Friday, March 30, 2012

Juliet Immortal, by Stacey Jay

In this mash-up of Romeo and Juliet with Highlander, the young lovers are actually (im)mortal enemies. It turns out that their romance ended on a bad note, when Romeo stabbed Juliet through the heart in a vain attempt to achieve immortality. As a result, they entered an endless cycle of violence, periodically reborn, with Romeo primed to kill Juliet over and over, and Juliet attempting to preserve true love wherever she finds it. Much mayhem and violence ensues.

I don't think I can explain much more of the plot. That's a bit of a problem. At some point, I actually gave up on following it. I think the ending was a happy one, but I didn't understand it, so I'm not so sure.

The story has good pacing and the action level keeps up. Juliet is pretty kick-ass and has no problem standing up for herself. So, you won't be bored and it won't offend anyone. But I really couldn't get my head around the purpose of this adventure. It certainly gets some points for being the most outrageous riff on Shakespeare I've read to date, but I really couldn't get much out of it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Liars and Fools, by Robin Stevenson

When Fiona's mother was alive, the two of them loved to go sailing, but after her mother's death at sea, Fiona's father forbids her from even going to look at their boat. Worse, he's planning to sell it. But that isn't the only problem. Dad has started to see another woman and wants Fiona to get to know her. Fiona isn't ready for that and wants to do whatever she can to split them up. When she discovers that the woman believes that she can speak with the dead, Fiona sets out to prove that she's a fake. In the process, however, she makes some interesting discoveries about herself and her family.

A modest but surprisingly effective novel about grief and letting go. These novels work best for me when the adults get some time to discuss their feelings as well, and Stevenson does a really nice job of sharing between children and adults. At times, it can get a bit too clinical, but that doesn't interfere with the overall authenticity of people describing their anger and frustrations. There are so many of these books about dead mothers (why do teens like to imagine dead parents so much?) that it's hard to make a book stand out, but this one would be on my short list of good books on the theme.

Wonderland, by Joanna Nadin

Since she lost her mother, Jude had to deal with the feeling that she is the invisible one ("Jude the Obscure" she calls herself). But when things have gotten bad, she's had her best friend Stella to turn to. Stella is everything that Jude wishes she could be: strong, carefree, and unafraid of anyone. But as she grows older, Jude begins to realize that her obsession with Stella pales in comparison with Stella's own behavior. When it becomes apparent just how unhealthy the relationship between them has become, Jude isn't sure she has the strength to break the ties and go out on her own.

It's a gripping story, but not very original (including the plot twist at the end, which has appeared in other books I've read recently -- although revealing that fact would ruin the ending). And the story is not helped any by the whiny nature of Jude herself. I got that she is weak-willed and self-pitying, but it's hard to take that in large doses. You wanted to see some growth there and (despite resolving the immediate symptoms), I did not get much of a sense of character growth. Or perhaps, I just never started to care enough?

I can't judge how realistic it would be for a teen to get drinks in a pub or have her boyfriend up in her room, but American readers may be a bit shocked at how much freedom a sixteen year-old can have in the UK (where the story takes place).

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Pirate Captain's Daughter, by Eve Bunting

Aarg! Avast yez scurvy dogs!

When Catherine's mother dies, she is determined to join her father at sea. Despite his claim to her mother that he is an honorable captain in the royal navy, Catherine has known for some time that he's really a pirate! At the age of fifteen, Catherine longs for an adventure on the high seas and she begs her father to smuggle her aboard as a boy (women and girls are not welcome on ships). He's reluctant to do so, as it will be dangerous for both of them if she is found out. But the biggest danger comes from a different source as it becomes apparent that a member of the crew is plotting to steal from the captain!

It's an odd book that combines some decent historical research (nice naval details) with silly stereotypical pirate-speak. The story itself drifts about like a ship in the doldrums. The pacing is fine, but it seems disorganized (foreshadowing is non-existent, plot details randomly pop up, subplots are dropped, etc.). It feels like a rough draft or maybe a rushed job.

