Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Year Without Autumn, by Liz Kessler

One day, when Jenni is on her way to her best friend Autumn's place to go to a horseback riding lesson, she discovers an old elevator and takes it instead of the usual one.  When she arrives a Autumn's apartment, her friend is long gone -- an entire year has passed!  But more than that, a chain of events have been unleashed, causing a serious injury to Autumn's little brother, the loss of Autumn's friendship, the collapse of Jenni's parents' marriage, and grave confusion for amateur time traveler Jenni!  Now, Jenni has to figure out a way to set things right.

Combining a touch of magic and time travel with middle reader standard themes of friendship and family, this story is very approachable.  The flaws are minor and countered by its strengths.  It deftly maneuvers most of the complexities of time travel (although Kessler's insistence on doing so sometimes overextends the authenticity of Jenni's narrative voice in the explanations she provides).  Keeping the focus of the story solidly on Jenni's and Autumn's friendship helps to alleviate the onset of reader boredom.  Somewhat more annoying  are the psychological pep talks that Jenni and Autumn have about grieving.  Again, these are overly complex (most adults would lack the introspection that Jenni's freely espouses) and the discussions didn't drive the story very well.  A side plot about an old woman who has spent her life regretting her own mistakes didn't quite gel either, but serves to illustrate the dangers that Jenni and Autumn face.  So, in spite of the tendency towards excessive expository writing, the novel is quite readable.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Cupcake Queen, by Heather Hepler

Penny's been laying low in her new hometown of Hog's Hollow, ever since she and her mother moved in.  She knows that she'll eventually have to start school and meet the local kids, but she keeps hoping that her parents will get back together and she and Mom will move back to the City. But just a few days before school begins, she is helping her Mom cater a birthday party (Mom runs a cupcake bakery) and disaster strikes -- the sort of disaster that ruins the party.  Unfortunately, the birthday girl is Charity (the most popular girl in Penny's new class) and she sets out on a vendetta to ruin Penny's life.  Not that Penny needs any help in having her life ruined as she deals with her parents' separation and her mother's inability to communicate.

While the story starts out strong and has a good heart throughout, there's no getting around the fact that it is largely recycled.  Hepler doesn't really have much new to say about divorce, moving to a new town, or trying to deal with relationships.  The story itself is uneven. The cupcake angle really could have been played up much more, the endless bullying from Charity gets tiring and could have been reduced, and the boy interest is largely wasted. The relationship between Penny and her friend Tally is more interesting, but again strangely underdeveloped.  What Hepler does have is a breezy style and a sense of fun, but she seems to have struggled with the story.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Once A Witch, by Carolyn MacCullough

When Tamsin was born, her grandmother predicted that she would become the most powerful witch in the family.  Normally, each member of the family reveals their particular talent by the age of eight.  However, Tamsin's talent never revealed itself.  Now that she is seventeen, it is hard for her to not feel like a failure, particularly compared to her older sister (who is a master at locating lost objects, among other skills).  Grandmother was somehow horribly wrong!

Then a handsome man shows up at her family's store while Tamsin is working and, mistaking Tamsin for her older sister, asks her to help him locate an object.  Flattered, she enlists the help of a friend to do the work and makes a fateful mistake that changes the future irrevocably (and also provides some clue about what her talent truly is).  With barely any knowledge of what she can do, she now must draw on everything she has to save her family from a dangerous curse.

While the story is a bit rough at points, this is truly a clever book for the way it combines teen angst and insecurity with a decent fantasy story of witchcraft and magic.  That won't seem like much since almost all good YA fantasy makes a point to take on a teen's perspective and priorities, but MacCullough does it in an impressively seamless fashion.  Without sacrificing the story, Tamsin's struggles to discover herself and to figure out her place in her family are true coming-of-age material to which any teen (regardless of their own special talent) will relate.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Between Here and Forever, by Elizabeth Scott

Abby has spent her life living in the shadow of her popular and beautiful older sister.  When Tess is in a car accident and ends up in a coma, Abby finds herself spending her days at her bedside hoping to "wake up" her sister.  She even enlists the help of a boy named Eli to try to entice Tess out of unconsciousness.  But while outside observers could see Abby's actions as a sign of devotion (and perhaps a lack of acceptance), the truth is much harsher:  Abby needs Tess to wake up so that the family will return to normal and Abby will finally be able to escape the small town in which they live.

