Sunday, December 30, 2012

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi

Scholastic has just re-released this with a new cover and a cheap price, and sent me a reviewer's copy to read...

Charlotte Doyle is looking forward to her trip across the Atlantic aboard the Seahawk.  But when the families with whom she is supposed to be traveling fail to appear, and members of the crew attempt to discourage her from showing up, she regrets the decision.  But already out at sea, it is too late!

Between storms, stowaways, and seasickness, Charlotte has a lot with which to deal.  However, it gets worse: the crew is mutinous and the captain is unhinged and cruel.  Before long, young innocent Charlotte finds herself thrust into the middle of plots and counterplots, and ends up accused of murder!

It's a vivid and exciting adventure on the high seas and a modern classic tale that has won its fair share of accolades and prizes.  It works, I think, because it is a good adventure with plenty of action, but features a girl, so draws in the girls as well as the boys.  There's great technical detail, so fans of naval adventures have plenty to bite into.  And it works on a human level as Charlotte has a heart and a strong moral core to make her an excellent heroine.  It's not much of a book for a moral or lesson, but you don't read books like this to learn about human nature.  Unfortunately, you do read books like this to be subjected to twenty course lesson plans in language arts classes (!), so if you are a grown up, enjoy the book as a free person!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Lucky for Good, by Susan Patron

Yet more about the inhabitants of Hard Pan in this final installment of Susan Patron's Lucky trilogy.  This time, the story centers around Brigitte's need to bring her cafe up to code, Miles's reunion with her mother (and adapting to having a mother again), and Lucky learning more about her family and coming to terms with her father's decision to abandon her.  As in the other two novels, the style remains plain enough for younger readers, but honest enough to resonate with grownups.

At times, the unstructured format of the story makes it hard to follow and there is a frustrating way for seemingly important threads to become neglected, but the overall flavor is so unique and charming that it is easy to overlook the flaws.  Even the folksy lifestyle of Hard Pan is applied lightly -- just enough to be enjoyable, providing us with a great collection of memorable characters, without becoming cloying or condescending.

Lyddie, by Katherine Paterson

In the 1840s in Vermont, Lyddie Worthen and her brother struggle to survive on their own.  Their father has gone West years ago and mother has fallen under the sway of an End Times preacher and given up on living.  When the family's debts reach the point that they can no longer keep the farm, the two children are sent to work:  Lyddie's brother to the mill and Lyddie herself to be a housekeeper.  Lyddie works hard but can't earn enough money to make any headway on repaying the debts.  So, when she learns of better opportunities in Lowell MA, working in the wool mills, she decides to strike out to seek her fortune.  It's back-breaking work, but Lyddie welcomes the opportunity to change her life.

Less outstanding for the writing than the extraordinary story it tells, Lyddie is a well-researched historical novel that will give you pause to reflect on how hard life can really be and how we rise to the challenges that we must face. Its lessons about perseverance have a timeless classic quality to them that often lands the book on summer reading lists.  Lyddie's life is harsh, but she accepts it with a level of grace and determination that make her a very inspiring heroine.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Incarnate, by Jodi Meadows

For as long as people in the Range have known, everyone is reincarnated when they die and the number of souls (and bodies) has been remained static.  Everyone, that is, except for Ana.  She's a "new soul" (or, as her mother tells her frequently, a "non soul") and not reincarnated at all.  She is, her mother says, a mistake.

But Ana is not convinced that she is as bad as Mom claims.  And after eighteen years of abuse at her mother's hands, Ana is ready to strike out on her own.  Ana's convinced that the answer lies in Heart, the capital city.  There, she hopes to get some answers about her origins and find out why she is the only one who is not reincarnated from a previous life.  On her way to Heart, she befriends a musician named Sam who becomes her guardian, mentor, and object of affection (although not quite her lover).  Acid-spitting dragons, wraith-like beasts called "sylphs," and Ana's meddlesome and evil mother fight her along the way.

