Monday, June 17, 2013

The Vanishing Game, by Kate Kae Myers

A few weeks after her twin brother Jack is killed in a car accident, Jocelyn receives a letter from "Jason December." This comes as a shock because it was a secret code name that Jack used while he was alive.  Only Jocelyn and a mutual friend (Noah) know about it.  Could Jack still be alive?  Jocelyn must find out. Armed with this piece of evidence, she heads to the town of Watertown and to Searle House, the foster home where she and Jack were raised (and where they met Noah).

Searle House is not a place of happy memories and Jocelyn's search forces her to go through those painful memories, looking up people that she would just as soon have forgotten.  Teaming up with Noah, the two of them look up their old compatriots and enemies, following clues that Jack has left for them.  But other people are interested in their search and things quickly grow very dangerous.

The result is a very strange story that never quite gelled for me.  Motivations are jumbled and confusing.  Even in the end, when you hoped it would all get wrapped up, elements of the story (partly supernatural, partly psychological, and party realistic) failed to add up or make sense.  The storyline itself is chaotic and races in several directions at once. Being a nostalgia trip, flashbacks are to be expected, but they are very distracting and break up the flow of the story.  It's a hard read and the ending is abrupt and not tied enough to the rest of the book.  Foreshadowing is virtually non-existent.

On the positive, the story is interspersed with some great logic puzzles and there can be a lot of fun in putting down the book to take a shot at solving them before the characters do.  There isn't always enough information to work them, but it's fun to try.

Fall From Grace, by Charles Benoit

Sawyer spends much of his time being the subject of other people's plans.  His parents know where he'll go to college and what he'll major in.  His girlfriend has figured out his social (and even his romantic!) calendar for both of them.  And Sawyer just inertly follows the plans.  It's not that he lacks in thoughts and ideas of his own, but he's just learned that it is too difficult to fight the flow.  He's bored and frustrated, but has no idea how to break free and follow his own plans.

Enter Grace, a girl from a neighboring high school.  She's got plans as well, but hers are decidedly different from any that Sawyer has seen before.  She likes to steal things.  The first time they meet, at a Model UN conference, she talks him into stealing documents from the other teams.  The novelty and the taboo-breaking are intoxicating to Sawyer and he is hooked.  From there, her plans move on to much bigger things.  Sawyer loves the excitement and the idea of doing something dangerous, and being someone that his parents and girlfriend would never approve of.  But these little rebellions come with a cost.

The really interesting question, and one which I wish the author has had Sawyer explore is whether he's really breaking free or just finding another person's plans to fall behind?  Unfortunately, it isn't really a question that the book attempts to answer.  Instead, this is largely an action story -- and a slow one at that, as sawyer ends up pretty much where he started.  The drama (tensions with parents, with girlfriend, and even with Grace) are largely tossed out in the end.  It's entertaining, but not very edifying.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers, by Lynn Weingarten

On the first day of school, Lucy pledges herself to her boyfriend Alex whom she hasn't seen all summer.  But it doesn't go well.  Instead of bringing them together, he announces that he wants to break up.  Heartbroken, Lucy doesn't know what to do.  But, while grieving, she is approached by a girl with an unusual proposition:  learn special magic that will heal her broken heart by joining a secret sisterhood of conjurers.  All she has to do is get another boy to fall in love with her in the next seven days and then dump him.  His tears will form the core ingredient in a potion that will fix everything!

It's an odd premise and a story that doesn't really seem to know what its purpose is.  Is it trying to be a fantasy book about spells and supernatural powers?  Is it a realistic tale about the uselessness of fantasy and the greater importance of developing self-esteem?  The book could have worked either way (although I'll admit that I was rooting for the latter direction) but instead Weingarten carves out an uneasy compromise between being a story about magic with occasional intercessions from the real world and the reality checks of maturity.  The problem is that this muddies the message.  Is it more important to love yourself or to develop spells and potions with which to control boys and make them love you?  The book would have us believe that both are equally important, which seems like a pretty useless solution. The characters themselves were not very important either, since one is never really sure what each person's motives are (i.e., how much comes from within and how much is a response to all the charms and magic floating around).  In sum, it's a story that seems too sober to be fantasy and too fantastical to be a coming-of-age romance.

When You Open Your Eyes, by Celeste Conway

In the exotic setting of the expatriot community of Buenos Aires, Tessa and her friends live fun, but dangerous lives of parties in seedy tango bars, chauffeurs, and drugs and alcohol.  While Tessa thinks she knows what she is doing, she finds herself head over heels infatuated with a smoldering and disturbed French boy named Lucien.  She's the daughter of the legal attache to the US Embassy and he's the son of the cultural attache of the French Embassy.  Together, they make beautiful art and steamier romance.  But Lucien is a troubled young man and his needs may be a bit too much for Tessa to cope with.

