Friday, April 27, 2012

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Steifvater

Every Fall, on the island of Thisby, the sea brings forth the capaill uisce -- the water horses.  These fierce carnivorous cousins of terrestrial equines are captured and raced by the local inhabitants.  It's a dangerous pastime and riders are routinely mauled or drowned by their steeds.

Years ago, Sean's parents were killed by a capall uisce. As an orphan, Sean has devoted himself to mastering the skill of riding them.  For four years running, he has won the annual race, but has been unable to acquire the one thing he wants in life.  Meanwhile, Puck lacks Sean's experience, but she is motivated to win the race for its large cash prize in order to pay the debt on her home.  While her chances are slim, she hopes that by buying back her home she can convince her brother to stay on the island.  Lack of experience is only one of the hurdles she must face.  The islanders resist her attempt to race on principle -- no woman has ever tried to do it before.

While horses and horse racing are not my thing, I really admired this book.  The story is complex, both in terms of the interactions of the various characters and also in the details of the culture of Thisby.  Modeled on a British isle somewhere, the locale never quite connects totally with reality.  Still, this is not really a fantasy story either as Steifvater periodically brings us back to the real world.  It's as if this were an altered parallel universe -- like our own except for the existence of flesh-hungry water horses!  That vagueness of time and place is very effective and gives the story a sense of timelessness that will keep it fresh for years to come.

I have had trouble with Stiefvater's writing in the past.  While I attempted to read it, I never managed to get through Shiver. In the past, her style always seemed inaccessible and overly artsy.  This novel is a different experience altogether.  It's suspenseful, surprising you all the way up to the end.  And it's a story with the potential to excite a mega-audience, like The Hunger Games.  How can you go wrong with a fierce heroine, nasty monsters, and a dangerous climactic race?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fracture, by Megan Miranda

Against everyone's expectations, Delaney manages to survive her plunge through the ice. Lost in the water for eleven minutes, she was pronounced brain dead, yet somehow emerges from her coma. And while she is brain damaged, she shows no sign of anything different on the outside. On the inside is a different story. For some reason she cannot explain, she feels drawn to people who are dying. And a stranger named Troy Varga, who suddenly appears after the accident, tells her she is not alone.

An interesting premise that went off in unexpected directions. The pacing of the story is glacial, so I figured I pretty much knew where we were going (perhaps Delaney was an angel or a ghost?) but Miranda kept throwing me a curve ball. While that kept me guessing, I'm not sure it made for a good story.

In addition to the pacing problem, the characters are not very memorable (sad to say, with three separate guys in the story, I never really could tell them apart). This, combined with numerous subplots I couldn't quite figure out (the Mom's history of abuse, the love story with Decker, etc.), made it a hard book to really enjoy. The story simply doesn't come together in the end.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Mockingbirds, by Daisy Whitney

When Alex wakes up in Carter's room, she isn't initially certain how she ended up there. And when she realizes that she's had sex with him, she can't figure out how it happened -- the night before is simply a blur. It takes her a while and some encouragement from her friends to come to the realization that she was raped.

She doesn't want to go to the police. She's ashamed of her own behavior and worried that she brought this on herself. But she learns of a group of students at her school called The Mockingbirds who quietly run a peer court to judge cases like this. Despite her fears and shame, she decides to use the system to take a stand.

For what is an important subject and a decent attempt to shine a sympathetic light on it, the premise of the story is surprisingly silly (the adults and school administrators in particular are portrayed as worse than useless, while the students are wise beyond their years) and the storytelling is clunky. An awful lot of effort is expended to explain the intricacies of the court system the students have created, while the story itself tends to drift into underdeveloped subplots (Alex's music, for example). There are times when the plot becomes contradictory as if revisions were half-finished. In sum, this is no Speak.

All that said, I really liked Alex herself. She's strong, reflective, and sympathetic. Whitney has an agenda (one that I'm sympathetic to) and Alex is the vessel of that plan, but I didn't mind the preachiness because I liked her so much. Strong character development and a kick-ass heroine goes a long way towards helping me to like the book.

Stolen, by Lucy Christopher

On a trip to Vietnam with her parents, Gemma is kidnapped by a stranger. Drugging and smuggling her out of the airport in Bangkok, he takes her to the remote Australian outback. While she doesn't immediately recognize him, it turns out that he has been stalking her for years, obsessed with the idea that they were meant to be together.

Naturally, she's terrified of him, but she's also resourceful and works tirelessly on her escape. The problem is that she has no idea where she is and their location is so remote that it seems hopeless to imagine finding any place to which to flee. As her stay lengthens, she finds herself growing sympathetic to her kidnapper and fears that her emotions are betraying her.