It's an interesting setting and premise, but the story itself is a bit too leaden with adolescent rebellion. Ana's evil sadistic mother is more fantasy than the dragons and the wraiths, and a bit too much attention is spent on her.  I get the appeal to young readers, but the lengths to which Mom goes to get between Ana and Sam are ludicrous and some of the weakest parts of the story.

On a whole, the story starts off strong, but loses focus midway (about the time that Ana and Sam reach the city).  At first, we have the interesting thread of how (after years of emotional abuse) Ana has trouble trusting Sam.  But once the dragons show up, it starts getting weird, and the emotional growth is displaced by shooting and killing.  With a multitude of loose ends, I became painfully aware by the end that there must be a sequel to come (sure enough, due out in January 2013!).

Friday, December 14, 2012

Second Chance Summer, by Morgan Matson

Taylor has always run away when things got tough.  Five years ago, she ran away from Lake Phoenix, from her best friend Lucy, and from her first boyfriend Henry. And she never planned to come back.  But when her father is diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, he insists that the family to return to their old summer home on the Lake for one last summer together.  How are you going to argue with that?

And so, Taylor has to return and face Lucy and Henry again.  The return is difficult and her abandonment is not easily forgiven.  She expected that, but what surprises her is how it rekindles old feelings and makes her reconsider not just the decisions of her past but how her fear continues to control her life.  Her romantic feelings for Henry return and her longing to have Lucy back in her life points out the terrible costs of her tendency to run away.  Eventual forgiveness shows that second chances are actually possible.  The slow decline of her father, meanwhile, places some perspective on all this and how sometimes even a second chance is not enough.

Obviously, the ingredients here are guaranteed to be upsetting.  Between the nostalgia, the longing for lost friendships, and a dying parent, there had better be a Kleenex box nearby when you read this book! And since I do like a book that makes me cry, I'm going to like this one.  However, there are other things going for the book:  Taylor's emotions (and her fears, in particular) are very honest and striking.  The other characters have depth as well.  In a lengthy novel like this, we really get an opportunity to get under the skin of them all and it is an enlightening journey.  (The setting is beautiful, although I'm growing disturbed at the unusual socioeconomic status of the families depicted in these books!  Where do middle class people who can't afford summer homes go to have an amazing summer of memories?).

Still, the storytelling has some rough spots.  Matson has problems pacing the story, clustering events in spots and then having to skip past "a few weeks" or so until events get interesting.  It's understandable, but one wonders if she couldn't have planned the story a bit better to have a less jumpy chronology.  Also, dealing with lost romance and dying father may be too much for one novel.  Surprisingly, it actually works, but for the first half of the book, I felt like there were really two different stories going on.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Breaking Beautiful, by Jennifer Shaw Wolf

After the accident, Allie can't remember the details of what happened to her and her boyfriend Trip.  She doesn't know how she got her injuries (although she thinks she got thrown out of the truck) or why the truck went over the guardrail and into the ocean (taking Trip with it).  And while she wants to believe what the police are telling her -- that it was an accident -- she isn't sure.  Something about it doesn't seem right.

As she tries to remember what happened and also tries to rebuild her life, she discovers that the people in her small town aren't exactly sure about her either.  Gossip leads to accusations and Allie's troubled friend Blake becomes a suspect in a murder investigation.  If only Allie could remember what really happened!

The story begins with a promising start, but it gets dragged out.  Allie has a lot of trouble coming to terms with the abusive nature of her former relationship with Trip.  Survivor's guilt and general denial seems realistic enough and some struggling from Allie adds to the drama of the story.  But at some point, her refusal to seek help (or even tell the truth) becomes just plain annoying and implausible -- and more of an excuse to drag out the story than to explore the psychic damage of abuse or the recovery process from it.  And the ending of the book itself is a mess as Wolf strives for maximum melodrama in resolving the story.

