Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Speechless, by Hannah Harrington

Chelsea likes to have the dirt on folks and she loves good gossip.  That is, until she catches Noah and another guy in flagrante delicto in a bedroom at a party. The news is so juicy that, without even thinking, she blabs about the whole thing to everyone she sees.  But what seems like so much fun takes a sinister turn when Noah is beaten into a coma by two boys that Chelsea told.  Wracked by guilt, she turns them in to the police and her troubles begin.

Labeled a snitch, Chelsea is shunned by her classmates.  She decides that the root of her troubles lie in her inability to keep her mouth shut, so she takes a "vow of silence" and refuses to speak aloud.  Without the ability to speak (and defend herself), Chelsea begins to notice things about herself and her peers that she never did before.  And in that silence, she gains understanding, new friends, and an opportunity at a new life.

As a Quaker, I naturally love a story about the power of silence.  For a normal teenager, it must seem like a horrendous ordeal, but I think Chelsea shows us quite well what it can do.  In fairness, however, she is actually hardly ever silent since she is the narrator of the story.  Instead, we have to imagine what it must be like for her friends and family who don't benefit from her inner dialogue as we do.

The story itself is not all that remarkable.  The plot is predictable (self-centered girl learns to care about others and conquers her enemies with kindness), but it is of course a winner.  You can't not root for Chelsea as the bad guys keep getting in shots -- you want revenge just as much as she does.  So, you flip the pages in anticipation of the payback.  Other parts are less compelling.  The romance is warm, but nothing terribly exciting (which is surprising for a Teen Harlequin novel).  The repartee at the workplace (a diner) is meant to be interesting but also feels a bit like we're going through the motions.  Even the bullies and the clueless teachers seem lackluster.   The energy simply isn't there.  Readable, but not surprising.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Tangerine, by Edward Bloor

Paul Fisher may be legally blind, but he notices a lot of things around him. He sees the way that the ospreys steal the koi out of the artificial lakes (not an alligator or a human thief as the adults suppose).  He sees the way that his father obsesses over older brother Erik's football successes (while ignoring Paul's soccer prowess).  He sees the tensions between the rich kids in Lake Windsor Downs and the farmers' children in Tangerine.  Yet, he doesn't seem to remember how he lost his vision (he's told it was due to staring at a solar eclipse, but he vaguely recalls a different series of events).

And with this knowledge, Paul is thrown by a series of events onto the soccer team at Tangerine middle school, a group of kids so unlike Paul that they have a lesson or two to teach him - about the game and his life.  The result is a thrilling sports novel and an enlightening story about loyalty and honesty.  Some fun facts about citrus farming are an added bonus.

For a book that is definitely targeted at boys, this is an odd pick for me.  But I've always said that what draws me to a good read is the characters and the message.  Bloor has written a fascinating book that combines an appealing story about awkward friendship with some great social commentary.  Paul is a great character, with some geekiness and yet a clear sense of social justice and the strength to stand up for the right thing (even when the adults around him won't do so).  These are the ingredients for building a classic that his endured for multiple reprintings.  It's amazing to think that this was Bloor's first novel.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Burn for Burn, by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian

Liliya, Kat, and Mary have all suffered injustices.  In each case, the source of their suffering is caused by the cruelty of a specific person.  And when chance brings the girls together and allows them to compare notes, they discover a mutual desire for revenge.  So, while the girls have nothing in common beyond that wish, they bond nonetheless.  And along the way to realizing their rather twisted dreams, they come to understand each other and become unlikely allies (if not friends).

Team-written novels are usually painful ego-stroking exercises, best left in rough draft at a writers' retreat.  Their sole source of entertainment is watching the authors try to trip each other up (see, for example, anything written with David Levithan).  Thus, it is notable how well this one actually works.  I recognize all the beach town details as Han's milieu and the insights on clique psychology are Vivian's strength, but the writing is stylistically seamless and the reader doesn't trip over abrupt shifts from one author to the other.

The characters are quite interesting (as both Han and Vivian excel at building strong complex young heroines).  These are dark people and it takes quite a bit to make ostensibly mean girls into interesting (and even sympathetic) characters, but the book largely succeeds.  Liliya, torn between her loyalty to her best friend Rennie and simultaneously helping Kat exact revenge against Rennie has particularly complex motivations.  All three girls waver a bit on their convictions as they find that their commitment to striking back is not necessarily iron-clad.

