one novel.  Surprisingly, it actually works, but for the first half of the book, I felt like there were really two different stories going on.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Breaking Beautiful, by Jennifer Shaw Wolf

After the accident, Allie can't remember the details of what happened to her and her boyfriend Trip.  She doesn't know how she got her injuries (although she thinks she got thrown out of the truck) or why the truck went over the guardrail and into the ocean (taking Trip with it).  And while she wants to believe what the police are telling her -- that it was an accident -- she isn't sure.  Something about it doesn't seem right.

As she tries to remember what happened and also tries to rebuild her life, she discovers that the people in her small town aren't exactly sure about her either.  Gossip leads to accusations and Allie's troubled friend Blake becomes a suspect in a murder investigation.  If only Allie could remember what really happened!

The story begins with a promising start, but it gets dragged out.  Allie has a lot of trouble coming to terms with the abusive nature of her former relationship with Trip.  Survivor's guilt and general denial seems realistic enough and some struggling from Allie adds to the drama of the story.  But at some point, her refusal to seek help (or even tell the truth) becomes just plain annoying and implausible -- and more of an excuse to drag out the story than to explore the psychic damage of abuse or the recovery process from it.  And the ending of the book itself is a mess as Wolf strives for maximum melodrama in resolving the story.

The Unwritten Rule, by Elizabeth Scott

The unwritten rule is that you shouldn't fall in love with your best friend's boyfriend, but what if you loved him first?  And what if your best friend wasn't really acting like they should either?  Lusting about Ryan ought to be a non-starter for Sarah since Brianna is dating him, but Sarah can't help herself.  She also can't help but notice how poorly Brianna treats him (not that that would justify her desires, but it bothers her nonetheless!).  What she doesn't do as good a job of noticing is that Brianna doesn't exactly treat her that well either.

On its face, the love triangle ought to be a pretty tired genre, but Scott livens up the story by introducing a mild sense of evil (in the form of Brianna).  This is not done simply to make Sarah's betrayal of her BFF acceptable to the reader, but rather to add another dimension to it.

The story is also given legs by the way that Scott breathes real life into her characters.  Sarah is often wiser and more articulate than her years, but this gives her a chance to send the reader on a guided tour of the dysfunctions of her peers and their parents (Brianna's mother is a particularly formidible character).  So, while the action of the story doesn't surprise, the interactions of the characters do tread new ground -- particularly the complicated relationship between Sarah and Brianna.

The Diviners, by Libba Bray

It is the Roaring Twenties and Evie is a totally modern gal, which is why live in boring Ohio is unbearable.  And why being sent to New York City to live with her uncle is a dream come true.  New York is the city where it's at -- gin joints, hopping jazz, fashionable people -- just the place for a gal who wants to have some fun!

However, New York is also full of strange and evil things.  A murderer is loose in the city and engaged in a series of ritual murders.  Evie's uncle, an expert on the occult, has been consulting for the police and very quickly Evie herself gets drawn into the investigation.  Teamed up with a series of paranormally-enhanced and gin-addled friends, they are on the hunt.  The question is whether they can stop the killer before he manages to end the world.

It's Libba Bray's typical collection of crazy and wild ideas, which combine supernatural thriller with pulp fiction detective novel.  Bray has infused the story with a lot of detail, but there's no escaping the sheer corniness of the setting, which is part Ghostbusters and part Dick Tracy.  Either way, this extremely long tome (578 pages, you chumps!) is more cinema than literature -- light and airy, and largely insubstantial.  Obviously, since I read the whole thing, I can't have felt like it sucked, but it lacked the fun of Beauty Queens and ultimately seemed pretty silly.  And the last forty pages of the book existed merely to pave the way for an unnecessary sequel, while avoiding any sort of closure.

Monday, December 03, 2012

What Can(t) Wait, by Ashley Hope Perez

In the barrio of Houston, Marisa dreams of making something of herself.  It isn't easy.  She's good at math, bright and intelligent, and has supportive teachers, but between the need to work to help her family and their other demands, there frequently isn't enough time left to study or even attend school.  No member of her family shares her love for education and some of them (like her father) are downright hostile to her bookishness.  That would be enough or a challenge, but Marisa complicates things by occasionally messing up (especially with guys).  Still, she has a lot of drive and determination, and with some help from unexpected sources she just might make it.

It's a familiar story (Real Women Have Curves, anyone?), but a good one.  And told in this unvarnished and authentic fashion (with enough R-rated material to get the book-banners salivating), the novel has a lot of appeal.  It's gritty and sounds right (and not just because of the frequent use of Spanglish). 

It's the character of Marisa herself that carries this story.  If she had just been this virtuous hard-working young woman pursuing the American Dream, I would have gotten bored pretty quickly, but Perez gets extra points for allowing her to be flawed.  You want her to succeed so very badly that when she screws up, it breaks your heart.  But Perez doesn't milk it.  For every mistake, Marisa dusts herself off and jumps right back into things.  So, yes, she's tough, but she's got a lot of heart (and a thin skin on the things that matter to her) so she's also very endearing.  I rooted for her from the start and stuck with her to the end -- and I think it paid off quite well.

Being a product of a nice anglo suburb, I don't tend to have much interest in urban culture (or stories placed in such settings), but a great heroine transcends their environment and anyone can enjoy this book.  If urban latinas find something special to like in the book, so much the better, but white guys will like it too.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Alice on Board, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Now that the girls have graduated from High School, Alice is realizing that they will soon part and go off in different directions.  But for one more summer, they will be together, working on a cruise ship in the Chesapeake Bay.  It's hard work, but Alice gets to see a lot of scenery and they have some adventures.  Pamela is dealing with her needy mother, Gwen is trying out a new romance, and Alice herself is mostly fretting over Patrick and whether she is being too clingy.

It's another installment in Naylor's long-running series.  Alice's adventures aren't quite as cute as before and the books tend to read like serial installments, rather than as themed books, but Alice remains an interesting young woman (if, for no other reason, than there's been so much written about her).  Naylor is not quite in touch with the technology that is the foundation of adolescence (confusing Facebook with some sort of chat room or Craigslist) anymore and her writing style seems more grandmotherly, but this gives the books an innocent charm that make them popular with younger readers.  This particular installment is a bit more action-packed than some of the previous ones, but notably thinner on emotions, feelings, and getting inside Alice's head.