A fascinating in-depth study of kidnapper and victim, with some beautiful imagery thrown in. I was reminded throughout of Nicolas Roeg's film Walkabout in the way that desolate nature of the wilderness colors the tenor of the victim's attempts to escape (and also in the dynamic of the boy-girl relationship, of course!).

Written in the form of a latter from Gemma to her kidnapper, the style can seem a bit too immediate, but that device also serves well to ratchet up the emotion and makes the story much more intimate. Subplots about an easily-domesticated camel and a feisty rooster (and to desert life overall) are surprisingly effective parallels to Gemma's own situation. The result is that the overall icky nature of the plot is counterbalanced by the profound naturalism of story.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Where Things Come Back, by John Corey Whaley

Cullen struggles with the death of a cousin to drugs and the disappearance of his younger brother. His parents are falling apart, but what bugs Cullen most of all is all the hoopla over the supposed sighting of an extinct woodpecker and the ass-hats of his little town of Lily who try to cash in on that attention.

In parallel, a separate (and more interesting) storyline traces the failed missionary work of Benton Sage and his college roommate Cabot who in turn becomes obsessed with the forgotten Ethiopian Orthodox Bible and its story of Archangel Gabriel's betrayal of mankind. And while the two stories seem completely unrelated until nearly the very end of the book, they intersect in a significant and deadly way.

Zombies also play a part.

What you end up with is a critically acclaimed, Printz-award winning story that isn't actually about much of anything. Some people claim it is a coming-of-age story, but Cullen really doesn't change all that much. What's striking in fact is that, while a lot of interesting things happen to the characters, none of them are interesting in themselves. Not only is this not a true coming-of-age book (which would require a dramatic arc of some sort), but it isn't a YA book either. The major protagonists are post-adolescents and their concerns are mostly those of adults. If anything, the story reminded me of John Irving's The World According to Garp, but without the clever satire of that classic. It's well-written and original, but hardly the best book of the year.

The Gospel According to Larry, by Janet Tashjian

When whiz kid Josh decides to start a website to promote his anti-consumerist rants, he does it initially to resolve his boredom. He decides to keep it anonymous (using the name "Larry" as a pseudonym) and, as an experiment, tries to promote it at school through a fan club. He never imagines that it will amount to much. But, before he knows it, people across the country tune in to his site and its message. Millions of people become fans and it spawns a festival and even (ironically) various consumer fads. As Larry's popularity grows, Josh struggles with whether he should reveal the true authorship or not.

In some ways, Tashjian was a bit ahead of her time when the book was written in 2001. However, eleven years later, a blog going viral isn't much of a story. The critique of consumerism also seems like a dated concern (or rather, it is treated so innocently compared to what we see today). In sum, the story is well-written and the book is a quick read, but it really doesn't have as much to say in today's more cynical world.

You Are My Only, by Beth Kephart

When she was twenty, Emmy's baby was stolen from her. Developmentally challenged and struck with grief, no one believed that she hadn't done something to it and she was unable to communicate what had happened. Instead, she was involuntarily committed.

Many years later, home-schooled Sophie breaks her mother's strict no-contact policy with the outside world and befriends a boy who lives next door. He in turn introduces her to his two aunts, who care for him and take an interest in her. As a result, her life changes dramatically.

Told in alternating chapters, Emmy's and Sophie's stories never really coalesce, but instead develop parallel tales of suffering and eventual redemption. The resulting novel is complex and beautifully crafted, but difficult to follow and certainly not a young adult novel. The use of language is highly stylistic and takes a bit to get used to, but adds to the strength of the characters. I found it a hard slog, even as I recognized its literary merits.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Queen of Secrets, by Jenny Meyerhoff

Essie is starting her sophomore year off on a good note. She has made the cheerleader team and Austin (the cute football player she's been eyeing) has started to notice her. But it could all be ruined by her geeky cousin Micah whose insistence on wearing a yarmulke to school has kids teasing him. When that teasing turns nasty and escalates into more dangerous things, Essie finds herself forced to choose between the fun life she was planning on enjoying and standing up for her family. The fact that her family has been hiding things from her simply complicates matters.

While pitched for a younger teen audience, several mature themes (including a fairly explicit sex scene) will probably flag this for some nervous adults. That's a shame, though, as the book tackles a lot of great identity issues that will resonate best with younger readers.

For myself, I found the writing style to be a bit preachy and the morality issues depicted too black-and-white -- in a style which seems to suggest that the author doesn't quite trust the readers to figure it out on their own. However, I liked the subject matter and the pace was right. The characters are complex (even though Essie is essentially a good girl, she gets to make a few mistakes). Peer pressure becomes an easy scapegoat, but in this case that felt right. In sum, a decent book for younger readers (older ones will probably find it too simplistic).