Friday, November 23, 2012

Alice on Board, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Now that the girls have graduated from High School, Alice is realizing that they will soon part and go off in different directions.  But for one more summer, they will be together, working on a cruise ship in the Chesapeake Bay.  It's hard work, but Alice gets to see a lot of scenery and they have some adventures.  Pamela is dealing with her needy mother, Gwen is trying out a new romance, and Alice herself is mostly fretting over Patrick and whether she is being too clingy.

It's another installment in Naylor's long-running series.  Alice's adventures aren't quite as cute as before and the books tend to read like serial installments, rather than as themed books, but Alice remains an interesting young woman (if, for no other reason, than there's been so much written about her).  Naylor is not quite in touch with the technology that is the foundation of adolescence (confusing Facebook with some sort of chat room or Craigslist) anymore and her writing style seems more grandmotherly, but this gives the books an innocent charm that make them popular with younger readers.  This particular installment is a bit more action-packed than some of the previous ones, but notably thinner on emotions, feelings, and getting inside Alice's head.

In many ways, this is probably my greatest reservation about the series.  Having tracked every little bit of Alice's life for 12+ years, we have a wonderful opportunity to explore why she feels like she does.  Occasionally, Alice lets down her guard and Naylor explores an idea briefly (in this example, there's a tease where Alice wonders if her clingy feelings are somehow tied to losing her mother when she was little), but the ideas are dropped just as quickly as they appear.  That makes the books overall superficial and frustrating.  Sure, we know when she got her first bra, had her first period, and lost her virginity, but not that much about her anxieties and her dreams.  A person's made up of more than anecdotes and milestones.

[Note:  This was supposed to be the very last book in the series, but apparently Naylor decided that she needed to do another one, so look forward to Always Alice, sometime in 2013.]

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Want To Go Private? by Sarah Darer Littman

Abby's having a hard time adjusting to High School.  She's shy and awkward, the school is big, the teachers different, and her best friend is distracted by different classes, extracurriculars, and a new boyfriend.  Abby's got a boy in school that she's crushing on too, but he isn't the focus of her life.  The focus of her life is Luke, a guy she's met online.  She knows all about stranger danger and how you shouldn't talk with people you don't know on the Internet, but Luke is different.  He's kind and caring and supports her all the time.  And as Abby struggles with her friends and family, she really needs Luke.  So, when Luke suggests that they meet, she decides to go for it.  The rest of the book deals with the consequences of that terrible mistake.

I have mixed feelings about this one.  Littman is tackling an important subject but she knows it.  The story is liberally littered with adults telling the reader about sexual predators online and how they "groom" their victims.  Lots of action in the story is really thinly-veiled advice about what to do (and not do) in situations like this.  The result is a pedantic story that terrorizes the reader as much as it enlightens them. I don't like books that preach, especially about something this obvious.  Want to help kids avoid sexual predators?  Show how those predators work.  But scaring them with graphic and nasty scenes?  With stories of how they will be subject to not only mortal danger, but (gasp!) the derision of their peers?  Why?  It seemed more like scare tactics and felt like exploitation.

Given the mission, the characters are largely secondary to the message.  The kids have endearing qualities, but I didn't really feel that I got to know them (and the adults are throwaway).  Most shockingly, I never really understood why Abby went with the guy.  We gets lots of repetition of the word "grooming process" as an explanation but its depiction in the book is shockingly sparse.  Rather than show the gradual process through which the predator insinuated himself into her trust, we jump roughly ahead a few months to later scenes where the guy has already trained her to disrobe on command.  As a result, we're left mystified as to why she would do this.  For the mission of the book and the understanding of the young readers to whom it is targeted, it would have made more sense to show that development process (and maybe lowered the explicitness of the yucky stuff).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore

Not so much the latest installment of a trilogy as much as a parallel sequel to Graceling (taking a minor side-story and expanding it), this is ostensibly the story of how King Leck's daughter Bitterblue helped her kingdom come to terms with his murderous legacy.  Her efforts are complicated by the terror she still feels towards her father and a growing sense that her advisers are resistant to reforms.  Overcoming those fears becomes Bitterblue's own shining contribution.