In many ways, this is probably my greatest reservation about the series.  Having tracked every little bit of Alice's life for 12+ years, we have a wonderful opportunity to explore why she feels like she does.  Occasionally, Alice lets down her guard and Naylor explores an idea briefly (in this example, there's a tease where Alice wonders if her clingy feelings are somehow tied to losing her mother when she was little), but the ideas are dropped just as quickly as they appear.  That makes the books overall superficial and frustrating.  Sure, we know when she got her first bra, had her first period, and lost her virginity, but not that much about her anxieties and her dreams.  A person's made up of more than anecdotes and milestones.

[Note:  This was supposed to be the very last book in the series, but apparently Naylor decided that she needed to do another one, so look forward to Always Alice, sometime in 2013.]

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Want To Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman

Abby's having a hard time adjusting to High School.  She's shy and awkward, the school is big, the teachers different, and her best friend is distracted by different classes, extracurriculars, and a new boyfriend.  Abby's got a boy in school that she's crushing on too, but he isn't the focus of her life.  The focus of her life is Luke, a guy she's met online.  She knows all about stranger danger and how you shouldn't talk with people you don't know on the Internet, but Luke is different.  He's kind and caring and supports her all the time.  And as Abby struggles with her friends and family, she really needs Luke.  So, when Luke suggests that they meet, she decides to go for it.  The rest of the book deals with the consequences of that terrible mistake.

I have mixed feelings about this one.  Littman is tackling an important subject but she knows it.  The story is liberally littered with adults telling the reader about sexual predators online and how they "groom" their victims.  Lots of action in the story is really thinly-veiled advice about what to do (and not do) in situations like this.  The result is a pedantic story that terrorizes the reader as much as it enlightens them. I don't like books that preach, especially about something this obvious.  Want to help kids avoid sexual predators?  Show how those predators work.  But scaring them with graphic and nasty scenes?  With stories of how they will be subject to not only mortal danger, but (gasp!) the derision of their peers?  Why?  It seemed more like scare tactics and felt like exploitation.

Given the mission, the characters are largely secondary to the message.  The kids have endearing qualities, but I didn't really feel that I got to know them (and the adults are throwaway).  Most shockingly, I never really understood why Abby went with the guy.  We gets lots of repetition of the word "grooming process" as an explanation but its depiction in the book is shockingly sparse.  Rather than show the gradual process through which the predator insinuated himself into her trust, we jump roughly ahead a few months to later scenes where the guy has already trained her to disrobe on command.  As a result, we're left mystified as to why she would do this.  For the mission of the book and the understanding of the young readers to whom it is targeted, it would have made more sense to show that development process (and maybe lowered the explicitness of the yucky stuff).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore

Not so much the latest installment of a trilogy as much as a parallel sequel to Graceling (taking a minor side-story and expanding it), this is ostensibly the story of how King Leck's daughter Bitterblue helped her kingdom come to terms with his murderous legacy.  Her efforts are complicated by the terror she still feels towards her father and a growing sense that her advisers are resistant to reforms.  Overcoming those fears becomes Bitterblue's own shining contribution.

The book is a bit longer and thematically more complex than the other books in the series.  Cashore is great with details and telling a complicated story.  This is a good thing since she has chosen two difficult tasks (to depict a very lively political scene and to dig in to the concept of terror and the way that one recovers from its trauma).  She's not always successful in keeping up a good pace to the story and the middle of the book starts to drag a bit with navel gazing peer counseling and a number of subplots that even Bitterblue's surly archivist writes off as "of questionable relevance."  The conclusion is also painfully drawn out, sending us through nearly 100 pages of tying up loose ends.  Still, one can be indulgent over the dull sections as the work overall is a magnificent and complex achievement that continues to develop the world of its two predecessors.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bittersweet, by Sarah Ockler

Three years ago, Hudson was on her way to a professional career in figure skating.  And then she threw her skating competition.  Her teammates thought that she had just choked from the pressure, but the truth was that she and her mother had just found out that her Dad (her all-round biggest fan) was cheating on them.  And, in that moment on the rink, she realized that she wanted nothing more to do with him.  Since skating was the thing she did with him, she vowed that she would never do it again.

Now, with her Dad long gone, and Hudson, her little brother, and Mom trying to make ends meet, Hudson realizes that she misses skating after all.  A rare opportunity to skate in a competition again presents itself with a tantalizing offer:  a college scholarship that could be her ticket out of her dead-end life.  But in order to get practice time at a local rink, Hudson finds herself coaching the high school hockey team, which in turn leads her into the arms of not just the team's captain, but his smoldering co-captain as well.

If you get the sense that there is an awful lot going on in this story, then you would be right.  The nearly 400 pages of this novel are full of a dozen overlapping plots.  It seems that Hudson's life is complicated and complex.  Normally, I'm not a fan of such a busy story (I'd rather a writer choose a story and focus the novel around it), but it works in this case because much of the book's point is that Hudson's life is complicated and complex.  I'm not such a fan of Hudson herself (she's a bit spacy and not very responsible with her friends), but she's brave and fearless and I give her kudos for what she accomplishes in the story.  The ending is all a bit too over-the-top cheery and pink fluffy bunnies, but Hudson grows a great deal over the course of the story, so I was satisfied overall.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Lucky Breaks, by Susan Patron

Lucky and the odd-ball inhabitants of Hard Pan have aged a year or so.  Brigitte is trying to learn how to become an American (as well as a good mother to Lucky), Lincoln is mastering his knot tying skills and working out the secrets of the universe, and Miles - while still a bit weird - has been declared a genius.

And now there's a new girl - Pamona - the niece of a scientist working in the area.  She's the same age as Lucky and - Lucky hopes - might potentially become her best friend.  But Pamona also shakes up things as Lucky struggles to come to terms that in order to have a best friend, one has to be a best friend (and not just to Pamona, but to Lincoln and Miles as well).

It's been a while since I read the first book (The Higher Power of Lucky), but I remember being enchanted by the quirky characters, gentle storytelling, and kindheartedness of that book.  That all continues here, but in the sequel it wears a bit thin.  Maybe it's because the story itself never really gels, but instead rambles around between subjects.  Or maybe the appeal of the original is lost once the novelty fades.  Either way, I found it hard to engage with the book.  It was pleasant to read, but ultimately forgettable.

