Saturday, March 30, 2013

Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible, by Suzanne Kamata

Aiko tries to keep a low profile.  Her cerebral palsy gives her a limp and a stiff arm, which she doesn't like people noticing.  But privately, she imagines herself as Gadget Girl -- the amazingly dextrous heroine of a manga zine that she writes and illustrates.

Most of all, she dreams of going to Japan, to have the chance to meet her father -- an indigo farmer -- whom she has never seen.  But instead, her Mom takes her to Paris, where Aiko becomes close with a gorgeous guy who gets her to think beyond her limitations and step out into the light.

All of which will make it seem like there is an awful lot going on in this story!  From classic movie references to indigo plants to exotic food and music references, Kamata's interests are diverse.  And, as writers are generally encouraged to write what they know, she's drawn to write about many things.  As for the writing itself, it's fine, but not in any major outstanding way.  The book is a good read and the plot moves along at a decent pace.  The story mostly stands on some particularly strong scenes, a bit of wish-fulfillment, and a sentimental streak that ties everything together.  It's enjoyable and I don't mind giving a shout out for it.

This charming book comes out in May 2013 and is well-worth reading.

[Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book from the author for the purpose of creating this review.  I received no further compensation and will be donating the book to the Middleton Public Library book sale when I am done with it.]

The Look, by Sophia Bennett

When a talent scout accosts Ted and her sister on a London street and tells her that she could have an amazing future in modeling, Ted first presumes that he means her sister.  And then, when he clarifies who he's admiring, she suspects that he is some sort of scam artist.  But the guy is legit and serious.  And Ted reluctantly embarks on an attempt at a fashion career.

To complicate matters, Ted's sister has just been diagnosed with cancer.  Ted finds herself overextended between pursuing the new career (both for herself and for her sister who uses Ted's adventures as a distraction) and taking care of her family.

The cancer angle is something different, but the being-swept-away-by-fame story has been done to death (let alone the whole ugly-duckling-finds-out-she-is-actually-amazing-swan-after-a-make-over plot).  Consider, Melissa Walker's Violet on the Runway as a more recent example.  It is really not giving much away to say that Ted will get swept away by the excitement and then belatedly come to realize what is most important in the end.  After all, if she didn't come back from the brink, we'd all hate her!

What makes the story stand out is the character of Ted herself -- assertive and sure of herself, she knows what she's getting into and never quite loses herself as much as the reader expects her to.  Standing up for herself, she's definitely a fish out of water in the fashion business (which is otherwise portrayed in stereotypes).  Ted thus makes an appealing guide to this alien world -- the type of brash young woman that young women reading fashion magazines and this novel might like to imagine themselves as resembling.  Far more than a look, then, Ted is an attitude.

[Disclosure:  my copy of this book came unsolicited from Scholastic.  I received no compensation for this review and I'm donating my copy to the Middleton Public Library book sale after I'm done with it.]

Friday, March 22, 2013

Purity, by Jackson Pearce

When Shelby's mother was dying, she asked her daughter to promise her three things:  to listen to and love her father, to love as much as possible, and to live without restraint.  And after Mom dies, Shelby is determined to honor those promises.  In fact, they become a lifeline for her as she comes to doubt just about everything else in her life.  Her best friend Jonas even helps her keep track of a bucket list in order to keep her constantly working on promise #3.

However, when her father suggests that they participate in a father-daughter "Princess Ball" at which the girls will pledge to their fathers to remain "pure," Shelby is torn.  She's uncomfortable making such a promise to her Dad, but promise #1 to Mom means that she must do whatever he wants and then live by the pledge she makes.  Somehow, she must figure out a loophole to get around it, and figure it out before the Ball takes place.  Otherwise, she'll have to make the pledge.

When I read the synopsis of the book, it seemed a bit silly to me - a bit like the premise of a sitcom: girl tries to wiggle out of deathbed promise to Mom.  The book, however, wasn't like that at all.  Instead, there were some serious questions raised by the author about how we remember and honor our parents' wishes.  And some nice insights on faith and regaining a sense of faith when it has been seriously challenged (in this case, forcing Shelby to reconcile her anger with God with her need to believe in an Afterlife for her mother). 