The Unwritten Rule, by Elizabeth Scott

The unwritten rule is that you shouldn't fall in love with your best friend's boyfriend, but what if you loved him first?  And what if your best friend wasn't really acting like they should either?  Lusting about Ryan ought to be a non-starter for Sarah since Brianna is dating him, but Sarah can't help herself.  She also can't help but notice how poorly Brianna treats him (not that that would justify her desires, but it bothers her nonetheless!).  What she doesn't do as good a job of noticing is that Brianna doesn't exactly treat her that well either.

On its face, the love triangle ought to be a pretty tired genre, but Scott livens up the story by introducing a mild sense of evil (in the form of Brianna).  This is not done simply to make Sarah's betrayal of her BFF acceptable to the reader, but rather to add another dimension to it.

The story is also given legs by the way that Scott breathes real life into her characters.  Sarah is often wiser and more articulate than her years, but this gives her a chance to send the reader on a guided tour of the dysfunctions of her peers and their parents (Brianna's mother is a particularly formidible character).  So, while the action of the story doesn't surprise, the interactions of the characters do tread new ground -- particularly the complicated relationship between Sarah and Brianna.

The Diviners, by Libba Bray

It is the Roaring Twenties and Evie is a totally modern gal, which is why live in boring Ohio is unbearable.  And why being sent to New York City to live with her uncle is a dream come true.  New York is the city where it's at -- gin joints, hopping jazz, fashionable people -- just the place for a gal who wants to have some fun!

However, New York is also full of strange and evil things.  A murderer is loose in the city and engaged in a series of ritual murders.  Evie's uncle, an expert on the occult, has been consulting for the police and very quickly Evie herself gets drawn into the investigation.  Teamed up with a series of paranormally-enhanced and gin-addled friends, they are on the hunt.  The question is whether they can stop the killer before he manages to end the world.

It's Libba Bray's typical collection of crazy and wild ideas, which combine supernatural thriller with pulp fiction detective novel.  Bray has infused the story with a lot of detail, but there's no escaping the sheer corniness of the setting, which is part Ghostbusters and part Dick Tracy.  Either way, this extremely long tome (578 pages, you chumps!) is more cinema than literature -- light and airy, and largely insubstantial.  Obviously, since I read the whole thing, I can't have felt like it sucked, but it lacked the fun of Beauty Queens and ultimately seemed pretty silly.  And the last forty pages of the book existed merely to pave the way for an unnecessary sequel, while avoiding any sort of closure.

Monday, December 03, 2012

What Can(t) Wait, by Ashley Hope Perez

In the barrio of Houston, Marisa dreams of making something of herself.  It isn't easy.  She's good at math, bright and intelligent, and has supportive teachers, but between the need to work to help her family and their other demands, there frequently isn't enough time left to study or even attend school.  No member of her family shares her love for education and some of them (like her father) are downright hostile to her bookishness.  That would be enough or a challenge, but Marisa complicates things by occasionally messing up (especially with guys).  Still, she has a lot of drive and determination, and with some help from unexpected sources she just might make it.

It's a familiar story (Real Women Have Curves, anyone?), but a good one.  And told in this unvarnished and authentic fashion (with enough R-rated material to get the book-banners salivating), the novel has a lot of appeal.  It's gritty and sounds right (and not just because of the frequent use of Spanglish). 

It's the character of Marisa herself that carries this story.  If she had just been this virtuous hard-working young woman pursuing the American Dream, I would have gotten bored pretty quickly, but Perez gets extra points for allowing her to be flawed.  You want her to succeed so very badly that when she screws up, it breaks your heart.  But Perez doesn't milk it.  For every mistake, Marisa dusts herself off and jumps right back into things.  So, yes, she's tough, but she's got a lot of heart (and a thin skin on the things that matter to her) so she's also very endearing.  I rooted for her from the start and stuck with her to the end -- and I think it paid off quite well.

Being a product of a nice anglo suburb, I don't tend to have much interest in urban culture (or stories placed in such settings), but a great heroine transcends their environment and anyone can enjoy this book.  If urban latinas find something special to like in the book, so much the better, but white guys will like it too.