But when Abby's plan to use Eli goes awry and Abby discovers some hard truths about her "perfect" sister, the perfect world that Abby has created comes unglued.  And in the chaos that emerges, Abby discovers some truths about herself.

Well-written with strong character development.  It is a story well-told.  However, I'm not sure it was a story I necessarily was interested in.  Abby is a hard heroine to like.  While she certainly grows and expands her horizons throughout the story, she's so self-centered and clueless about other people, that it's hard to feel that her suffering is anything other than self-inflicted.  And it's harder still to feel much sympathy for her self-abuse.  By the thirtieth time she whines about how no one could ever love her, you really wanted to strangle her with an IV tube!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, by Emily M. Danforth

Growing up in Miles City MT as a gay curious and outspoken teen hasn't been easy for Cameron.  While she isn't certain, she senses that her parents wouldn't approve of her explorations into homosexuality, but since they died in a car accident, she doesn't have to worry about confronting them.  Instead, for the first two hundred pages or so of this coming-of-age novel, we get the details of the furtive explorations that Cameron engaged in.  As such, this ostensibly fictional memoir is a detailed and authentic tale of growing up gay in a hostile environment.

But when Cameron is outed and sent to a boarding school to be re-educated (and have her sinful past exorcised), the story takes a turn into very dark territory.  The school she finds herself in isn't itself such a horrible place, but the sheer milieu (where anxious and fragile teens are bullied by prejudiced and clueless adults) is disturbing reading.  In spite of the challenges she faces, Cameron remains true and insightful enough to recognize the hypocrisy of the adults around her, even as she stays honest and recognizes that she hasn't figured everything out either.

The result is a striking book that reads far too authentically (and detailed) to be merely fiction.  Whether Danforth based the story on her own life, the life of a friend, or an amalgam of both isn't very clear, but it must be true.  And while it really shouldn't matter, it bothered me throughout the entire book.  The story is outstanding, but if it is simply autobiography than it could be a one-hit wonder.

Danforth has a fluid and florid style which displays great talent at writing beautiful prose.  She is tempted a bit too often for my liking with the need to drag everything out (as witnessed by spinning a 470-page story!), but no one could fault her crazy skills.  Not a single character in the story remains undeveloped.  While more than a few are hard to like, you come out at the end truly understanding each and every one.  That shows a sensitivity for the complexity of fear, homophobia, hormones, and uncertainty that underlie so many of the actions in the story.  Yes, Danforth certainly has an agenda here, but one would be hard pressed to fault the care she takes to explore various points of view.  That much of this insight comes out of older-than-her-years Cameron's narration is a bit regrettable, but it can be forgiven in the beauty which it is delivered.

It's hard to fault such a well-written and powerful book (especially if LGBT literature is something you support).  I will do so, but simply out of taste (the book was too long and the story too drawn-out). I cannot claim this is a bad book, but simply one I didn't like.  You may well find it incredible.  Regardless, it is certainly worth reading.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Pledge, by Kimberly Derting

In Ludania, a strict caste system prevails.  While everyone can speak the common tongue of Englaise, the classes each have their own language and attempting to use a language other than your own is punishable by death.  The system, introduced to create peace, has degenerated into totalitarianism and a small group of revolutionaries fight a war to overthrow the queen to restore freedom.

Charlie is a young woman with a terrible secret:  she can understand all of the languages.  It's a talent that could get her killed and she hides it at all costs.  But when she meets a man named Max at a local rave who speaks a language she's never heard before (but immediately understands), he recognizes her for what she is.  To her surprise, rather than turn her in, he promises to defend her.

Billed as a dystopian novel, the story is actually more fantasy, with a mixture of other genres thrown in.  It's also something of a narrative mess.  The novel shifts gears at least three times, each time nearly completely tossing out the storyline in favor of a new direction.  This ratchets up the suspense, but makes less and less sense.  The characters suffer as a result and by the end, I found myself losing interest in who was doing stuff.  I liked the linguistic basis of the story, but even it becomes largely unimportant by the end.