Be warned (or intrigued): there's also a strong sexual theme going on (a bulk of the book is devoted to Shelby's attempt to lose her virginity), but it's integral to the plot and treated candidly and intelligently.  It didn't feel particularly exploitative.

Instead, it's hard not to like Shelby's strong character and her ability to stand up for herself.  And as a parent-aged male, I'd be lying to say that I didn't relate to Shelby's father and really take a punch to the gut reading how she and her father struggle to sort out their relationship.  Not that the book is all heavy stuff.  There's also some amazing humor that will have you rolling (for example, the every hilarious condom purchasing scene). 

This is truly an amazing book and really the best one I've read this year so far.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Girl Named Digit, by Annabel Monaghan

Farrah may be stuck with an awful name by her seventies-TV-junkie mother, but it's her brilliance at math that's earned her the much more detested nickname of Digit.  Her talent is amazing, but she'd rather suppress it so she can fit in at school.  That is until she uncovers a secret code being broadcast during her favorite TV teen drama that leads her to a secret terrorist cell operating in the US.  When said nefarious group launches a devastating attack at JFK, Farrah springs into action.  Helped by the irresistibly cute (and conveniently available) FBI agent John, Farrah is jetting across the country, hiding out from the bad guys, and launching a plan to bring them down (that will involve her little brother, her parents, and one of the most popular girls at school).  All she needs to do is stay alive and survive a week's worth of leg hair growth!

For folks who are a bit older than the target audience, the storyline is reminiscent of True Lies (remember Arnold and Jamie Lee?) but a bit more over-the-top.  It's funny, silly, and ridiculous as hell, but if you can manage to not take it seriously, this is a pretty amusing read.  The romance is awkwardly adolescent but tongue in cheek (how else to describe John and Farrah's parents meeting while plotting to entrap an FBI mole)?  It's nice that Farrah is math smart and bright, but I would have preferred if she wasn't as boy crazed (and if she had avoided the whole Bella Swan mope thing at the end).  Still, I admire the genre mashing going on here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Same Sun Here, by Silas House and Neela Vaswani

An Indian-American girl from New York City becomes pen pals with a boy from the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky.  Through letters back and forth, each shares their lives with each other.  While they are very different in terms of background they share many things in common (in addition to the obvious commonality of the title, they also both have fathers who away for extended periods of time, they maintain strong bonds with their grandmother, they have a heightened awareness of their environment, they both love to read classics, and they share strong literacy).  Through a number of adventures, they pass a year together from a distance.

It's a sweet and pleasant read, but not very big on revelations.  And like so many team-written projects, it seemed a bit lazy to me: House and Vaswani simply started writing letters back and forth, challenging the other to respond to what they had written.  For entertainment value, it works, and I have no complaints about the quality of the writing.  But it doesn't leave much of an impression in the end:  two nice kids, struggling to understand each other and their world.  How nice.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Getting Over Garrett Delaney, by Abby McDonald

When Sadie fails to get accepted to a special writer's camp for the summer, it ruins her plans.  Not only that, but it means six weeks of separation from her best friend (and major crush) Garrett.   It's just her luck, anyway, as she's been just as much a failure at getting Garrett to notice her these past two years.

But as the reader quickly learns, Sadie's crush on Garrett isn't harmless -- in fact, it's stalker-level obsessive.  She virtually lives for any hint that he might like her, carefully crafting her clothes, likes and dislikes, and mannerisms to be as appealing to him as possible.  And when her situation comes crashing down, her friend Kayla and the co-workers at the coffee shop decide to stage an intervention and convince Sadie to embark on a twelve-step program to move on with her life.

What emerges is a story, initially humorous, but ultimately quite touching, about the way that people (and young women, most of all) go from wanting to be pleasing to others to losing themselves entirely to a partner.  As Sadie herself muses towards the end:  we all want to be loved, but how do you do that while maintaining a sense of self?  It certainly helps when the guy you like isn't a selfish prick (as Garrett is), but McDonald is more subtle and goes on to show that, even with the men who aren't creeps, it's very easy to fall into the trap of forgetting what is important to yourself in order to "win" someone's heart.  The book tackles all this without becoming overly preachy.  While it is certainly a story with a message, McDonald achieves a suitable balance of fun and function that made the book entertaining and simultaneously valuable.

