Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pregnant Pause, by Han Nolan

When 16-year-old Elly gets pregnant, she's convinced that she and her boyfriend can raise the baby. At least better than his parents (who want the baby for themselves) or her own older sister (who is determined to get it as well). But when she marries the father and spends the summer at a fat camp run by her in-laws, she gets an opportunity to explore her feelings about children, other men, and the choices that have ended her up where she is. And while just about everyone seems to be dead set against her, she fights every step of the way.

On its face, this mash of camp story, pregnancy morality tale, and teen romance ought to not work, but it actually does. Yes, there are plenty of random story twists that pop up and get smashed down like a whack-a-mole, but the story stays together (up until the end at least -- I'm not much of a fan of the final chapter!). I'll admit that I personally wasn't always so drawn into the story, but I think it was a good one. The special sauce in this mix is Elly herself. She's whiny and self-centered, but strong-willed and surprisingly centered for someone who screws up a lot. It's hard not to respect her, even if you can't quite imagine liking her. For me, that's enough to take the story to a higher level.

I did find the fighting with the adults to be awfully repetitive. Everyone pretty much says the same thing again and again. And hearing the grown-ups drone on and on about how Elly can't take care of herself (let alone a baby) started driving me as nuts as it was driving her. That sort of conflict is never resolved and it grew tiresome waiting for a breakthrough. And the ending (as I mentioned) is a bit of a cheap attempt to resolve it all at the end.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Alchemy and Meggy Swann, by Karen Cushman

In 16th century England, Meggy's defective gait is considered by many to be the mark of the devil. But for her, it has provided the motivation to try harder at everything. After the death of her grandmother, she is shipped off to London to her father, an alchemist. When he rejects her, she needs a lot of good fortune to survive. While she struggles to feed herself, she manages to acquire both friends and skills. While doing so, however, she uncovers a murder plot and must figure out a solution with her meagre resources.

Because medieval history is one of my passions, I was naturally interested in this book. Cushman's other books have been both educational and entertaining (and Catherine, Called Birdy remains one of my all-time favorites). Unfortunately, this story didn't work as well. It's partly due to the lack of a sympthetic character (both father and Meggy were hard to get attached to). The lack of a strong central plot doesn't help matters. But, in the end, it's ye olde awkward foresoothly grammar that sinks this into an unreadable morass. It's a difficult book to read and there simply isn't much pay off in return for the effort.

Paradise, by Jill S. Alexander

Paisley is the drummer in a band. She's good, but she would never be able to tell her parents about her passion. They wouldn't understand or allow her to do it. She only has to look at the way they have controlled her older sister Lacey to see what happens when you try to confront their parents.

But Paisley isn't her sister and with the encouragement of a new boy in town, who has the ability to instill confidence in just about anyone, she hopes to change things. It won't be easy to stand up for her dreams, but she'll find a way.

Alexander's novel maintains all of the smart writing of her first novel (The Sweetheart of Prosper County) but simply isn't as strong of a story. It suffers a bit from the tropes of the teen romance genre (new mysterious boy, brave and fearless, but gentle beyond his years). And it's uneven (the first few pages are amazingly well crafted, but latter pages fall into meaningless cliche). Finally, there's the ending (!) that takes a completely unnecessary melodramatic turn that serves little purpose. One wonders what on earth happened there! Still, I enjoyed it in spite of its flaws.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How To Save A Life, by Sara Zarr

After her father died, Jill isolated herself from her friends. She grew distant from her boyfriend Dylan and cut herself off from her friends. It was too hard to deal with their pity.

Her mother became a complete stranger to her. All the more so now, when Mom's got it in her head to adopt a baby -- one of the craziest ideas that Jill has ever heard of. But Mom is persistent and not only moves ahead with the adoption, but invites the birth mother to their home for the final weeks of her pregnancy.

Mandy (the birth mother) is on the run, escaping a hellish home life of being an unwanted child with an unwanted child of her own. She hopes that somehow she can make a new life for herself and also find the decent home for her child that she never had. All she needs to do is behave and live up to the expectations of Jill and her mother. As she has learned in the past, love is always conditional and it is only a matter of time before any good thing will run out.

In alternating chapters, Jill and Mandy describe how two people from very different backgrounds can come to understand each other. They discover along the way that they are not really all that dissimilar, once you strip away their different socioeconomic backgrounds and personal histories.

It's a complicated story (combining parental death, grief, teenage pregnancy, abuse, a romantic triangle, child-parent communication, and class conflict), but generally it works. Given so many themes, there's plenty of unfinished business here. The ending itself is entirely too convenient and pap, but the ride is smooth and generally worked. At times, the two narrators sound entirely too wise for their years, but they are interesting and sympathetic (although I found myself drawn much more strongly to Mandy as she is decidedly less whiny than Jill). I call it a mixed bag -- a decent story, but nothing outstanding.

Pearl, by Jo Knowles

There are a lot of mysteries in Pearl's life: why is she called Beanie? Why does her grandfather doesn't get along with her mother? Whatever happened to her father? Why does Mom's best friend Claire move in with them? These mysteries (secrets, really) weigh heavy over Pearl's life and her relationships with her mother and grandfather. The only place she finds comfort is with her best friend Henry and her mother Sally.