The book is a bit longer and thematically more complex than the other books in the series.  Cashore is great with details and telling a complicated story.  This is a good thing since she has chosen two difficult tasks (to depict a very lively political scene and to dig in to the concept of terror and the way that one recovers from its trauma).  She's not always successful in keeping up a good pace to the story and the middle of the book starts to drag a bit with navel gazing peer counseling and a number of subplots that even Bitterblue's surly archivist writes off as "of questionable relevance."  The conclusion is also painfully drawn out, sending us through nearly 100 pages of tying up loose ends.  Still, one can be indulgent over the dull sections as the work overall is a magnificent and complex achievement that continues to develop the world of its two predecessors.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bittersweet, by Sarah Ockler

Three years ago, Hudson was on her way to a professional career in figure skating.  And then she threw her skating competition.  Her teammates thought that she had just choked from the pressure, but the truth was that she and her mother had just found out that her Dad (her all-round biggest fan) was cheating on them.  And, in that moment on the rink, she realized that she wanted nothing more to do with him.  Since skating was the thing she did with him, she vowed that she would never do it again.

Now, with her Dad long gone, and Hudson, her little brother, and Mom trying to make ends meet, Hudson realizes that she misses skating after all.  A rare opportunity to skate in a competition again presents itself with a tantalizing offer:  a college scholarship that could be her ticket out of her dead-end life.  But in order to get practice time at a local rink, Hudson finds herself coaching the high school hockey team, which in turn leads her into the arms of not just the team's captain, but his smoldering co-captain as well.

If you get the sense that there is an awful lot going on in this story, then you would be right.  The nearly 400 pages of this novel are full of a dozen overlapping plots.  It seems that Hudson's life is complicated and complex.  Normally, I'm not a fan of such a busy story (I'd rather a writer choose a story and focus the novel around it), but it works in this case because much of the book's point is that Hudson's life is complicated and complex.  I'm not such a fan of Hudson herself (she's a bit spacy and not very responsible with her friends), but she's brave and fearless and I give her kudos for what she accomplishes in the story.  The ending is all a bit too over-the-top cheery and pink fluffy bunnies, but Hudson grows a great deal over the course of the story, so I was satisfied overall.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Lucky Breaks, by Susan Patron

Lucky and the odd-ball inhabitants of Hard Pan have aged a year or so.  Brigitte is trying to learn how to become an American (as well as a good mother to Lucky), Lincoln is mastering his knot tying skills and working out the secrets of the universe, and Miles - while still a bit weird - has been declared a genius.

And now there's a new girl - Pamona - the niece of a scientist working in the area.  She's the same age as Lucky and - Lucky hopes - might potentially become her best friend.  But Pamona also shakes up things as Lucky struggles to come to terms that in order to have a best friend, one has to be a best friend (and not just to Pamona, but to Lincoln and Miles as well).

It's been a while since I read the first book (The Higher Power of Lucky), but I remember being enchanted by the quirky characters, gentle storytelling, and kindheartedness of that book.  That all continues here, but in the sequel it wears a bit thin.  Maybe it's because the story itself never really gels, but instead rambles around between subjects.  Or maybe the appeal of the original is lost once the novelty fades.  Either way, I found it hard to engage with the book.  It was pleasant to read, but ultimately forgettable.

Lexie, by Audrey Couloumbis

It's the first summer that Lexie's parents haven't been together, so it feels particularly weird to be going out to the beach house with only Dad.  Weird to leave her Mom in the city, but also a little good - a feeling with which Lexie struggles. 

When they get out to the shore, Lexie is in for number of surprises:  Dad has invited a "friend" to join them and she's coming with two boys.  Lexis is torn about this:  she hates having to share her father with other people, but she grows to like the boys and even her father's friend.

Couloumbis can be a bland writer.  I didn't care much for her acclaimed novel Getting Near to Baby because I found it dull and boring.  However, for a story with this book's subtle complexity, Couloumbis's style works well.  The characters here are smart and insightful and the feelings they express are complicated.  It is a gentle story that avoids melodrama and instead explores how the process of changing families can be both good and bad at the same time.  Lexie and the boys are allowed to both love and hate the changes that are happening around them, and even the adults get to express their feelings as mixture of joy, fear, and sadness.  While the kids can seem a bit precocious at times, I think that is mostly because we are used to dumbed-down characters in books like this.  In the world of Lexie's beach house, it all seemed quite reasonable.  The story itself breaks little new ground, but its treatment of the subject of divorce and remarriage makes this smart little book notable.