Lexie, by Audrey Couloumbis

It's the first summer that Lexie's parents haven't been together, so it feels particularly weird to be going out to the beach house with only Dad.  Weird to leave her Mom in the city, but also a little good - a feeling with which Lexie struggles. 

When they get out to the shore, Lexie is in for number of surprises:  Dad has invited a "friend" to join them and she's coming with two boys.  Lexis is torn about this:  she hates having to share her father with other people, but she grows to like the boys and even her father's friend.

Couloumbis can be a bland writer.  I didn't care much for her acclaimed novel Getting Near to Baby because I found it dull and boring.  However, for a story with this book's subtle complexity, Couloumbis's style works well.  The characters here are smart and insightful and the feelings they express are complicated.  It is a gentle story that avoids melodrama and instead explores how the process of changing families can be both good and bad at the same time.  Lexie and the boys are allowed to both love and hate the changes that are happening around them, and even the adults get to express their feelings as mixture of joy, fear, and sadness.  While the kids can seem a bit precocious at times, I think that is mostly because we are used to dumbed-down characters in books like this.  In the world of Lexie's beach house, it all seemed quite reasonable.  The story itself breaks little new ground, but its treatment of the subject of divorce and remarriage makes this smart little book notable.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Unforgotten Coat, by Frank Cottrell Boyce

It's a memorable day for Julie when two Mongolian boys show up unannounced at her school.  While they struggle with the language, the boys quickly assert themselves as different and Julie is entranced.  The older boy Chingis announces that Julie will be their "good guide" and help them understand their new home.  Julie is pleased to accept.  However, the younger boy Nergui is afraid that a demon is after them and the boys (with their new guide) must find a way to escape Nergui's nemesis.  Told in flashback and through a series of Polaroids, Boyce lays out a story that is both magical and yet very down-to-earth, ultimately exploring the immigrant experience.

For a very brief book (under 100 pages, with many photographs), I found it strangely moving.  The story lives on minimalism, with Boyce preferring to do less with his words and more with the images.  The book's design (like a notebook with lined-paper pages) and enigmatic photographs are striking and integral to the story.  The overall product is effective and original.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

With Lucy's older sister going away to College, Lucy is psyched to be getting their room to herself.  She's also looking forward to going out for captain of the basketball team this year.  Sixth grade is going to be totally great!

But then things go awry.  Her late grandmother's long-lost sister is coming to visit and Lucy is going to have to share her room with the old woman for several months.  And Lucy's parents have decided that Lucy needs to attend Chinese school on Saturday mornings, even if it means missing basketball practice!  She just wants to be a normal American kid, yet her family keeps forcing her to be Chinese!  And no one seems to care that she loves basketball!

A gentle (albeit mildly preachy) story about the power of silver linings.  As is typical in books for this age group, Lucy begins as a self-centered (and mildly bratty) kid and ends up more open-minded and considerate.  It's a satisfying model, but doesn't offer a lot of surprises.  What works better is Wan-Long Shang's ability to work in a lot of Chinese culture, and to remind us that it doesn't exist in a vacuum (i.e., being Chinese-American means bringing the two cultures together).  She also does a nice job of bringing generations together as Lucky's visiting great-aunt proves to have some unexpected strengths.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Difference Between You and Me, by Madeleine George

Jesse is a rebel and an outcast, from the huge fisherman's boots she wears to the angry manifestos she posts on the walls at school.  She's got an agenda and she's not shy about trumpeting it.  Emily, on the other hand, is the perky clean-cut student government vice president with a plan for everything and an explanation for every twist and turn in her life.  Nothing scares her more than the chaos and disorder that epitomize Jesse's life. Together, they are an unlikely couple, and yet are strongly attracted to each other. However, as hot as it gets between them, it is all under wraps as Emily must maintain a perfect sheen to the outside world.  Jesse, strangely enough, tolerates this because of her serious lust for Emily.  However, these compromised arrangements come undone when a big box store comes to town and the girls find themselves on opposite sides of the debate over whether such stores benefit the communities in which they operate and whether corporations have a place in public schools.

I absolutely loved the human interactions in this story.  From the way that the girls talk to each other to the interactions that Jesse and her parents have, the dialogue and the behaviors rang true.  I was less thrilled with the plotting, which was uneven and cluttered with subplots.  Perhaps because I found the relationship of Jesse and Emily to be so interesting, I really didn't care about anything but the girls, and I found myself racing past anything else in the book to get back to them.

The Disenchantments, by Nina LaCour

Upon graduating from high school, Colby knows exactly what he's going to do for the next year:  go on a short tour up the West Coast with The Disenchantments (an all-girl band, made up of his three best friends from school).  None of the members can play, but what they lack in talent they make up for with spirit and energy.  Afterwards, he and Bev (one of the girls in the band) are going to bum around Europe for the rest of the year.  Afterwards, perhaps they'll go to college.

However, on the first day on the road, Bev confesses that her plans have changed and that she's going to Art School in the fall instead.  Naturally, this makes life on the road together a bit awkward and tense.  As with all good road trip stories, there's plenty of discovery along the way.  By the end, Colby figures it out and learns that often life just hands you random stuff.

It's a very dialogue-heavy book, without much of a narrative thrust.  The plot just rolls along however it feels and the characters spend a lot of time talking.  For this reason chiefly, the book never managed to grab me.  It isn't that it was dull, but simply not very adventurous or ambitious.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Without Tess, by Marcella Pixley

For the past five years, Lizzie has been struggling with coming to terms with the death of her older sister.  As children, the two girls were tightly bonded and shared an intense love of fantasy and make-believe, with Tess always leading the way.  As they grow older and Lizzie begins to outgrow both the make-believe and her intense devotion for her sister, Tess retreats more and more into fantasy, eventually leading to tragedy.

Told in a combination of flashbacks, Tess's poetry, and counseling sessions, this is a gritty and bare-open portrayal of mental illness and the impact it can have on a young family.  I liked Pixley's previous novel Freak a lot, but this book is on an entirely different playing field.  The anecdotes are so raw and so confessional, that it's impossible to remain impassive.  Knowing the tragic ending that awaits in no way prepares you for it.  Pixley does let us off a bit with a positive ending, but you will be in tears by the end of the book.