Catching Jordan, by Miranda Kenneally

Jordan is an amazing quarterback, has led the team to State, and dreams of playing for Alabama after high school.  The fact that Jordan is a girl has never bothered anyone on her team - they know she can play ball.  But for Jordan's father, it's a big deal and she struggles with proving to him that she deserves to follow her dreams as much as any boy. The real challenge, however, comes when a new player joins the team.  Ty is different.  He's an excellent player and a stunning quarterback in his own right.  His arrival threatens Jordan's standing in the team, but, more than that, Jordan can feel herself falling for him.  Is there room in Jordan's dreams for a boy as well?

By all rights, I should despise this book.  I have no issue with romances, but the premise from the blurb ("What girl doesn't want to be surrounded by gorgeous jocks day in and day out?") is gag worthy.  Add in the fact that this is a book about football, and it should send me retching.  But sometimes if you take two toxic ingredients and put them together, you can make magic.  For me, this is really a book about an unusual young woman who stands up to male chauvinism with aplomb and finds a balance between love and career.  Dad is a bit of a two-dimension dweeb, but just about everyone else stands up off the page as a real character.  Jordan's relationship with Ty has real life in it and the author does an outstanding job at portraying the ups and downs of teen romance.  The boys on the team have personalities and Jordan's relationship with them felt natural and authentic.  You really don't need to know anything (or care) about football, although it doesn't hurt.

On a side note, the art department deserves a raspberry for the cover.  I might accept the boy on the left as a football player, but there's no way that Little Miss Waif on the right can toss a pigskin as well as Jordan does.  Kenneally is pretty clear that Jordan is a big person with a solid build.  The girl depicted here doesn't have enough meat on her bones to perform.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith

Because of a complex confluence of events, Hadley's managed to miss her flight to London.  She's not all that broken up about it.  Truth be told, she really doesn't have much interest in attending her Dad's wedding to some woman who she's never met.  Getting bumped to the next flight, however, triggers a new and important chain of events.

She ends up sitting next to a young Brit named Oliver, who is heading home to London for an uncomfortable family gathering of his own.  Naturally, they hit it off wonderfully and have a moment on the flight.  But more than that, the experience helps Hadley crystallize her thoughts about her father and how his decisions have affected her.

There's nothing particularly unusual or striking about the story.  The territory it covers is well-tread and hardly original.  But sometimes, an old tried-and-true formula sparkles in the hands of a good writer.  This is a case in point.  Hadley and Oliver are nice characters and the reader is drawn into their story.  Their growth is tangible and, while not earth shattering, it is nonetheless rewarding.  The settings (mostly on the plane, but also some nice London detail) are realistic and entertaining.  This is an unremarkable story, which is nonetheless enjoyable.

Eve, by Anna Carey

In this new dystopian series, a plague has wiped out the bulk of the population.  Young orphans are sent to boarding schools to learn trades.  Eve is one of them -- a star pupil who plans to graduate as the Valedictorian and become a shining example for her peers.  But when Eve has a chance encounter with a local troublemaker named Arden who is trying to escape from school, Arden triggers Eve's curiosity about why they have never seen any of the graduates again after they leave.  Some last minute snooping uncovers the horrible truth about the program and the fate that awaits her.  Determined to not suffer that outcome, she flees and joins Arden in the wilderness.  Along with the help of a boy named Caleb, the young people make a run for a haven called Califia.

Having realized only a bit late that this was one of those pre-fab YA monstrosities from Alloy, I almost put it down, but I was stuck on a plane without anything else to read and it was a quick page-turner, so I gave it a shot.  As one would expect though, the story is formulaic and largely lifeless.  The post-apocalyptic scenario lacks originality (plague?  oh please!).  The situation is implausible (only a pre-teen would believe the baby-farm idea) and exists mostly to serve as an excuse for the inability of any adults to be useful.  The romance (this being an Alloy-committee production) is the retreaded forbidden love concept.  In sum, you can kill time with this, but the cynical commercialism of the series makes it a last resort.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green

John Green is a frustrating writer for me.  I absolutely LOVED his first book, Looking for Alaska, but his subsequent books seemed silly and fluffy.  His collaboration with Levithan was stupid and beneath him.  His aesthetic compass, in short, too easily thrown off by side projects.  But this book truly recaptures the beauty of his debut and kicks it up several notches.  I won't claim it is the Best. Book. Ever.  But I will claim it is one of the best books I've ever reviewed.  Thank you, Mr. Green, for restoring my faith in the genre.  Now, I guess I had better tell you the story....