Try Not To Breathe, by Jennifer R. Hubbard

Ever since suicide survivor Ryan has returned from his stay at a mental hospital, he's found that the only place he can find peace is underneath a waterfall. Sure, it's dangerous (some kid died there), but the fear he feels helps drown out his sense of being invisible and a loser. But when a girl starts to show an interest in him and his story (her own father committed suicide and she wonders why he did it), Ryan gets a glimpse of what it is like to actually be someone.

In terms of the story itself, the plot meanders a bit, but the characters are spot-on, from Ryan himself to the curious Nicki to Ryan's highly-strung mother. The supporting characters are also expertly drawn. Hubbard does an amazing job of capturing the sheer awkwardness of the relationships between her characters. The climactic showdown between son and mother hit home and stirred up emotions I really hadn't given any thought to in thirty years. The strength of the characters goes a long way towards making up for the weakness of the plot.

Also, ignore the totally irrelevant cover, which belongs more in a Chris Isaak video than with this book!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Beginning of After, by Jennifer Castle

One fateful evening. Laurel has been dragged to a dinner party hosted by the Kaufmans, whose obnoxious son David has managed to slip out to hang with friends. After dinner, Laurel herself begs off from dessert to go home and study for her SATs. When she is home working, there is a knock on the door. A policeman tells her that her parents and brother are all dead. Mrs. Kaufman is dead too (and her husband is in a coma). A car accident has destroyed Laurel's world.

As Laurel quickly finds out, being the survivor means being an object of pity and/or curiousity for all those around her. In this world of after she finds it hard to confide in her friends and she distrusts the motives of the people who reach out to her. Ironically, only David really seems to understand what she is going through, and he's handling it much worse than she is.

The situation itself is of course quite sad, but you pretty much know what to expect with this novel. While the story could potentially pack quite a punch, Castle plays the story straight and low-key. That has its plusses and minuses. There are no amazing revelations about grieving, but also no melodrama. What we get instead is a realistic and authentic story. That doesn't make for much originality, but sometimes a story well-told is enough. At 420 pages, it's a bit long-ish, but it doesn't drag (the length is in fact due to some fine detail).

Castle's strength is in characterization. Both the children and the adults are well-drawn and easy answers are skirted around. The grieving process is well-documented, but avoids the stereotypical "stages of grief" approach that tends to predominate this subgenre (instead, Castle recognizes that not everyone follows the textbook). While Laurel does flirt with some romance, the relationships are complicated as one would expect them to be, given the circumstances. Laurel's feelings about David, in particular, develop in a plausible fashion. Overall, this is a very satisfying read.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Winter Town, by Stephen Emond

Ever since Lucy moved away with her mother, Evan and Lucy only get to see each other once a year, around Christmas. And while they started with similar passions, they've slowly become different people: Evan is a straight-A student who can't quite gain the confidence he needs to stand up to his father, while Lucy is the angry goth whose home life has gone to hell. But together again for another two-week visit, they try to recapture the magic of their childhoods, while exploring what the future could offer them. To liven things up, the novel features frequent graphic novel-like interludes from both Evan's comic drawings and some more realistic art from Emond.

Stylistically, this book makes a great foil to my just-completed review of Why We Broke Up. Unlike that book, Winter Town's artistic elements add to the story by creating several additional dimensions. And, while I'm not a graphic novel fan, I appreciated the intent of their addition. I was less taken by the story or the characters, which I found underdeveloped (Emond put so much effort into the design of this striking book, that the characters suffered). The writing (particular towards the end) grows stilted and the story unravels. It needed more work, but I appreciate its originality.

Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler

In an effort to purge herself of the bad memories, film fan Min assembles a collection of momentos from her relationship with Ed and explains the significance of each one of them to her ex-boyfriend.

That's basically the entire plot, which is one way of saying this is a pretty indulgent story (certainly, if I was on the receiving end of her diatribe, I'd probably just laugh it off -- after all, who needs to spend the effort worrying about such a drama queen?). But, thankfully there's a subtext here that is more interesting: the process of rehashing the relationship is ultimately cathartic for Min, as she realizes the mistakes she made and what led to them. Overall, it's a low-key variant of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why (with the obvious differences that Min doesn't kill herself and one doubts that boyfriend Ed would really give a shit about Min's letter).