There's so much to love here.  The writing is superb and recalls the wistfulness of early Sarah Dessen.  The imagery ranges from the naturalistic (the seaside setting is employed to great effect) to the spiritual (Lizzie's flirtation with Catholicism is wonderfully juxtaposed with the "betrayal" of her sister).  The characters are amazing (whether it is the lyric Tess herself, her scared sister Lizzie, the well-meaning neighbors, or the confused parents) and every portrayal is spot on.  These people seemed real to me and my heart went out to each of them.  Without a doubt, one of the truly great books I've read all year, although it will undoubtedly break your heart!

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, by James Patterson

Rafe Khatchadorian has an amazing imagination and a deep fear of sixth grade.  To get through it, he (and his friend Leo) have come up with a plan:  this year, he will break every rule in the school's handbook.  The plan moves along swimmingly.  And while Rafe finds it exciting to be so fearless and bold (and the attention it brings him is pretty cool), he also discovers the downsides to being a troublemaker.

The result is a lively story, with a questionable moral compass that is perfect for younger readers.  The book is enhanced with drawings and cartoons (by Laura Park) that capture perfectly the mindset of a sixth-grade boy in all of its awkward immaturity.  This is a story that will remind female readers of how stupid boys can be, but Rafe has a heart of gold and learns a lot from his exploration of naughtiness, and so ultimately it redeemed.  Mixed in gently, a mature theme about domestic abuse is also dealt with in an age-appropriate fashion.

The Fine Art of Truth or Dare, by Melissa Jensen

Ella has an esteem problem, exacerbated by the burns she got on her shoulder when she was younger (and prompted by being a teen).  She spends a lot of time covering up and trying to lay low.  That doesn't stop her from wishing that suave popular Alex would notice her.  Add to the mix Ella's obsession with an obscure American artist (and her "conversations" with him when she's alone in her room), as well as her obsessive search to find out the identity of his secret love life.  Then toss in the antics of her largely stereotypical South Philly Italian family (complete with family restaurant and wise-talking granny).  And, just when you think you can't add another layer, sprinkle on a gay friend and her (predictable) estrangement from him as she chases after dream-boat Alex.  And the dish is called:  a busy little romance with literary pretensions!

Jensen can certainly write lively and witty prose.   She gets her details right:  this Philadelphia is pitch perfect and instantly recognizable.  The characters are amusing, if uninspiring.  And the story has its moments -- many of them completely random (e.g., swimming with sharks -- you'll have to read it yourself to get that one!).  There is one very striking and memorable scene (on page 353 -- if you need a prompt) that will stick with me. 

However, the book is so busy!  Having a few good hits won't make up with the sheer chaotic nature of the storytelling.  The characters are largely stereotypes.  Alex is a pretty boy without much of a personality (I'm terribly amused by other reviewers who describe him as "cute" -- how can you tell from a book?).  He says all the right things and seems pretty boring.  The father, grandmother, and a bitter archivist are forgettable tropes.  The exception is Ella, who gets some moments to shine.  It's a comfortable read but largely insignificant.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Rockoholic, by C. J. Skuse

Jody's a bit obsessed with Jackson Gatlin, lead singer of The Regulators.  So, nothing's going to stop her from seeing them in concert -- not her mother, not a full day waiting in line for front row seats, and not some kid vomiting on her while she waits in the line. When an accident in the mosh pit lands her backstage in the infirmary, she misses most of the show but she gets to meet her idol face to face.  And she makes a split second decision to kidnap him.

At first, it is surprisingly easy to guide Jackson back to the car and spirit him back to her home, but then she finds that that is because he doesn't really mind being abducted.  Also, that he's a bit more than she can handle, being a detoxing speed freak with a nasty temper.  It will take some creative foot skills for Jody and her friend Mac to keep Jackson under wraps from the paparazzi and a homicidal manager.  Rock on!

It is, of course, just a bit over the top.  And it could be great fun, if it wasn't for the gross out factor (vomit plays a prominent role in the story) and the utter annoying nature of Jody herself.  She isn't just an obsessive fan, but also a complete ditz (or "stupid cow" as her friends put it, since they're British).  I haven't quite figured out if British YA writers think young women are stupid, but it does seem to be a trend in UK YA that the girls are dumber.  I suppose you can sit back and laugh at the how irresponsible and thought-free they are (and at all the barfing too), but I found it annoying.  I did, however, read the book all the way to the end and it turned out OK, so maybe if you're into the characters more than me, you'll enjoy it.

[Full disclosure:  This one came to me as a free advance copy.  The book comes out in November.]

Friday, October 05, 2012

The List, by Siobhan Vivian

Every year, a list appears at Mount Washington high school.  No one knows who creates it.  The list simply appears one morning, attached to every wall and locker possible.  It names the hottest girl and the ugliest girl in each class.  This act of mischief, cruelty, and hazing becomes a tool that the novel uses to navigate us through how eight young women deal with being singled out and labeled.  Their reactions range from despair and desperation to denial, but without exception the experience affects them, often in very surprising ways.  By the end of the story, we even find out the identity of the list's author and why they created it, but by that point, it almost doesn't matter -- the list has taken on a life of its own.

Vivian points out that, surprisingly, being labeled the "prettiest" is not necessarily a good thing (and likewise being called "ugly" is not necessarily a curse).  Instead, it is really the fame of being called out that is life-changing.  And it is the way that society treats people who are nominated to these roles that is most telling.  The story covers a broad canvas of personalities and reactions.  In doing so, we get a reflection of a much bigger world -- of how young women (and many adults as well!) allow themselves to be defined by others, and what it takes for each one to overcome it.

On its face, this is well-tread territory, but Vivian breathes new life into the subject by trying to cover so much ground.  At the same time, it is hard to keep track of eight different stories.  At times, I wished for a simpler narrative, maybe 2-3 characters instead of eight!  Still, it's hard to imagine which roles could have been cut.  Each one of the eight girls has something to teach us.  There's a lot of cold hard truth here and lot of raw frailty and doubt on display.  It doesn't make for comfortable reading, but it will certainly make good fodder for discussion!

So B. It, by Sarah Weeks

There are only a few things that Heidi knows for certain:  she has incredible luck (winning every time she plays the slots, for example), her family's friend Bernie is afraid to go outside the house but is otherwise her primary caregiver, and her mother's name is So B. It. 

