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.