The story itself is less smooth, and this is ultimately what defeats the tale.  In all the effort to collaborate, Han and Vivian can't quite figure out where they want the story to go.  And there are tantalizing subplots (including one that suggests supernatural forces at play) that never get developed.  The ending is particularly wimpy and seemed more like the authors just got tired of the exercise and threw in the towel.

Final Note:  There is absolutely NOTHING in this book that says "trilogy" (aside from the atrocious ending), so the recent announcement that this is part one of the "Burn for Burn Trilogy" is obviously a cynical post-publication marketing ploy.  The story doesn't have enough steam to justify two more books, so I won't hold my breath for the rest of the series.  I wish Han and Vivian would both focus on putting out good books instead of trying to cash in on the trilogy craze!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Openly Straight, by Bill Konigsberg

Rafe has been out of the closet for years.  The kids at school in Boulder know about him, his parents are super supportive, and his best friend (a girl named Claire Olivia) totally has his back.  But when Rafe transfers to an all-boys boarding school in New England, he decides he wants to try something different.  Instead of being out and proud, he'll keep his sexuality to himself.  After years of being the "gay" kid at school, Rafe wants to experience being "normal." He's tired of having his sexuality define who he is to others.

At first, the plan works great.  Rafe goes out for sports and becomes "one of the guys" hanging with a group of jocks whom Rafe can't imagine being so close with back home.  But things get complicated as Rafe tries to get Claire Olivia and his parents to understand why he's back in the closet.  And as Rafe's attempts to evade the question of his sexual orientation at his new school become white lies and the white lies become outright deception, Rafe discovers that he's in a trap (of his own making).

Surprisingly interesting and effective.  Decent gay literature is hard to come by and a book that goes far beyond the whole coming-out scenario to explore what being "gay" really means when you are a teen are rarer.  Konigsberg writes well with a good ear for boys.  The characters are strong and interesting.  And while placing the story at an all-boys boarding school won't win any prizes for originality, the story itself is fresh.

[Disclosure:  I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher, but no other compensation.  I am donating my copy to the Middleton Public Library after I finish with it]

Friday, May 10, 2013

Gorgeous, by Paul Rudnick

After Becky Randle's mother dies, she receives a surprise message to contact Tom Kelly (the world's preeminent fashion designer).  It appears that, despite their trailer park existence, Mom had a famous life before Becky was born.

Tom Kelly invites Becky to New York with an even more extraordinary invitation:  an offer to transform her into the Most Beautiful Woman in the World with an mysterious dose of magic.  Famous stars and glitzy life awaits Becky as her supernatural looks give her access to a world she could never have imagined.  From co-staring in a blockbuster action pic with heartthrob Jate Mallow to meeting Crown Prince Gregory of England, nothing is beyond her reach.  But she knows that all this fame is based upon her external appearance (and an appearance which itself is achieved through deception).  What everyone would think if they knew the true Becky Randle?

The story is not all that special -- a sweet story about finding your inner beauty wrapped in a  coating of magic and a huge dollop of outrageous romantic fantasy.  The charm of the book is really in the writing.  Rudnick is a would-be Faulkner, easily spinning out sentences that fill half a page, but which sound much more like the verbal diarrhea of a ninth-grader than a southern literary giant.  A cornucopia of cultural references and social satire are buried in these long-winded sentences and they deserve at least re-read or two.  Still, it can all get a bit too precious and even clever writing can't save a story that is more wishful and silly than meaningful.

[Disclosure:  I received a free advance copy of the book to review, but will be donating it to the Public Library.  I received no other compensation for this review.]

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Not That Kind of Girl, by Siobhan Vivian

Natalie has learned a lot in her first three years of high school.  She's seen the way that when boys and girls get into trouble, it's the girl who gets all the blame.  Her best friend Autumn got humiliated that way in freshman year and she still deals with the shame of it!  If Natalie had her way, the girls would receive a special orientation session on watching your reputation.

Natalie is a strong-minded young woman, with good grades and the esteem of principal and her teachers.  She even wins the position of class president -- one of only nine girls to do so at her school.  Two things threaten her position:  the antics of a girl in the freshman class who challenges Natalie's notions of propriety and a whirlwind romance with a guy on the football team which Natalie must keep secret from the school at all costs to prevent the exact type of scandal from which she wants to protects other girls.

