Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Boy on the Bridge, by Natalie Standiford

Laura has always been fascinated by the Russians -- their murderous history, crazy rulers, and forbidding landscape.  So, it is a dream-come-true to come to Leningrad to study at the Pushkin Institute in the Winter of 1982.  Now, for the younger ones out there:  this is before Putin, Yeltsin, and Gorbachev -- it's the tail end of "the period of stagnation" (the dying days of Brezhnev) when the Soviet Union, while faded, was dozing in the glorious perpetuity of authoritarianism. It's a grey time and while things will change dramatically is six to seven years, no one knew that at the time.

One early day, on the bridge that connects the main part of the city to the island where Laura's dorm is located, she meets Alyosha.  He is a revelation to her -- sensitive, romantic, and mature.  He is different from Americans, and she is curious.  Curiosity, in turn, becomes infatuation.  It's a difficult relationship to maintain -- socializing between Americans and ordinary Russians is discouraged and Laura and Alyosha must sneak around a bit to be together.  But as their relationship becomes more and more serious, they care less about the consequences.

The book fascinated me.  My own travels in Russia don't start until nearly five years after this story takes place, but from what I remember of their early trips, Standiford nails the details spot on.  She obviously took good notes during her own stay in Leningrad (and the novel is either autobiographical or a mash-up of experiences of her compatriots).  Dom Knigi, Cafe Sadko, and even the Uncle Sam's at the US Embassy are real places and they are described accurately.  But moreover, Standiford captures the nuances of Russians and the awkwardness of American-Russian interactions in pitch perfect detail.

More importantly, the misunderstandings and jealousies that complicate American-Russian romances which are described herein are painfully familiar (I myself decided that I was going to marry my Saint Petersburg girlfriend some ten years after the events in this book -- and we went to many of the places that Laura and Lyosha chose to visit and had similar conversations).  Needless to say, I have a good position from which to judge this book (I lived this story myself) and it brought back many memories.

But I wonder what the book would mean to other people?  The Soviet Union is long gone and forgotten.  It's not a piece of history that is likely to resonate with adolescent readers.  And Laura's romance (and its difficulties) will sound awfully strange to people today.  This is a period piece -- a perfect one at that -- but still an alien world.  And the story is not helped by its rather clunky third-person voice, which feels distant and detached.  So, I can't imagine where the book will find its readers, unless there are more nostalgic folks out there who can remember what it was like to walk along Fontanka with the love of your life!

By the way, the cover, which looks like it came out of a Sims game, is really quite creepy when you stare at it too long!

[Disclosure:  This book will be released on July 30th.  I received an ARC from the publisher and no further compensation.  I'm donating the copy I received to my local public library]

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Almost Home, by Joan Bauer

When Sugar and her mother lose their home and end up on the streets, it would be easy to feel down and lose hope, but Sugar is as sweet as her name.  Whenever things take a turn for the worse, she still finds it in her heart to thank the people who help her and even locates a kind word for the good parts of the people who don't.  After all, her mother, as helpless as she may be, taught her to always say "thank you!"

Meanwhile, her late grandfather and his book of life guidance and wisdom has taught Sugar to stand up for herself and her family.  As a result, Sugar is one strong-minded, resourceful, and determined twelve year-old.  Through some encouragement from her English teacher, Sugar articulates her feelings about her family and the hard times that have befallen them.  And she makes some friends (most notably a puppy that actually purrs!) and does a decent job of keeping things together even when the adults around her can't manage to do so.

Joan Bauer usually has a pretty specific formula:  create a vivid character with a particular skill (waitressing, pumpkin growing, shoe selling, pool playing, etc.), set a bunch of obstacles up, and let the protagonist overcome them and learn a little self-confidence along the way.  In some ways, this book follows that heroic script, but Sugar is a much more complicated character (in spite of being five-six years younger than the usual Bauer heroine and a bit less articulate).  Mostly, she reminded me of a younger Jody from Letting Go of Bobby James in her quirky spiritedness.  She certainly doesn't live in the comfortable middle class environment that pervades in most of Bauer's stories.  The stakes are a bit higher and danger a little closer, and the dysfunctional parent is a bit of a twist (in most Bauer novels, the parents are pretty inconsequential, but not nearly as self-destructive as Sugar's Mom).  This makes the story darker, but ultimately deeper and more meaningful.  Overall, it's a winner, although less easily digestible than Hope Was Here or Rules for the Road.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Petals in the Ashes, by Mary Hooper

At the end of At the Sign of the Sugared Plum (reviewed here a few weeks ago), Hannah and her sister have escaped the Plague in London.  Expecting to be welcomed with open arms by Lady Jane (whose orphaned niece they have rescued and brought into the country), they are rudely surprised to end up in quarantine for forty days instead.  But they survive this trial to be plunged into new challenges.