Hazel and Augustus are adolescent cancer survivors, a status that they are ambivalent about, partly because of how it pigeonholes them in society, and partly because they don't really believe in survival. Before Hazel's miracle cure with an experimental drug, she was basically a goner.  And Augustus's recovery seems similarly tenuous.  But for two kids without much hope for the future, finding each other gives them something to hope for.  Together, they share a love for a novel called An Imperial Affliction which they agree captures the true pointlessness of their condition and a similar dedication for a series of blood-drenched military novels based a first-person shooter called "Price of Dawn." It's an uncommon match.

Thus, before anyone gets the idea that Green's latest book is a re-make of A Walk To Remember, you can be relieved to find that there's enough attitude here to shake you of that.  Self-pity isn't really the name of the game, and these wise-assed kids have enough irreverence to be funny and enough heartache to remind you that this isn't a comedy either.  The young people here are wonderfully insightful, realistically reflective, and as anti-stereotypical as you could find.  The result is an extremely well-developed character study of what dying means when you are young (and it's happening all around you).

Knowing that a story like this has a sad ending (why wouldn't it?) won't protect you from the devastation that awaits you.  But that really isn't the point.  Far more important is the message about trying to make a difference in a world where we all die (some just sooner than others).

Friday, May 04, 2012

Nature Girl, by Jane Kelley

City girl Megan can't possibly imagine a worse summer -- stuck in Vermont with her older sister and her parents, with no computer and no television.  But the worst part of all is the fact that her best friend didn't come with her, so she's stuck in the woods on her own!  Frustrated and angry, she dreams up schemes to rescue her summer, making herself (and her family) miserable.

Then a hike in the woods goes wrong.  Initially lost, Megan finds herself on the Appalachian Trail.  But rather than use this information to find her way home, she decides to set out on a trip that will change her life.

For what the book is (an adventure book aimed at middle readers), it's a surprisingly effective story.  Megan is a bit too annoying at first and her transformation toward maturity doesn't always ring true (for example, when she figures out on her own how to gut and cook a fish), but the storytelling has a predictably pleasing arc.  Yes, we all know that Megan will gain perspective and maturity, but it is no less enjoyable to read about it in the knowing.  The reconciliation with her friend seems tacked on, but offers additional pay-off in the novel's happy ending.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

You Have Seven Messages, by Stewart Lewis

After Luna's mother died, Luna didn't really grieve over her.  Now, a year later, she decides to visit her mother's studio, where she discovers her mother's cell phone...with seven messages on it.  Curious, she starts to listen to the messages and, through them, finds that there is a lot more to her mother's death (and life) than she previously realized. On the side, she also has to deal with her father dating again, the attentions of a boy next door, and her own burgeoning talent for photography.

For a book that could have been so much about internal transformation, this story is awfully cluttered with external (and frequently over-the-top) events.  The fact that she is rich and that her father is famous was distracting enough.  Once we start name-dropping Drew Barrymore and Orlando Bloom, it all got to be a bit too much. And, as we jetted off to Tuscany and took an unsupervised train to Paris, I realized that we were in teen fantasy land.  The story was no longer about growing up, it was about having fun fun fun.  I get that it's great to fantasize, but did we have to go so far off the deep end?  How much sympathy can we really have for the poor little rich girl?

Story inconsistencies pop up as well (how does a phone carried at the moment that Mom is struck by a car magically end up back at her studio?) and Luna herself is jarringly inauthentic (wiser than her years would ever be, with the subsequent lack of room for growth).  The end result is entertaining fluff that is fun to read.