As anyone who's ever tried to "help" a friend who really needed professional help knows, it's easy to fall into the trap of going from being a good friend to being in too deep.  And when love and lust are involved (never mind throwing in an exotic locale), it's easy to get sucked in.  Conway does a good job of showing that trap slowly forming and of showing how easy it is for Tess to get trapped.  She also does an amazing job with the setting, depicting with great detail what life in Argentina is like for an expatriot teen.  What works less well for me is the story itself, which heads in one particular direction for the first 264 pages, but shifts to a completely different trajectory in the last 40 or so.  The split is so dramatic that it is basically like reading a different book.  I felt cheated out of my "original" story.  It's certainly foreshadowed so I can't complain that it came from nowhere, but the complete abandonment of the central characters and core plot elements makes the ending feel orphaned.

Me, and Earl, and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews

The "me" of the title is Greg Gaines, an angry neurotic Jewish kid with self-loathing issues (think Eminem meets an Annie Hall-era Woody Allen).  Greg has made a committed effort to be a casual acquaintance of everyone at school without allowing himself to be labeled as part of any one group.  By being stand-offish, he avoids being labeled (positively or negatively).

Earl is Greg's friend-of-sorts.  Angry in his own way and generally hostile to everyone around him, Earl's in-your-face attitude make a perfect foil for Greg's low-profile.  What brings them together is a love for art films and their own collaborations creating the world's worst remakes (which Greg also reviews for our edification).  These are films that aim to rival Werner Herzog, but (in their own words) "suck donkey dick."

The dying girl is Rachel, with whom Greg has been only passively acquainted through the years.  But when she is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg and Earl find themselves drawn into her confidence.  Much to Greg's surprise, it turns out she loves Greg's humor and Greg and Earl's home movies.

What develops isn't heart-warming (or especially deep).  As Greg constantly reminds us, he isn't the type of guy that would fall into that particular rut.  Instead, we get a story that portrays these three angry teens in a fairly honest fashion, showing how they relate to each other and develop an unexpected alliance together.

An unfair comparison for this novel would be with John Green's Fault in Our StarsMe, and Earl, and the Dying Girl is neither as nuanced nor as funny as John Green's witty look at pediatric oncology.  However, this story does have its charms.  While Greg and Earl's lewd banter can get old and tired, the riff has an unrelenting honesty to it.  Andrews rigorously and aggressively avoids sentimentality, even as he (through Greg's voice) acknowledges (and even mocks) how much the reader wants an easy out.  At times, this works and keeps the readers on their toes, but I'm a sucker for an emotional uplift and the unrelenting dreariness of this tale became oppressive.  The lack of payoff is realistic and authentic, but aesthetically unappealing to me.

The Princesses of Iowa, by M. Molly Backes

[Note:  I've been on the road for the past two weeks, so haven't had an opportunity to post my reviews, but I have been reading so I'll try to catch up here over the next couple of days]

After Paige is involved in a car accident, her image-conscious mother decides to ship her off to Paris until things calm down, in order to preserve Paige's shot at being elected Homecoming Queen.  This leaves behind her best friend Lydia injured and other friend Nikki grief-stricken, without any explanation.  Returning home several months later, Paige finds her friends distant and changed, and a general sense that she will not be allowed to mend fences with them.  Her boyfriend now devotes all his attention to Lydia who (as everyone reminds Paige) is "going through a difficult time." What about Paige?  Paris wasn't exactly a joy ride and she misses her friends!  Senior year is a turning out a far cry from the dreams that the three girls had when they were growing up.

To the rescue comes a creative writing class that Paige is taking at school.  Taught by a young grad student, she is encouraged to channel her anger and frustration and "use it" to write.  In the process, she discovers new friends and explores new options, opening herself to the idea that the world may mean a lot more than being a "princess." Paige's mother, still obsessed with the old dream, continues to push Paige in a direction that she is no longer certain she wants to go.

A fairly lengthy book, which felt artificially drawn out by dialogues that never quite finish.  When you can pinpoint a hundred-odd pages that could have been eliminated by simply completing a sentence, you know the story's in trouble.  Tighter would have been better.  Or maybe it's simply the characters that drove me nuts.  Paige didn't really show much sign of being nice until about page 350.  That's a long time to hold out hope for her redemption!  And her peers were far worse.  Basically, these weren't people I wanted to get to know (in some cases, they were people I actively wanted to run away from!).  So, a story that dragged on and characters that didn't appeal basically defeated some strong writing -- in sum, a beautifully depicted world that I didn't want to get to know.