At least, that's about all she thinks she knows about her mother.  Mom is a bit slow and isn't much for communicating (she knows only twenty-three words) and can't tell her much.  Still, Heidi is determined to find her roots.  When she finds an undeveloped roll of film in her Mom's things, it sets off a chain of events that sends Heidi on a cross-country trip.

A surprising and delightful book.  I'm not a big fan of children-abandoned-to-danger stories, but the scary stuff in this one is kept to a minimum (maybe because of Heidi's innate luck?).  And the book has many things going for it.  The characters are memorable and quirky.  The story is well-paced and engaging.  And while the ending is drawn out, it is satisfactory, without trying to tie up every loose end.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Sledding Hill, by Chris Crutcher

Elliott has suffered a double whammy:  his best friend and his father are both killed within three weeks of each other in separate accidents.  In both cases, he's the one who first discovered them. With a touch of ADHD, Elliott in general has trouble communicating and decides to deal with his losses by shutting down and going mute.

His plans to lay low, though, are challenged when his town is plunged into a censorship debate that pits a liberal English teacher against a bigoted minister and his church.  With the help of his late best friend's father and the ghost of the best friend himself, Elliott goes up against the church.

It was probably intended to be clever, but Crutcher's decision to put himself in the story and make one of his books (admittedly, not one that actually exists) into the challenged text seemed like incredible hubris.  Reading repeated testimonials from the characters about how transformative Crutcher's writing is (from the pen of the author himself) seemed self-serving.  My immediate (uncharitable) reaction was that Crutcher's writing is not in the same stratosphere as the literature that one normally associates with challenged books.

And there is no getting around how dreadfully Crutcher actually writes.  His command of grammar is weak and despite apparently significant editorial intervention, there are some pretty obnoxious errors (it's "would have" not "would of"!). The characterizations are weak and facile.  An attempt to humanize the minister by belatedly bringing up childhood abuse is half-hearted.  Crutcher's primary position seems to be that organized religion is intrinsically evil and plagued with mob-mentality.  It's fine for dramatic license, but it doesn't really enlighten the reader about the debates surrounding challenged books.  The overall story is awfully random.  The ghost best friend is a bizarre character, to put it mildly, and the relationship with the grieving father and his own mother are left underdeveloped.

Flyaway, by Lucy Christopher

Isla and her father bond in the early morning hours over following the migration of the swans.  They tirelessly trudge after the birds, trying to protect them and study them at the same time.  But those trips are interrupted when Dad gets sick.

At the hospital, Isla makes two discoveries:  she befriends a sick boy who shares her love for the swans and she discovers a swan in a nearby pond that has lost its flock.  So, now there are three things on her mind:  helping her father get better, hoping the boy gets well, and finding a way to reunite the lost bird with its flock.  Along the way, she also deals with her grandfather's fear of hospitals and with her feelings about various boys (including the sick one).

It's an odd and unusual book that defies convention.  There's a little bit of Fly Away Home, but also threads about family reconciliation, first kisses, and solving ancient mysteries.  At times, the story is strongly realistic, but flies (so to speak) into fancies at other points.  The overall result will probably fly over the heads of its target demographic (and truthfully left me a bit confused).  I'm really not sure what to make of the book.  I finished it (so it can't be that bad) but it's really hard to see what it was trying to do.

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

"The universe has not been kind to Auggie Pullman," says one of his friends.  And, at first glance, that is true.  August has a lot of challenges.  Born with facial and cranial deformities, he's endured numerous surgeries and yet he still shocks people when they first see his face.

In fifth grade, his parents decide that (after years of homeschooling) he should be mainstreamed and enter regular school.  The idea terrifies August.  He's a bright kid and knows how people respond to him.  Can he be brave enough to face that every day?  He isn't sure, but he's about to find out!

It's a lovely premise about a boy with a flawed exterior and a heart of gold, struggling to win over his peers.  Engineering the story to make you root and cheer for Auggie, Palacio is reluctant to show his hero's flaws.  August is intelligent, caring, and patient with the cruelties of his peers.  I didn't buy it.  Showing August make some mistakes and bad choices would have made him a more endearing boy, rather than the Buddha she has crafted.  Instead, the set up is straightforward:  August is good (although he occasionally gets mildly upset at the treatment he receives) and the kids around him fall into two camps (evil and good).  A few of them may backslide, but if they are good, then they come around.  It's all too simplistic and we're deprived the opportunity to really explore why even kind people might not always behave well.

And then there's the narrative design itself.  I was fine when August was telling his own story, but Palacio regularly shifts the storyteller -- in a GoTo Meeting-like style -- from one character to another.  Sometimes, this reveals interesting information about the side character, but rarely does it tell us much about August or about how that temporary narrator feels about August.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

When the rotation of the Earth suddenly begins to slow down, the effects are initially subtle but ultimately cataclysmic.  Every day grows five minutes longer.  Within months, the duration of day light and night time have doubled.  At first this causes minor inconveniences, like deciding whether the "day" should be a cycle (and grow steadily longer) or whether it should remain 24 hours (and fall out of sync with physical reality).  But the changes become more and more grave, as the tides become extreme, the climate changes, flora and fauna begin to die, and the Van Allen Belt collapses, letting in deadly solar rays.

Meanwhile, for eleven year-old Julia, there are changes as dramatic taking place:  her body and the bodies of her friends are changing, her friendships are collapsing, and the rules of nature at school are evolving.  At home, her parents are growing distant to each other and to her.  Even her grandfather is becoming different and more distant.  So many changes!

It's an interesting experimental book, combining science fiction and apocalypse with more common middle reader fare.  I like the juxtaposition of end-of-the-world with starting middle school and the novel frequently contrasts Julia's changing world with the collapse of civilization quite effectively.  But after a while, the point has been made and I started looking for more.  Unfortunately, the book doesn't deliver it.

There are plenty of great anecdotes (moments taken from the author's own childhood perhaps?) and the usual suspects (bra shopping, first kiss, dealing with cliques, etc.) but nothing really new to say about them.  And the apocalypse material can grow distracting (particularly, since it's more original and interesting).  Julia and her family are never really developed.  Instead, we go from one episode to another -- we know what they do and how they reacted, but aren't really allowed inside of their heads to see what makes them tick.