It's a strikingly insightful book about agency and self-identity.  On a broad stage, Vivian brings in the major debate between feminists who argue that women need to seize control of their sexuality and others who argue that women cannot "play the game with the boys" in a world that is so stacked towards patriarchy.  She then pitches the conflict in terms that young readers will understand -- the struggle between desire and reputation, and the anger and frustration that that struggle creates in the minds of young women.  Whether it's young Spencer's attempts to control the boys with her sexuality or Natalie's grasping for a safe space to experience sexual pleasure, it's powerful stuff and should give most readers food for thought.  Obviously girls will relate more readily to the material, but boys could stand reading it as well.

Natalie is a great character -- she's strong-minded, independent, and well-spoken.  Her positions make sense and are laudable -- it is easy to identify with her and even admire her.  So, watching her struggle and make mistakes is hard for the reader, even as it feels authentic and plausible.  There is that strong sense (maybe even a degree of horror at the realization) that we would do the same things in her position.  The ending (and ultimate resolution of Natalie's issues) comes on a bit too quickly and easily, but the point has been well-made by then:  when in the business of telling yourself "who you are" and "who you are not," you need to consider what you are trying to achieve.  Does labeling yourself and others bring you comfort or simply stress you out?  Siobhan Vivian's novel begs the reader to figure it out for themselves.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick, by Joe Schreiber

In his senior year, Peter's family decides to host a Lithuanian exchange student named Gobi.  They knew it would be an interesting cultural experience, but they didn't quite count on what they got.  Gobi turns out to be a wallflower in baggy clothes who is painfully shy.  During the nine months she stays with them, she barely communicates, makes no friends, and by the end Peter awkwardly avoids being around her.  So, when Peter's parents decide that Peter should take Gobi to the prom, Peter objects.  But Peter has always been cowed by his parent's demands and soon enough Peter and Gobi are on their way to the Prom.

As they are heading to the Prom, Gobi promises Peter that, before the night is over, he'll understand her a lot better than he does now.  Peter doesn't know how to take that statement or what it means.  But when Gobi pulls out a gun and leads Peter on a nerve-wracking marathon across New York City knocking off bad guys, Peter realizes that his initial perceptions of her have all missed their mark!

Fast and fun, there's nothing like a genre-defying book!  If we're going to search for a mash-up, this is probably Risky Business's Joel meets La Femme Nikita (although I like the review that called it "Nick and Norah's Infinite Hit List").  Despite the over-the-top action, there's a surprising amount of depth to Peter and Gobi and a nice chemistry between them (although Gobi is primarily relegated to Schwarzenegger-ish monotone).  And, like a good action movie, there's humor to drive the story along.  I enjoyed the combination of a coming-of-age story with serious gun play and fast car chases.

And then there's the central conceit of the story: the way that each chapter is introduced with a real-life college application essay question, which is then answered in the chapter itself.  This works surprisingly well (and also reminded me a bit of Risky Business).

Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters, by Meredith Zeitlin

When Kelsey starts ninth grade, she's committed to the idea that this is the year that she is finally going to step out.  She has her eyes on Jordan, a star on the boy's soccer team, and she figures she'll get him to notice her by doing well on the girl's team.  But this plan (and most of her other ones) go astray (sometimes spectacularly) as she struggles through her first year of high school.  Good friends, however, provide support as she learns many life lessons.

It's a readable, but unremarkable story -- basically, a series of familiar tropes ranging from family (mother-daughter conflict, obnoxious younger sister, and clueless father) to peers (disappointing crushes, unexpected knights in shining armor, etc.).  This is not necessarily bad, but it makes the book painfully predictable.  I understand the appeal, but did we really need yet another example of the genre?

This Is Not A Test, by Courtney Summers

Six teens get trapped at their high school when the Zombie Apocalypse starts.  Even before the kids have managed to secure the entrances and fortify their perimeter, they are sniping at each other.  Partially, it's baggage from the past, but several key events (revealed slowly over the course of the book) have taken place in the week since the world started going crazy and before the story proper begins.  The result is a story more like Lord of the Flies than The Evil Dead.

The central character, Sloane, is initially the most unstable.  She's angry at her sister for running away from their abusive father six months before.  Left on her own to face a hellish homelife, Sloane grew suicidal (even before people around her started getting killed).  It is ironic then that, as the hopelessness of the situation grows, it is Sloane who develops survival instincts.

It's a decent book that suffers from trying to do too much.  As a coming-of-age story about domestic abuse, sibling separation, and even interpersonal relations in the hallways of Cortege High, the novel works.  Even as a zombie adventure story, it works pretty well (plenty of adventure and dramatic events).  But combined together, the pace fluctuates too much.  The dialogue seems whiny and drags on too long.  The zombie action feels like a story from an entirely separate book.  It is jarring mash-up.