Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Wolf Princess, by Cathryn Constable

Three girls from London (Sophie, Delphine, and Marianne) are invited to be guests of a mysterious Dr Starova in Saint Petersburg during their break.  But instead of ending up with the doctor, they are transported to the long-forgotten estate of the Volkonskies.  Their hostess is the last Princess Volkonskaya, who takes a special interest in Sophie.  This is an odd choice as Sophie is definitely the least inspiring of the bunch.  A scholarship student and an orphan, she is surprised to find the Princess eagerly soliciting her.  And even more surprised when the Princess asks for her help in locating the long-lost family diamonds!

A cute little book in that grand tradition of English Public School Kids Take a Trip Into a Magical Kingdom.  This one stays a bit harder on the realistic side with suitable attention to Russian history, current events, and language (plenty of decent Russian phrases litter the book and a useful glossary at the end provides definitions).  The magic, mostly involving communing with the animal kingdom, is suitably kid friendly and harmless.  The most fantastic element of the story is of course the fact that the kids are basically outside of adult supervision altogether (the English seem as devoted in their literature to putting their young children in harm's way as the Scandinavians!).  Being away from parents won't bother the target audience.  Young readers will mostly enjoy a gentle fantasy adventure.

[Disclosure:  This came to me as an unsolicited ARC, which I'll recycle.  The actual book is not released until September 24th.]

Friday, August 30, 2013

Fingerprints of You, by Kristen-Paige Madonia

Lemon has been dragged from one town to another by her single mother for the past dozen years, a process that she despises but has grown used to.  However, on this latest move (to Morgantown WV), she's in trouble:  she's gotten pregnant from her Mom's ex-boyfriend.  Determined to keep the baby, but aware of the uncomfortable parallel's with her own mother's decision to keep her but flee her father eighteen years ago, Lemon decides that she needs to get away.

She convinces her friend Emmy to join her on a cross-country roadtrip to California, where she hopes to find her father (who she's never met).  Classic road-trip story unfolds and California offers its shares of surprises and revelations to the girls.

Coming with a warm endorsement from the Godmother of YA (Judy Blume), the novel actually manages to live up to the hype.  Madonia writes fluidly and creates complex and interesting characters.  The actual plotting of the story can be a bit broken (Madonia has trouble foreshadowing properly and the ending of the book drags on a bit), but the characters make up for these flaws.  Both adults and children have their share of strengths and flaws, and their interactions are mature and realistic.  Key amongst these is the complicated struggle between Lemon and her mother that forms a fascinating thread throughout the story.  Rather than just stringing raging dialogues together (as most YA books do), Madonia takes the time to explain each side's point of view in reasonable terms.  Mother and daughter clearly love each other, even when they don't quite see eye to eye.  And the dramatic arc of the novel basically recounts the ways that Lemon comes to understand how her mother's fingerprints are really found all over her life.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I Swear, by Lane Davis

When senior Leslie ends up dead in her garage, there is no question of how it happened (she intentionally asphyxiated herself with car fumes), but there is the open issue of why she did it. The student leaders in her class rally together to form suicide-awareness rallies and peer counseling groups, but an uncomfortable truth hangs around them:  Leslie was bullied by precisely the same group that is now leading the charge to heal their classmates.

When Leslie's parents file a wrongful-death suit and the subpoenae start to be served, the kids circle their wagons.  Led by media-savvy queen bee Macie (herself the daughter of a local politician), they try to deflect responsibility.  But their guilty recollections to each other (and eventually to the authorities) reveals a variety of motivations that could lead a group of teenagers to drive a classmate to her death.

The story is, of course, chilling to read for anyone who was even mildly teased in school.  It is also naturally cathartic to watch a conspiracy fall apart (although the less-than-happy conclusion will disappoint readers clamoring for blood).  Beyond those primal instinctual appeals, the story doesn't boast much depth in its plot or its characters.  It's a good story and one that probably needs to be told a few more times, but much potential complexity was sacrificed for a slick story.  At the end, as the guilt-ridden ones are baring their souls, I wouldn't have minded learning something that would have painted a more complex explanation of bad behavior.  I think I was supposed to forgive some of these kids, but I honestly didn't find much to redeem them!

What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt

The Kingdom of Valorim has come under a terrible siege.  As the barbarian O'Mondim are breaking through the defenses of their fortress, the doomed Reced bind their power into a chain and send it far away to a distant galaxy.  Denied what they came for, the enemy swears to find the chain and gain the power necessary to rule their new thrones.

Far far away in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Tommy Pepper is celebrating his birthday.  Unfortunately, instead of getting anything cool, he has been saddled with an embarrassing gift (a lunchbox suitable for a little kid) from his grandmother! Heedless of the irreparable harm that showing up with an uncool lunch pail will cause, Tommy's parents insist that he take the lunchbox in to show his friends.  But as Tommy's social standing is about to endure a fatal blow, he finds a mysterious necklace inside the box with his lunch.

