Friday, April 19, 2013

Rotten, by Michael Northrop

When Jimmer returns home at the end of the summer, his buddies are desperate to find out where he's been.  He claims he was at his Aunt's all summer, but they suspect it was juvie he was "visiting." Jimmer himself isn't saying and in fact is trying to avoid the subject, just as he's trying to avoid his ex-girlfriend and lay low.  Matters are complicated by a new addition to the household.  While he was away, Mom has adopted a Rottweiler named Johnny.  Boy and dog quickly bond, but will they be able to stick together?  And will the people around them forgive their pasts and their reputations?

It's a boy book and a dog book, which means that there are at least two reasons why I normally wouldn't touch it.  But it came as an unsolicited ARC and I was short on reading material, so I decided to expand my repertoire and give it a try.  The story isn't big on character development and the boys are generally pretty limited (and dumb), but the story grows on you and you do end up caring for the dog.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls, by Julie Schumacher

When Adrienne injures her knee right before the summer begins, her plans to go canoeing with her best friend are ruined.  Instead, she's stuck moping around the house or spending time at the pool, bored out of her mind.  Seeing this, her mother gets the idea of forming a mother-daughter book discussion group along with three of her friends.  The problem with this is two-fold:  book clubs aren't very cool when you're seventeen and none of the daughters like each other.

In addition to Adrienne, there's rich and popular CeeCee who won't crack a book, Jill is unsociable and distrusts CeeCee, and then there's weird and mysterious Wallace (who none of them can figure out).  They don't like their situation, but the girls are basically stuck with each other.  So, together, they try to make sense of a series of classic books, and figure each other along the way.

The story has potential and the blurb on the book jacket is a big draw, but ultimately this story falls flat (or, maybe better said, never comes together in the first place).  Schumacher has high ambitions, peppering the story with analogies to the classic books the girls are reading.  But what should have been the greatest strength of the book -- the mismatching personalities of the girls themselves -- never quite develops.  Instead, we get a confusing series of vignettes and subplots that fail to gel.  The characters are smart and intelligent (both child and adult), but ultimately not interesting to drive a story that ought to be about the girls themselves.

Friday, April 05, 2013

The Girl With Borrowed Wings, by Rinsai Rossetti

As my ardent followers know, I rarely find a book that I consider perfect, and anytime I do find a four-star book, it is major news.  Instead, I prefer to break my books down, picking away at them, as if I could control them and shape them.  In this way, I am very much like the father of Frenenqer Paje, the heroine of this haunting, amazing, and original novel.

The literal storyline of this book is of a young woman, who has been shaped by her father through constant emotional (and physical) abuse to be the perfect woman -- a dream he developed years before she was born, in a field of sunflowers near Santiago Spain.  Now living in an oasis somewhere in the United Arab Emirates, an adolescent Frenenqer is trying to form a sense of self-identity.

One day, she happens upon a dying cat in a souk and rescues it (against the demands of her father).  The cat turns out to be a shape-shifter and a "free" person, becoming a beautiful boy that Frenenqer names "Sangris." Sangris fulfills a long-held fantasy of Frenenqer's by growing wings and secretly spiriting her away to faraway destinations (both terrestrial and otherworldly).

A romance develops, but in a totally unexpected and surprisingly organic fashion.  This is fitting as Frenenqer is no friend of romance ("He.  Does there have to be a he?  It seems weak and unoriginal doesn't it, for stories told by girls to always have a he?") Frenenqer loves the freedom that Sangris brings her, but recognizes that using Sangris's wings to escape her father's tyranny is hardly liberating.  Rather, it is trading one form of subjugation for another.

Desperate to find love and agency on her own terms, she struggles to navigate between the worlds of her father and of Sangris to find a path that works for her.  It is not an easy path, but the end result is surprisingly authentic.  The book's conclusion definitely raised the temperature of the room a few degrees!

The story operates on so many levels.  As a paranormal romance, it works fine, although a reader might wonder at the harshness of the characters, at the sheer cruelty of the father.  The characters are clear and understandable, their inner conflicts instantly recognizable as the universal struggles of self-understanding and the search for social acceptance.  Frenenqer's conflicts between being a good daughter and being a self-confident young woman are authentic and familiar.  The narrative is beautiful, with numerous quotable passages.

But the novel has so much more going on.  It is the type of story that begs a generation of literature majors to write dull and boring theses about it that quote obscure French literary critics.  It is the book that high school English teachers who abandoned graduate school ABD years ago assign to their honors students in hopes that the kids will get it.  And it's the novel that publicists hope they can figure out a way to explain and sell well enough so that at least a sufficient number of public librarians will purchase it to turn a profit.  Rossetti may never write another book like this (it has too much of her heart displayed in it), but it ought to be sufficient on its own.  Truly, a classic to be!

Zoe Letting Go, by Nora Price

When Zoe's mother drops her off at the Twin Birch facility, she won't explain why she is doing so.  But Zoe quickly realizes that the other five girls there suffer from eating disorders.  That just heightens the mystery since Zoe isn't like that!  She keeps an eye on what she eats, but she doesn't starve herself like those girls do!  Still, there's something about Zoe that seems to bother the other girls, and it creeps Zoe out that no one will tell her what it is.

The edginess of the opening is quite a draw and I had high hopes for something unusual to come from this novel.  Unfortunately, after the excellent set-up, Price opts for a more traditional rehabilitation story in the end.  There's some mystery in the details, but in the end, there really is something wrong with Zoe (she just needs to figure it out)!  And the author takes so long to deliver the answers that most readers will have figured the whole thing out long before Zoe does.  That slow pace, combined with the loss of that initial creepiness, were the key disappointments.

On the positive side, I liked the author's idea of inserting recipes into the story -- a nice device in a novel about eating!  And some of the recipes sounded pretty good!

That Time I Joined the Circus, by J. J. Howard

After Lexi's father dies, she is thrown out on the street with only a rough sense of where to find her estranged mother.  Mom, it seems, has joined the circus!  But when Lexi catches up with the outfit, she finds out that her mother has moved on.  With no idea of where to find the woman and no viable means of support, Lexi is forced to take the only option available to her: join the circus herself.

After the dramatically-predictable rough start, she gradually finds her place amidst the company, makes new friends, and rebuilds her life.  And through flashbacks, we gradually come to understand how she ended up here.  A series of convenient plot twists at the end send the story in wild directions, but Lexi at least grows a bit from her experience before it wraps up.

It all starts off well, but with poor plotting, this is hard to get through.  The flashbacks are at least part of the problem.  For the device to be effective, they have to correspond in some way to the present.  But here they are used primarily to delay the development of the story (what horrible thing did Lexi do?  why won't her friends talk to her?).  And then there's that crazy ending.  It comes largely from nowhere (and relies on information that wasn't even hinted at before -- lack of foreshadowing is always a winner with me!).  Mostly, it just seemed like a desperate attempt to close the story.  Happy endings are fine, but when even the character comments about what a crazy string of good luck she's had, you know something's fishy!

[Disclosure: I received an advance reader's copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.]