When the Plague has passed and it is judged safe to return to the city, Hannah is anxious to go back.  Ostensibly, to set back up their shop, but also to find handsome young Tom, who helped them escape.  But no sooner has she restored their business and made progress in locating Tom, then a new calamity befalls them:  the Great Fire of 1666!

While not a big fan of sequels, this seemed like a more organic continuance of the story than most, and too good of a concept to pass up.  For the most part, it charmed as much as the first book.  Hooper maintains the ability to spin out strong historic details and keeps the pace lively enough to make this brief book a fast read.  The story, if anything, is a bit rushed and seemed to have far more loose ends and glossed-over plot points (the rescued baby, for example, while allegedly missed, hardly merits a mention once it is unloaded with its aunt) than the first installment.  Good historical writing, but perhaps just enough of a good thing (for once, the trilogy rule did not get enforced)!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Since You Asked, by Maurene Goo

Bored sophomore Holly thinks she's being cute when she re-writes a column for the school newspaper that she's copyediting.  But little did she expect when she was turning the dry boring piece she was correcting into a ripping expose on the school that it would see the light of day!  When it accidentally gets published, she's sure that she's dead:  if not by the hands of her angry peers, than by the crazed paws of her mother.  Instead, her article is an instant sensation.  She is given a column of her own where she delights in lighting into her fellow students, while simultaneously lambasting the pitfalls of being a Korean-American.

Holly's wise cracks and cynicism are a currently-popular form of humor, so this book should sail with its target audience, but it frankly wears thin.  Yes, I get that she's angry and frustrated, but I don't get much out of reading 200+ pages of the snide remarks.  And the Korean angle, while not overplayed, has been gloriously done before (Gilmore Girls, anyone?).  The resulting book is sassy, but ultimately insubstantial.

Never mind that the cover is the hands down winner for Least Appealing Image of the year!  But hey, who am I to make snide wise-ass remarks?!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Beta, by Rachel Cohn

Elysia has been created (cloned from the body of a recently deceased girl) to be a servant in the utopia of Demesne.  She is also a rare attempt at cloning a teenager -- a process full of controversy and challenges, many of which Elysia doesn't yet truly understand.  Purchased and adopted into a powerful family as a surrogate for the family's eldest daughter, who has gone away to school, she is a simple plaything for the people around her.

Clones are supposed to lack feelings and emotions, but Elysia finds that she has both.  Clones are subservient and have no will of their own, but Elysia finds that she has that as well.  That makes her a suspect -- a "Defect" -- and she must hide those feeling from her owners or risk being "expired."

Dystopias are far too trendy these days and it is inevitable that a decent "reality" writer like Cohn would give it a shot (anyone care to imagine what a Sarah Dessen dystopian novel would look like?).  Surprisingly, it's a strong contribution to the genre.  The story is fast-paced and generally consistent, avoiding too many annoying plot twists.  The ethics and issues raised by the novel (ranging from struggling to meet adult expectations to drugs and peer pressure) will resonate with young readers.  In sum, I enjoyed reading it.

My biggest complaint is with the ending that meanders a bit too much.  Cohn both tries to tie up loose ends (often awkwardly) and simultaneously introduce a silly plot twist at the end that is designed solely for the creation of the need for the sequel, Emergent.  Will someone explain to me why dystopian novels always have to come out as trilogies?  Somehow Huxley and Orwell managed fine in fairly thin single volumes!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

At the Sign of the Sugared Plum, by Mary Hooper

In 1665, farm girl Hannah comes to London to assist her sister run a sweetmeats shop.  She is excited to live in such a great city and has many dreams of becoming rich and successful in such a place of opportunity.  However, the timing is not fortuitous.  The city has been struck with plague.  At first, the sisters manage to avoid the infection and even develop some clever ways to make a living amid the chaos.  However, as the mortality rates increase, the challenges become more and more severe.

A brief, but ultimately satisfying historical novel that has a lively and sympathetic heroine and which vibrantly reveals life in 17th century London at a very dark time.  Hooper takes her subject fairly seriously, so this story lacks the wit and fun of Karen Cushman's similar books, but it is fascinating to read. This is a great example of what a historical novel can (and should) be -- educational and entertaining -- and did a nice job to launch many other historical novels from Hooper (including a sequel, Petals in the Ashes that I plan to read soon).

Friday, July 05, 2013

Love and Other Perishable Items, by Laura Buzo

It's an unusual story about lovers who aren't, not least of all because he's 22 and she's only 15. 

Amelia struggles with understanding what her parents see in each other and why her mother puts up with Dad's chauvinistic behavior.  Everywhere she looks and every thing she reads reinforces her belief that things are just plain wrong and that love is all messed up!  But most confusing of all for her is her unrequited crush on Chris, a co-worker at the grocery store where they both mind registers.