This is a slow-moving family melodrama, that is smart enough to know that it has elements of a soap opera, but happy to wallow in that muck. For me, it was dry and boring. The characters are authentic and memorable, but not terribly interesting. As a result, I found it hard to get involved. The basic theme (discovering that the world is more complex than you imagined it was as a child) isn't enough to keep me going and the book simply didn't engage me.

The Future of Us, by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

It's 1996 and Emma has just gotten a new computer. Josh (the boy next door) has come over to install an AOL CD-ROM (remember those things? we used them as coasters in my house!). That's a bit awkward because Josh and Emma haven't hung out in six months, not since Josh misread Emma's signals and tried to kiss her. But the really weird part is what happens after Emma installs the program. Her Favorites box has come with a Facebook!

Somehow, she's connecting to her Facebook account fifteen years in the future, seeing what and who she'll become. And, for so many reasons, neither she nor Josh are ready to see that future.

I approached this book with some trepidation. I really like the premise. How would children of the 90s feel about the bare-all instant communications of the 2010s? And, in this area, I wasn't let down. Emma and Josh are astounded by how cluttered the Facebook interface is. And they are mystified at why their grown-up selves are so willing to spill out so much personal information in public. That is good stuff to explore (how quickly our notions of the internet have changed in only fifteen years!), but the authors could have done so much more with it.

The part I was less thrilled with was the team-writing approach. I've recently trashed this trend, so you'll know that I'm not a fan, but in this case, I was actually pleasantly surprised. I really like Mackler's writing (although her recent stuff has dragged). Asher is a good writer too, although I didn't like the story behind his overly-hyped Thirteen Reasons Why. Given such a cool story though, both writers shined. But moreover, they worked together in a way I haven't seen in other "team" projects. Their styles are compatible, they didn't try to bash each other with nasty plot turns, and they focused on a consistent storyline. The end result was a readable and interesting story. All of which proves that when two writers team up and focus on producing a good story, instead of showing off, it can work out.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ashes, by Ilsa J. Bick

Alex has given up on life. After struggling with an inoperable brain tumor and enduring experimental medications, she's given up and run away from home, making it to the woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It is there, that her life takes a serious turn for the worse.

A sudden intense electrical storm crosses through the sky, instantly killing some people, turning others into flesh-eating zombies, burning out any solid-state electronics, and giving Alex a super-strong sense of smell. Now, in the company of a frightened eight-year old orphan and a resourceful but enigmatic ex-soldier, she fights her way through the woods, pursued by the zombies and by scavengers. Together, they struggle to find a safe haven.

Grim, action-packed, and full of plenty of twists and turns, this thick novel (460 pages!) keeps your attention span. Given that intensity, the romantic subplots suffer a bit in comparison and it is a bit hard to take them very seriously, but the rest of the novel is well-paced. I was a bit disappointed to find that this is an un-marked first book in a trilogy (I've grown tired of those -- anyone else share my fatigue with having stories dragged out into literary marathons?) as I really wanted the story to wrap up. But if brainless zombies and kick-ass heroines who know how to handle a firearm are your thing, this is good reading!

Friday, January 13, 2012

You Against Me, by Jenny Downham

After Mikey's sister gets raped, he's angry and wants to do something about it. He and his friend Jacko decide to find the guy who did it and mess him up. Along the way, Mikey meets Ellie (the alleged rapist's sister). At first, it seems like the perfect opportunity -- get into Ellie's good graces to figure out a good time to get her brother -- but things get complicated when Mikey finds himself becoming attracted to Ellie for real. The relationship that develops is (naturally) pretty complicated and takes turns that surprise both of them. Eventually, it leads to some bold decisions that will change them and both of their families.

While predictable and at times suffering a lack of credibility, the story snags you quickly. Mikey and Ellie are well-developed and engaging, their feelings complex, and the dilemma they face is compelling. The story eschews an easy solution (and, in fact, any conclusion at all) in favor of laying out the problem for the reader to digest. It is clear that with so much at stake (and everyone from the parents to the younger siblings bearing agendas of their own) that no one will really come out of this happy.

I was lukewarm to Downham's first novel, Before I Die, but this is a good story with a lot of heart in it. Downham is a formidable writer.

Wisdom's Kiss, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Told through various memoirs, references, and even a play, Wisdom's Kiss is the story of how Princess Wisdom, her grandmother Ben, a servant named Trudy, Trudy's long-lost love Tips, and a cat managed to thwart an attempt to usurp the power of a kingdom. A small amount of magic (shh!) plays a part as well. It all ends happily ever after.

If that all sounds a bit sparse, that is because it is. Most of the events of note get retold multiple times from different perspectives and sources. This can be a useful way of revealing the story slowly, but it is far from efficient (not that this is a mark of a good story, but it explains the thinness of the plot). In the end, this story like others of this type, is more about how events are interpreted than what actually happens.