I have previously observed that male writers often prefer to write action (packing their novels full of activities and events), while female writers are more likely to create books where little or no activity occurs.  Instead, we spend the entire story inside of our characters' heads (and hearts).  The stereotype is crude and not altogether true.  There are male writers who do a wonderful job getting inside of their characters' heads.  Walker, I think provides an example on the other side (a woman who writes an effective action story). 

As a sci-fi adventure, this book works well enough, but the pesky girlie stuff then becomes a distraction.  For anyone else interested in Julia's coming of age, the end-of-the-world material is scary and overpowering.  Her story gets lost. And thus the book is a paradox: not written in a way that will appeal to either traditional audience, it falls through the cracks.  You can love it for its originality and for busting through standard marketing, but finding its readers will be a challenge.

The Minister's Daughter, by Julie Hearn

Told in two distinct separate narratives (separated by a half-century), this is the story of Nell, the granddaughter of a village healer, who suffers at the hands of the town ministers' two daughters.  The eldest daughter (Grace), desperate to cover up her illegitimate pregnancy, claims demonic possession, pointing the finger at Nell and her grandmother.  With rich historical detail and some (slightly distracting) subplots about the English Civil War and local pixies, we see the terrible way that minor transgressions quickly escalate into deadly tragedies.

It's an enthralling story, but unfocused.  Hearn doesn't seem to know if she wants to write a paranormal story or historical fiction.  The pixies and fairies are intended to illustrate rural folk beliefs of the period, but they are jarring in a story that is otherwise rooted in historic reality.  Given the choice, I'm a greater fan of good history and the story didn't need the supernatural creatures (even though Hearn weaves them in pretty solidly).  I also found the ending a bit of a let down.  The blurb promises a shocking conclusion and it certainly has a bit of pathos, but seemed underwhelming compared to what could have been done with it.  Overall, a beautiful book, but a bit of a letdown.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Skunk Girl, by Sheba Karim

Nina Khan struggles with the things that other girls like her in High School do (getting good grades, avoiding social gaffes, getting noticed by a cute boy), but she also faces some unique issues in her small Upstate New York town.  She's the only South Asian in her school and is burdened with her parents' rigid rules and expectations (no fraternization with boys, no parties, etc.).  While she respects her parents' concerns, it is frustrating that they are so ignorant of how embarrassing it is to be a lone Muslim girl in such a Western place.

When it came out, the book received a lot of attention for its complex depiction of life as a Pakistani teenager in America.  That initially turned me off from reading the book.  Was the author just trying to score points on a political correctness scale?  Was this some token book for Pakistani kids?  But, like with any good book, I was able to find things about this novel that were universal and enjoyable.  You can certainly read it to experience a bit of Pakistani culture, but that is not the sole point. It's not that Nina's racial and ethnic identity is irrelevant (it's an integral part of her character), it's just that she's so basically "normal" in all other ways.  Her parents may have high standards, but what child hasn't felt that way about their parents?

The story itself lives on the strength of its characters.  Nina is, of course, a major force, but the supporting characters are also interesting, ranging from her friends (and even her nemesis Serena) to the boy interest (a mildly shallow but thoughtful Italian boy) to Nina's parents.  I especially liked Nina's father, who showed a complex ability to sympathize with Nina's struggles while upholding his values for her.  The only character that didn't work for me was Nina's older sister, who becomes rather preachy and seemed more a mouthpiece for the author than a legitimate character in a fairly slapdash finale.

Overall I liked it.  It avoided cliches and easy solutions, leaving open lots of possible solutions to a situation that is complex and treated as such!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sabriel, by Garth Nix

Sabriel's father, Abhorsen, is the man charged with preventing the dead from returning to the land of the living.  Sabriel, still a teen, has been raised far away from her father's work, at a boarding school in Ancelstierre.  One day, a messenger brings Sabriel her father's sword -- a sign that that he has passed on.  But Sabriel doesn't believe it and she sets out on a very dangerous mission to find and rescue her father.

Unfortunately not the coming-of-age novel I really hoped it would be, Sabriel's odyssey is still entertaining.  The plot is packed full of adventure and the settings are rich and full.  The details of the magic that they use is fascinating and original on its own, but there is also the vivid detail of the Afterlife (which would put Dante to shame) and the incongruous modernity of Ancelstierre.  All in all, it's a fascinating world.  So, while the lack of a stronger human element is a turn-off for me, the book itself is readable and introduces an exciting world.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

In a series of letters to an anonymous recipient, Charlie writes about his discoveries and fears during his first year of high school.  He has more than a normal share of them:  struggling with love, sex, drugs, alcohol, violence, and hanging out with a group of equally messed-up seniors.  In ways that are never really explained, Charlie is a bit of a simpleton, and his naive observations can be both endearing and shocking.

Apparently, one of the more "challenged" books in American libraries, the explicit nature of the book makes it a perfect "forbidden fruit" (and thus immensely popular with teens).  However, this is something of a distraction as the appeal of the story is not really its sins, but the basic decency of the narrator.  Charlie's naivete and well-rooted moral compass makes him a regular good guy throughout, even if his social ineptitude gets him into heaps of trouble.

That said, Charlie's ignorance can be a grating device.  The cause is never identified - an artistic conceit meant to keep us wondering (and one that won't work on the big screen), but it is at times a bit too precious.  Without an outside observer, I found myself getting suspicious of the narrative, and distracted by the attempt to figure out what was "really" going on.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

One Thousand Books!

Today, I hit a major milestone on my blog:  My one thousandth review.  It's a bit like the social media equivalent of becoming a million-mile flyer (look for THAT milestone sometime next year!) or celebrating a Golden Anniversary (ha!).  But what does it really mean?

The milestone itself is a bit of a misnomer.  I've read a lot more than a thousand YA books.  Not counting all the books I read as a kid and the hundred or so odd children's books I read as a grown-up before I started posting reviews, there are dozens of books I started but couldn't finish since then (yep, if you think my reviews can be caustic at times, you should have seen what I would have said about the stuff I didn't even try to review!).

I'm not exactly going to suddenly stop writing (I've got a nice pile of books to read for my next flight and I'll be posting those reviews in a few days).  Rather, it's a nice moment to sit back and reflect on why I'm doing what I'm doing.

Among other things, I've learned that there are plenty of good books out there.  I would swear that YA books are better than they were when I was in the correct demographic.  They are more sophisticated, they deal with more intense subject matter, and they expect the reader to be brighter.  They are, in sum, far more worthy of my time.  I enjoy them.