When the Butterflies Came, by Kimberley Griffiths Little

On the day of her grandmother's funeral, a beautiful butterfly visits Tara.  It's a small comfort in a world that has grown pretty dark:  Daddy's long gone, Mamma has suddenly disappeared, Tara's older sister Riley won't talk with her, and everything else seems to be falling apart.  But then Tara starts finding letters from her grandmother that lead her on a hunt for clues.  The hunt becomes serious as Tara learns that her grandmother was on the verge of an important discovery involving special butterflies.  Grandmother's death may in fact have been planned and the murderer may have been someone she trusted!  Each letter leads Tara closer to the truth as she goes first to her grandmother's house in the bayou and then half-way across the Pacific Ocean to the island of Chuuk in the midst of Micronesia.  Tara (with reluctant help from Riley) must figure out what happened and save her grandmother's secret work and the butterflies!

While the story eventually comes together in the end, my overall impression of the book was that it was rough and in need of further editing.  The plot meanders, with subplots that don't really move the story forward.  Much of this static is intended to keep the pace up, but it was ultimately distracting.  At the same time, major developments are poorly foreshadowed and instead introduced roughly into the story.  And finally, key elements (like the butterflies, for example) are left underdeveloped.  As I said, it wraps up alright in the end, but it's a narrative mess!

[Note:  The book is being released on April 1st.  I read an ARC supplied by the publisher, but received no compensation for my review.]

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Zero, by Tom Leveen

Amanda's nickname Zero pretty much sums up how she sees herself.  She's no longer talking with her best friend.  Her parents are always fighting.  And her dream of attending art school in Chicago has been ruined when she is accepted, but denied a scholarship.  In despair, she drowns her sorrow in her painting, her love for Salvador Dali's artwork, and reciting the lyrics of songs written by local punk bands.

Enter Mike, the drummer of an up-and-coming local band.  She finds him at a concert and works up the nerve to talk to him.  Much to her surprise, he likes her back.  But the bigger surprise is how he ends up turning her life around, challenging her to change her attitude and start reaching for her dreams.

The setting (suburban Phoenix) is a bit hard to relate to, but I grew to really like the characters.  Leveen has great voices for his people that had authenticity and appeal.  Zero makes more than a few lousy choices and she can whine up a storm, but her fierce independence made her sympathetic even when she wasn't always likable.  Mike, in contrast seemed too perfect to be real, but that really was his purpose, so I'll cut that one some slack.  The overall story is a meaningful and quirky take on the process of learning self-respect.

Unraveling Isobel, by Eileen Cook

Isobel isn't thrilled that her Mom is moving them from Seattle to a remote island where, as Isobel puts it, "there are more endangered birds than people." Mom's gotten remarried and it's all a bit creepy:  Dick the step dad just lost his previous wife to an unfortunate boating accident a few months ago under somewhat mysterious and unresolved circumstances.  Even the place is unsettling.  Dick and his son Nate live in a huge "estate" on the island that is rumored by the island's inhabitants to be haunted and cursed.  At first, Isobel doesn't worry about stuff like that.  But then she starts to see strange things and begins to wonder if someone (or something) is trying to tip her off?  Or maybe she's just going crazy (like her biological father did)?

And then, just when you've settled in to reading a good supernatural thriller, we have Nate, the stepbrother.  He's hot and haunts her in an entirely different way.  It's a situation that could get very complicated as the most popular girl at school vies for his affections as well, and she's more than a little jealous of Isobel's access.

Fun!  It gets a bit complicated and one could take Cook to task to trying to bring in too much (and leaving some threads - like Isobel's father - underdeveloped), but this is a great mixture of suspenseful and creepy stuff with a dash of high school angst thrown in.   Even if the story can be chaotic and implausible at points, I enjoyed the mix of humor, action, and romance.

The only major downer was the book's lame cover, which I noticed that they jettisoned for the paperback edition.