While her previous foray into YA fantasy, Princess Ben was largely a by-the-numbers genre novel, Murdock has much grander ambitions in this new work. The story bounces around, jumping forward and back as the multiple narrators and media reveal events. The result, while unique and original, is difficult to follow and takes some time to get used to. Exposition and detail suffer as we skip around chapter to chapter. I admired the attempt, but the results are disappointing.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Rival, by Sara Bennett Wealer

Brooke and Kathryn used to be friends. They have had every reason to be so: both of them are talented, beautiful, and ambitious singers. Their shared obsession with succeeding as professional musicians, largely not understood by others, was something they could confide to each other. However, in their junior year, they split up and became mortal enemies. Now, a year later, they are competing for a prestigious vocal scholarship that each one of them desperately needs to realize their dreams.

Whatever made these two young women hate each other so much? Through flashbacks and current events, the two girls tell their side of the story in alternating chapters. As they do so, it becomes apparent that their conflict can be blamed as much on themselves as on the other person. As with any tragedy, they are so wrapped up in themselves that they have deprived themselves of a wonderful friendship. Can they find a way to break through their egos and recognize what they have lost?

While it is a bit painful to read through the misunderstandings and petty jealousies, it felt very authentic. And, as much as I found myself disgusted by their selfishness, I remained enthralled by the power of their animosity. It also helps that the ending is sufficiently satisfying to make it worth while. I was a bit disappointed that several subplots were left open and untouched in the end and I found the plotting a bit uneven, but overall this was a good read. And it is also an instructive morality tale that illustrates that old piece of wisdom "Life is pain and most of it is self-inflicted."

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Boyfriends With Girlfriends, by Alex Sanchez

Sergio knows he is bisexual but his best friend Kimiko is a convinced lesbian. Lance doesn't get bisexuals. In his experience they're just copping out from coming out of the closet. He doesn't see how anyone could be half and half. However, his best friend Allie isn't so sure. She's dating a guy, but she finds Kimiko interesting and wonders what it would be like to swing both ways. Together, they are four teens unsure of their sexuality, but tentatively reaching out to each other to try to figure things out together. Much boy meets boy, girl meets girl, and the expected falling out and coming back together ensues.

I have no illusions of being a great writer myself, but this is just plain sloppy work. The characters are realistic and the dialog sounds authentic. I get the sheer literary importance of writing novels that speak to the LGBT community, but I can't really accept that as an excuse for saying much in praise of this book. The writing is dreadful. In the end, I decided that Sanchez (who wins awards!) wrote it in a simple and clunky style to simulate how a teenager might have written the story themselves. But there's no getting around the sloppy construction, the sudden jumps of narrative perspective (quickly switching between the four characters), and the awkward tenses. Read Julie Anne Peters instead!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Taking Off, by Jenny Moss

In 1985, senior Annie is stuck. She's been in the same dead end relationship with Mark for the past two years. Everyone at school expects them to get married when they graduate. Her Mom wants her to go to college. But Annie can't figure out what she wants to do. Then, a chance encounter with astronaut and teacher Christa McAuliffe (on the eve of her ill-fated voyage to space) inspires Annie to reach for her own dreams. However, is she ready to deal with the ramifications of her own plans?

It's a strange story to tell in the end. While Christa McAuliffe is certainly an effective catalyst, it is a bit of an emotional sledgehammer and ultimately unnecessary to the story (maybe Sally Ride would have been sufficient?). Nothing is helped by how Moss struggles with expressing Christa's importance and far too much of the book is wasted telling us rather than showing it. Still, Moss does a considerably better job at depicting Annie as an interesting and multifaceted heroine trying to sort out her future. That said, the story moves very slowly and would have benefitted from some trimming down. Losing the astronauts would have been a good start!

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Toys Come Home, by Emily Jenkins

Chronologically a prequel to the ever-delightful Toys Go Out, this installment ("being the early experiences of an intelligent stingray, a brave buffalo, and a brand-new someone called Plastic") gives us the back story to how Stingray, Lumphy, and Plastic came to live with the Girl, as well as how Sheep lost its ear, what caused Stingray to be afraid of the basement, and why we are all here. As before, a light comedic touch helps deliver wonderful stories about things which children worry about: fitting in, making new friends, and even a touching age-appropriate story of death and dealing with loss.

Emily Jenkins is one of the contemporary gems of children's literature. Whether writing for the 6-10 year old crowd here or the hilarious YA she writes for teens (under her special pseudonym) , she produces great books because she understands that children are not dumb and don't need to be talked down to. By taking the idea of talking toys and stripping out the commercialism and cynicism of Disney and Mattel, she captures the joy of play and sheer fun of being a child. For the target demographic, the result is a great story. For adults, there is the opportunity to experience the beauty of a finely crafted tale.

The original Toys Go Out is a classic in my mind, the type of book that I try to get into the hands of every six-year-old I know. Its sequel (Toy Dance Party) seemed very dark and less accessible, and I was less enthusiastic about supporting it. In this new book, Jenkins is back in high form and I heartily recommend it to the same crowd as before.