Overall, it is exactly what it claims to be: the story of a break-up. And, as much as it has been critically acclaimed, it simply isn't that good. Yes, the illustrations by Maira Kalman are clever and the book has a thick literary quality to it, but it's also amazingly pretentious. From the faux film-buff references to the drawings themselves, it's the type of book that no one reads except to prove something. The story doesn't go anywhere, the characters do not elicit sympathy (heck, you might see yourself in Min's psycho-obsessive melodramatic personality, but that's not something to be proud of!), and in the end you're left with that thought of "what's the point of all this?" Books like this are the reason I distrust the distinction of being an ALA winner.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Notes from an Accidental Band Geek, by Erin Dionne

And so we continue with the music theme....

Elsie is determined to win a scholarship to Shining Birches (an exclusive music summer camp in Massachusetts that you might know by a different name), even though, as an incoming high school freshman, she'll be one of the youngest applicants. To fill out her resume, she enrolls in marching band. But when she starts, she absolutely hates it: the marching is boring and physically arduous, the other kids make fun of her, and they make her play a mellophone! It all seems like a worthless distraction from practicing for her audition.

To make matters worse, starting high school has its own challenges: there's boys and overly-protective parents to deal with. Friendships have grown much more complicated. There are times when Elsie simply can't cope! But as the Fall progresses, she slowly gains confidence and develops the skills necessary to figure it out.

A charming book. While it has lots of wonderful band details, it's the painfully realistic depictions of the melodrama of ninth-grade relationships that makes Dionne's writing so good. I liked Elsie's awkwardness with boys (and their's with her). The jealousies and suspicions had a familiar ring to them. I also found Elsie's relationship with her parents to be pretty authentic. I wish that she and her father had been less proud, but it felt true.

There are minor problems: some of the plot turns are a bit extreme and threaten the realism of the story, Elsie's own turnaround comes on a bit too suddenly, Dionne has a distracting pattern of disguising some real life things and places (Shining Birches, the Darcy Thanksgiving Day Parade, Dusk vampires, etc.)! But I'd give the book some leeway since Dionne does such a nice job with the storytelling. Younger teens will like the story. Old folks will be reminded of why we don't ever want to be fourteen again!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Mozart Season, by Virginia Euwer Wolff

When Allegra gets offered the chance to compete in a youth violin contest, she accepts the opportunity without realizing at first how stressful it will be. But the competition and the challenges of mastering Mozart are not the only things on her mind. Allegra struggles with her identity as a half-Jew. In addition, there's the unrelated mystery of the strange man who comes to the local string concerts and dances while the ensembles play.

Coming so soon after reading the quicker-paced and more digestible Virtuosity, it's hard to avoid comparisons. This book is pitched at a younger audience (Allegra herself is younger and the stakes of her competition are less extreme), but there are bigger differences than simply the younger target demographic. I honestly found this to be a poorer read. The narrative is jumpy and seemingly random. I suspect that Allengra's scattered voice is supposed to be stylistic (to represent her random thoughts), but as we never learn that much about what she actually feels, it's hard to tell. Instead we get near train-of-consciousness rambling which quickly becomes numbing. None of which is helped by the action, which is hard to follow and oddly paced (the contest itself, which ought to be climactic, is a non-event).

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

Elisa is a second daughter and thus subject to being married off to the king of a neighboring kingdom. She also lacks the conniving skills of her older sister and is the object of disdain in court for her sweet tooth and her girth. But she is the "chosen one" -- the bearer of the godstone (a jewel that appeared on her stomach when she was christened) and thus prophesied to do great deeds.

And if ever there was a need for great deeds it is now, while a shared enemy is on the march, led by powerful sorcerers who have the power to generate fire out of the air. Elisa is no sooner married off to her new husband than she finds herself embroiled in intrigue and dangerous plans. She must find a way to fulfill her destiny and save her people, and it will call on her to unlock hidden strength and sort out friends and foes.