Chris is the harder egg to crack.  He's disillusion about love, his career, and his future.  He's bitter over the recent abandonment by the "perfect" girl he's experienced, school is no longer meaningful, and he's unable to make a living or stick to a plan.  More than anything, he's lonely, and tries to assuage those feelings by chasing after the women at work (paying little mind to Amelia, since she's just a kid!).

Through alternating diary entries, Amelia and Chris tell their stories about trying to figure out what is happening in their lives.  Their inability to find each other is both tragic and natural, given the circumstances, and one mostly comes away with a deep sense that they are both in very different places, but are so lost in themselves that they cannot recognize it.  The story leaves things unresolved, but this isn't really a relationship that any one would want to see consummated anyway!

There is no small creep factor in the age difference between the protagonists.  To Buzo's credit, the story never turns it into an issue.  What works less well is the general lack of a story in the first place.  There is a lot of dialogue in the book, but not much actually happens.  Drunken parties provide most of the decent action, but it doesn't amount to much and we have to spend a lot of time enduring sober banter to get to these pivotal moments.

There's also the question of intended audience.  As a depiction of what an angsty crushing fifteen year-old girl and a driftless 22 year-old young man are like, it is spot on, but what is the point and who would really care about them?  Certainly, a teen would hardly understand what Chris is feeling and an older person would cringe at reading Amelia's naivete.

Meant To Be, by Lauren Merrill

Julia is a hyper-organized, straight-A student who's always followed the rules.  She's got a clear sense of how things are supposed to happen and that includes the certainty that Mark is meant to be her partner for life (even if he doesn't know it yet!).

But while on a school trip to London, Julia is paired up with class clown Jason -- a boy whose chaotic lack of respect for the rules drives her nuts.  But for every obnoxious act he does that annoys her, she finds herself drawn to him...and, well, you know the rest and how it will all turn out, right?

In many ways, this was the perfect book to accompany my own trip to London.  Between the observations about travel and all the name dropping of people and places, there was plenty with which to compare.  What worked less well for me was the story itself.  There isn't much fun in watching a fairly adjusted young woman throw away good sense for bad taste in guys, and make one bad choice after another.  And, as depicted, there isn't much to recommend Jason.  He's vain and conceited and immature to boot!  And, while the appeal of the "bad boy" is obvious, it doesn't make sense for someone as allegedly mature as Julia to fall for him.  This ultimately makes the story pretty dumb.  And, even with the fairly heavy Shakespearean allusions that Merrill is pulling out, the story lacks originality and appeal.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Struck by Lightning, by Chris Colter

Carson Phillips could be described as "majorly cynical" without fear of overstatement.  He invariably has a biting comment to share with his peers about every behavior he observes around him.  He is the quintessential angry young man.  Predictably, this does not endear him to the rest of the student body (not that he really cares!).

His primary ambition is to get accepted at Northwestern University, major in journalism, and end up some day as editor of The New Yorker.  And while it is hard to find anyone to support his dreams (or even understand them), he holds out hope that it won't matter in the end -- he will soar above them all.   However,  when he discovers that his chances of getting accepted at Northwestern will be greatly improved by putting out a literary magazine, he realizes that he need some help to pull it off and he has to find a way to solicit the help of the people he has so thoroughly alienated.

I found this a particularly hard slog.  While Carson's biting social commentary is supposed to be amusing, it's way too cruel and mean spirited.  Perhaps the targets of his disdain deserve what they receive, but without any effort from Colter to demonstrate their worthiness, Carson's abuse just comes across as nasty.  As a result, I really grew to hate Carson's bullying.  This is only partly mediated by the times when Carson himself realizes that he's overstepped (more so, because the realization never seems to effect a change in his behavior!).  Colter himself seems to have a mean streak of his own in this book, leading up to a particularly bleak and unsatisfying conclusion, which turns the book's title into a sick joke.

Ferocity Summer, by Alissa Grosso

In the summer between their junior and senior years, Scilla and her best friend Willow are aimlessly trying to escape their lives. There is ample reason -- they have been implicated in an accidental homicide.  But rather than lay low as their case goes to trial, they indulge in excessive alcohol and drug consumption to mask their feelings of guilt.  The book's title meanwhile is a reference to a new drug called Ferocity that is making the rounds on the party scene.  It's a nasty thing, leaving about half of its users as permanent vegetables.  Still, given the cluelessness of the kids in this story, they hardly need any help!

I'm a bit conflicted about the book.  The shallow characters and their self-centric moaning and groaning gets old pretty quick, and this is not a group with whom I found much to empathize.  Yes, eventually, redemption will be achieved, but by the time it came about, I simply didn't care.  It simply isn't interesting to read about stupid people screwing up their lives.

On the other hand, Grosso has created an interesting (and rather subtly dystopian) world -- just slightly different from our own -- to use as a setting.  A great example of this is the Ferocity drug which mirrors (but also exaggerates) the drugs of today.  Overall, the setting is realistic, but with twists that make for an interesting read.  This, in spite of my distaste for the characters!