I re-started reading YA because it spoke to me as an adult. It reminded me of hard moments in my own life that I had worked through.  It made me reflective about the choices I had made and helped me come to terms with whether I had made the right decisions or not.  The characters could be annoying or naive, but that was appropriate for who they were.  And in the foibles, I was reminded of how I too had once been that young and done such stupid things.  And, far more surprising, how I really was still so "stupid," even if I wasn't so young.  All this, because YA doesn't just address the difficulties of growing up, it deals with the process of finding one's place in the world and learning how that place is situated in relations with others.  And no one ever really settles that issue.  Sure, plenty of grown-ups stop caring and worrying about it consciously, but I see the same anxieties in the adults as I walk into a conference room (do I look OK? will they like me? ) that adolescents feel in their high school cafeteria.  Only the settings change.

I named this blog "not acting my age" in order to call out the societal prejudice that becoming a responsible adult involves tossing aside certain things (like reading YA books).  And as a frequent business traveler, most of my reading is done sitting in planes with old guys who wouldn't be caught dead reading a book with a pink cover.  In truth, I do tend to hide my book covers, but it seems a bit sad that these grown-ups are so undeveloped, so adolescent that they cannot find a place in their lives for a little pink in their life!  It's been a while since I fretted to the point of complete distraction about whether the "love of my life" felt the same way about me, but even grownups know what it is like to have unrequited relationships.

All that said, I'm not the world's greatest reviewer.  I once was a aspiring writer myself and I recognize the hard work that goes into writing a novel.  I know that my short comments rarely give justice to the work of the book's creator.  Many times, I'm not at my best when I write an entry.  I try my best to distill the essential elements of the book's plot and congratulate myself if I can pull that off.  Trying to come up with something original to say about a book (when you've read dozens like it) is often asking too much.  I'm sure that makes my reviews repetitive and boring.  I rarely feel that I have much insight to offer on a book.  Sometimes, I wonder why I'm even posting the review.  But I keep doing it (and I thank you for continuing to read them).

I'm not a children's librarian, not a school teacher, and I don't even have children of my own.  In that way, I'm a true fan of YA literature.  I'd like to think that that gives me a unique perspective on the books.  I'm not primarily trying to figure out if kids will enjoy the book (although I occasionally will hazard a guess).  I'm trying to figure out if I enjoy it.  Hopefully, even if you are a librarian, teacher, or parents, you're doing a little of the same.

Amber House, by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed

Amber House, the ancestral home of Sarah's mother's family, just off the Chesapeake Bay, is a complete unknown to Sarah.  She's never been there before.  But when her grandmother dies, Sarah and her autistic brother Sam are brought there by their Mom.  It's a grand place, with room after room to explore.  However, it is much more.  Within its walls, Sarah finds that she has an ability to see into the past - echoes of things that have occurred to her family.  As she sees these visions, she learns the complicated story of her ancestors, and uncovers a terrible tragedy that lies in wait in her future.

A strikingly original work that covers horror and fantasy (with a healthy inspiration from the Grimms Brothers), but branches into YA romance and more than a little fancy ball fantasies.  I didn't hold out a lot of hope for the book (it came as an ARC and I wasn't very keen on the premise), but it grew on me as I started reading it.  I enjoyed it.  The plot can meander a bit and some of the twists and turns in the plot seem driven by literary ADHD, but the story is complicated and rich.  By the end, there's plenty of food for thought and I liked that complexity.  So, if you like a storyline that doesn't condescend and can put up with a few mildly scary scenes (mostly involving spiders!), you should give this unassuming novel a try.

[Disclosure:  I received this book for free from the publisher without solicitation, and without any promise of special consideration in my review.]

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Skinny, by Donna Cooner

Ever Davies has a weight problem.  At over 302 lbs, she feels completely out of control of her body.  She's subject to the usual taunts from classmates, but she's her worst critic.  A voice within her head (who she's nicknamed "Skinny") taunts her constantly.  Skinny tells her that she's fat, that she's unloved and unlovable, and that no one wants to be around her.  And, while Ever realizes that Skinny isn't real, she's grown to believe every word that she hears.

When it becomes too much, Ever seeks out a drastic solution: gastric bypass surgery.  And while the surgery helps reduce her weight, it doesn't make Skinny's voice go away.  Instead, it seems that the world grows crueler and more complicated as Ever's physical appearance changes.

I have complicated feelings about gastric bypass surgery (especially for teens).  I dated a person who had had the procedure so I understand the complexities of eating disorders and what gastric bypass can (and can't do) to help.  It is a bit disturbing to me that Ever's character is allowed to go through with the procedure when the causes of her overeating are so obviously psychological (and tied to her egomania).  I do give credit to Cooner for never claiming that it was a solution, but in many ways I'm not sure that she went far enough.  And the eventual solution to Ever's problem is a bit vague and muddled.  I worry that readers may well see the surgery as the cause for Ever's eventual self-acceptance.

All that said, I found Cooner's story compelling and interesting.  She does an excellent job of getting us inside of Ever's head.  I got a bit weary of Skinny's voice, but I understood the point of it and I think that it (unfortunately) speaks to a lot of young people.  They will recognize the pain of self-loathing.  Readers may lose patience with Ever's cluelessness (about the kindness and caring of her friends, who she treats pretty badly), but when she eventually comes round, we all get to cheer.

Disclosure:  The book will come out on October 1st (I received an ARC from Scholastic, but no other compensation for this review - my copy of the book will be donated to our local library).

Friday, August 31, 2012

Lush, by Natasha Friend

Samantha struggles with a father's drinking problem and her mother's denial of it.  And in addition to those extraordinary issues, she also has the more typical problems of boy issues, mean girls at school, and petty jealousies between friends.  To help her through things, she maintains an anonymous relationship with a high school senior, who helps her put things in perspective.

A straightforward and well-written story about being thirteen and dealing with a family that is falling apart.  Nothing extraordinary, but sometimes that really isn't necessary to have a good story.  Sam is an appealing heroine.  She's articulate and stands up for herself well.  The book itself is a brisk read.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Darkbeast, by Morgan Keyes

Keara is about to have her 12th name day and when young people turn twelve in her world, they are obligated to present their companion "darkbeast" in Bestius's godhouse and kill it.  For nearly her entire life, Keara has lived with Caw (a raven) who has communicated with her telepathically and guided her when she made mistakes and bad choices.  Now, as she approaches adulthood, the ritual slaying of her darkbeast is required by tradition.