Here we have all of the lovely trappings of YA fantasy -- familiar adolescent figure (with sibling conflict, self-doubt, and a potential eating disorder) has extraordinary adventures and eventually saves the day through self-discovery. No surprises here! But this book has a lot more and this is where it stands out from the pack. Carson has done an outstanding job at freshening up the setting and the story. Hispanic names, placenames, titles, and an ancient language with a strong resemblance to Spanish shake off the traditional anglo focus of fantasy. A well-developed religion is another unusual element that integrates well with the story. While following a familiar formula, it manages to be original and rewarding.

Friday, March 09, 2012

See What I See, by Gloria Whelan

When Kate wins a scholarship at an art school in Detroit, she decides to take advantage of the fact that her father lives there and stay with him. The problem with this idea is that they are not exactly close. In fact, he's pretty much ignored her existence since he walked out on her and her mother, abandoning them to pursue his own artistic career. But, while she isn't expecting him to be thrilled to see her, she is surprised by how hostile he is.

With some effort, she convinces him to let her stay and an uneasy peace forms between them, which is shattered when she discovers that he's dying. Faced with a choice of looking out for her career (as he once did) and taking care of him, she makes a fateful decision to do the latter. In the process, she gains an opportunity to come to terms with what he did to their family.

This spare, but ultimately touching, portrait of a young woman learning to confront her hurt and heal gains its strength mostly from what it doesn't do. The tone is subdued and melodramatic outbursts are kept to a minimum. The characters don't compromise or even come together. One might thus complain that there isn't much evolution in the characters or development in the story, but Whelan likewise avoid unnatural changes and easy solutions. The result is ultimately satisfying.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Sign Language, by Amy Ackley

"I knew my dad was going to pass away....I didn't know he was going to be dead." In that poignant sentence, Abby describes to a friend the shock of having her father die of kidney cancer. And in spite of its logical contradiction, we glimpse the mind of a child suffering loss.

Told over a three-year period, Sign Language covers how Abby deals with the death of her father when she is thirteen, and carries the story through coming to terms at fifteen with that death. It's a harrowing tale, told frankly and realistically, by an author drawing on her own childhood. As such, it has the perverse appeal of a confession, with a decent pay-off at the end as Abby gradually works her way to acceptance.

The bare realism of the story could certainly teach Phyllis Naylor a few lessons about depicting children growing up. Following Abby on a month-by-month basis from twelve to fifteen allows us to watch her not only deal with her grief, but also mature in many other ways. There's a tremendous effort spent on continuity and evolving emotions and I felt like I really understood her by the end.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the supporting characters. We learn very little about them and they mostly exist for Abby to interact with when it is convenient. It's obvious that Abby isn't a very good friend, but neglecting her loyal friends Liese and Spence as thoroughly as Ackley does seems criminal. And the decision to write the story in a passive third-person voice is off-putting. It feels more like a documentary about grieving: informative but clinical.

Virtuosity, by Jessica Martinez

In the world of violin virtuosos, there is only one person who comes close to Carmen's talent: Jeremy King. But when the two of them meet for the first time at the prestigious Guarneri competition, it is more than a match of skills. Instead, as one would expect in a story like this, there is a romantic story to tell as well, and it is very complicated. Are their feelings legitimate or simply the result of being locked in a tough competition? Is Jeremy's interest even real or just (as Carmen's mother warns her) a cynical ploy to gain an advantage in the contest? And can Carmen trust her heart when she is in such a vulnerable position?

It's a taut and suspenseful story with complicated characters and complex motives, all wrapped up in the tense environment of a brutal competition. In many ways, the story will seem like a enthralling but well-trod formula. However, there are some real twists at the end that will throw you off. And the ending itself (while perhaps a bit too clean), is satisfying in an unexpected way.

Without a doubt, the real draw of this book is the storytelling. The characters are interesting, but it's the plot itself and some excellent pacing that kept me hooked. Martinez knows how to tell a story and I look forward to reading more from her.