Everyone has a darkbeast.  For most children, being rid of their darkbeast is something that they look forward to it.  But for Keara, too much is tied up in Caw -- the friend who has kept her company when no humans quite measured up.  And, despite the promise of becoming a young woman, she fears the horrible moment when she must end Caw's life.

I loved this book for many reasons.  In addition to the fact that it was well-written, with good pacing and interesting, well fleshed-out characters, I loved the concept.  Taken literally, the idea of twelve year-old children murdering their pets to achieve adulthood is repulsive, but that misses the point.  Rather, it is a wonderful analogy:  the darkbeats is a device through which children can relieve themselves of guilt and learn from their mistakes. To grow up,  they must throw it off so that they can become responsible for themselves.  The feelings that Keara has towards Caw will feel very familiar and immediate to the book's intended middle school readers.

Then there is Keyes's absolutely amazing detail.  Keara's world, while alien and different, is exquisitely drawn out.  With details ranging from the pantheon of deities to little things (like the villages collecting ashes to make soap and various dietary miscellanea), Keyes put a lot of thought into the setting and shares much of this world with the reader.  So, the story works not just as a fable with highly relevant observations about the pain of growing up (and the difficulties that people who buck convention face), but also as a thrilling tour of a complete and logically consistent world that is so different (and in surprising ways, very similar) to our own.

In sum, a truly astounding and beautifully crafted fantasy book for middle readers.  The book comes out on August 28th - look for it!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Highest Tide, by Jim Lynch

Thirteen year-old Miles is short for his age and even his best friend Phelps thinks he's a freak.  Miles cares, but he'd still rather spend his sleepless evenings on the mud flats outside his South Puget Sound home, hunting for clams and other sea life to sell to local restaurants and collectors.  But when Miles discovers a rare giant sea squid beached at low tide, the world's attention turns to him.  Soon, Miles is discovering dozens of rare species and noticing all sorts of unusual changes to the bay.  At first, he racks it up to his patient habit of listening and observing, but after so much acclaim, even he begins to wonder if he is somehow prophetic.

With the unusual sea life intended as an extended metaphor, Lynch's adult book about a boy coming of age in the South Sound is effective and convincing.  It combines a little magic with some hard cold rational explanations and mixing Miles's talents for finding rare life forms with his generous and observant behavior towards the adults around him.  The narrator (Miles-as-a-grown-up) is more worldly and articulate than Miles would ever have been, but Lynch captures enough of Miles's mannerisms to give the character some authenticity.

I'm not a big fan of adult books about adolescence.  They tend to be too glib and backhanded in their treatment of childhood transgressions.  However, Lynch's writing is strong and the story self-contained and it makes an enjoyable read, even if it is not really YA.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The House of Tomorrow, by Peter Bognanni

Sebastian lives in a large geodesic dome in Iowa with his eccentric grandmother, herself an acolyte of R. Buckminster Fuller.  Sebastian's mostly content with his life, but aware of the fact that he rarely meets anyone his own age and has no friends.  Then one day, he meets Jared (an angry boy about his age with a permanent scowl and a love for punk rock).  Jared is recovering from a heart transplant and hates the world.  Sebastian has never seen the world.  They are perfect for each other.

A well-written and well-paced story about friendship, finding yourself, and coming to terms with your world (with a bit of getting along with the adults and dealing with girls thrown in).  I didn't warm to the boys and they didn't evolve enough to change that initial alienation I felt, but the story didn't drag and it will appeal to folks looking for a good book about male bonding.  The references to Fuller were interesting and even the take on punk music (which is more about the boys' naive perspectives than any serious observation on the music) is worthwhile.

Hush, by Eishes Chayil

Back when Gittel was nine, she lost her friend Devorah to suicide.  And while the adults claimed that the event was unfathomable and inexplicable, Gittel knows why Devorah did it.  Powerless as a child to confront the guilty parties, Gittel grows up haunted by her inability to set things right.  In her closed Hasidic community in Brooklyn, one does not talk openly about the things she has seen.

I approached this book with some reluctance and delayed reading it for several years.  I didn't expect an ultra-conservative religious community to be an appealing subject.  And I didn't imagine that I would enjoy the inevitable power struggle between stubborn patriarchs and a lone subjugated young woman that I expected the novel to deliver.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by what I read.

Wow!  The book and its story is incredibly moving (it was a real struggle not to cry in public as I finished it on my flight home last night!).  It succeeds because Chayil has avoided the cheap shots and opted instead to produce a book about understanding and healing.  First of all, she obviously loves her community.  It isn't just the rich cultural details that she immerses us in.  It's the nuanced view of that community that she paints.  Avoiding stereotypes, the villains are not mean old grey men, but normal people driven by love and fear.  And in this way, the story becomes universal and transcends its milieu.  Chayil's point is that evil is not a simple thing where individual people can be called out.  Rather, it is the result of customs and habits that bind people to the point that they don't know how to do the right thing.  Gittel's bravery in standing out from her community (and standing up for the weak) is stunning, but Chayil's challenge to the reader resonates longer.

Larry and the Meaning of Life, by Janet Tashjian

In the first and second books in the series, Larry (a.k.a. Josh Swenson) saved the world and tried to get elected as POTUS.  How do you top that?  The answer is by not trying to do so.  The trial for the third book is much more modest: Josh has lost his will for change.  It's a few months before he goes off to school at Princeton, but he doesn't really care.  He no longer writes anti-consumerist manifestos.  He's even given up on trying to find his ex-girlfriend.  Instead, he just sits down at Walden Pond and ponders the wisdom of Thoreau.  But one day he meets a man named Gus, who offers to become his spiritual teacher, and an opportunity opens for Josh.

Very much in the spirit of the other books, but at the same time different.  The scope is smaller and while elements of the plot are just as contrived, having a smaller scale makes them seem somehow more realistic (or at least plausible).  Larry still seems a bit goody-goody but the preaching is curtailed (the novel's primary cause seems to be eradicating landmines this time, but it's not pursued heavily).  I suppose people could criticize this book for not being as agenda-laden, but I appreciated being cut a break.