In the days that follow, Tommy discovers that he has the ability to see things that no one else can see, draw so well that his sketches seem to come alive, sing beautiful songs that no one has ever heard, and even to see his dead mother.  Realizing that it all has something to do with the mysterious necklace, he is determined to keep these new powers.  Which is about the time that the bad guys show up....

The result is a terribly clever and well-written fantasy-adventure, which manages to squeeze in some poignancy as well.  The fantasy elements are intentionally over-blown in the form of a mild satire (along the lines of the movie Super 8) which is cute but drags.  Instead, the story moves along best when it is stuck on Earth.  And while there isn't much room to effect something original in Middle Grade Fantasy, Schmidt seems to have pulled it off, producing a story with enough soaring adventure and down-to-Earth middle school drama to appeal to its target audience.

My Beautiful Failure, by Janet Ruth Young

Billy's father suffers from manic depression and when Dad's obsession with restarting his art career threatens to put him back into the hospital, Billy becomes desperate.  However, nobody else in the family seems to be concerned with what is happening.  Unable to fix the situation at home, Billy embraces the opportunity to work at a suicide prevention line.  Knowing something about mental illness first hand, Billy figures he can do some good.

But as his father's condition starts to worsen, Billy find himself caught in his own problems:  a girl named Jenney who keeps calling in.  At first, he finds he just enjoys listening to her, but soon it grows into something more.  Going around the organization's rules, Billy becomes more and more involved in her issues.  Too late, Billy comes to understand why those rules exist.  Simultaneously, Billy has to deal with his father's potentially devastating public art exhibit.

Short and breezy, the story is a good fast read, but it is a bit of a disappointment.  Too many lost opportunities.  There are some lovely ironies in the story that I wish that Young had called out in the end (but which I won't reveal here as they would spoil the ending).  I also found the climax a bit underplayed.  And while I hate conveniently clean conclusions, too much is really left unresolved in the end (most notably, no coming to terms between father and son).

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Seeing Red, by Kathryn Erskine

In rural Virginia in 1972, Red knows that bigotry and racism are wrong, but he also sees plenty of otherwise responsible adults engaging in it.  The children around him emulate the adults and his think nothing of expressing opinions and using words that Red was never allowed to express by his late father.  When an error in judgement causes Red to betray his African-American best friend, Red comes to understand the intoxicating effect of racism.  But there are darker secrets from the past that Red must confront -- a secret that may have even been responsible for killing his father!

It's a classic American novel setting:  boy growing up in the South finds and confronts racism in his community.  Erskine isn't breaking new ground here and her characters (from the wide-eyed boy to the wise old African-American woman to the slow-witted but gentle giant are all part of the well-worn cliche.  Whether it has any basis in reality is completely irrelevant: these are archetypes and you can pretty much picture the discussion guide that will go along with the chapters (I was actually surprised that the book didn't come pre-equipped with one already).

Does it deserve the attention?  Actually it probably does.  Not so much because of the setting or the characters, but for what else Erskine is trying to do.  The book isn't so much about racism, but about race relationships in a post-racist world.  By which, I mean:  how does one come to terms with the history of institutionalized racism when it is supposedly past?  How do you accept the role that your ancestors played in it?  That's an interesting idea and not as frequently explored in literature, particularly children's literature.  How much that will register with children is a bit of a guess since the book itself is placed nearly in their grandparent's era.

[Disclosure:  I asked for and received an advance copy of this book (it is slated to be published on September 24th) from the publisher free of charge.  I will be donating the book to my public library.  I do not receive or solicit compensation for any of my reviews.]

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Drowning Instinct, by Ilsa J. Bick

The story opens with a detective handing Jenna a Dictaphone to record her side of the "story." But not knowing how Jenna ended up being a person of interest or what the detective is investigating, we spend the rest of the novel in anticipation of having that story unravel.

I was very reminded of American Beauty and the way we start off knowing the ending, but not how it began  Like that story, there are plenty of distractions along the way:  Jenna's abusive parents, her psychiatric illnesses, her absent brother, a zealous and attentive (or maybe overly attentive) teacher, a jealous classmate, some lecherous adults, and so on.  It's complicated, but in the end I'm not really sure what the point was, except to spin an elaborate whodunnit.

More distracting is the character of Jenna herself who is wise beyond her years and more articulate than humans - of any age - are ever likely to be.  How Bick, who claims to be a child psychologist, could write such an unconvincingly and inauthentic adolescent voice is beyond me.  At best, this is Jenna some fifteen years later on a shrink's couch recounting her youth.  But it is certainly not the voice of a sixteen year-old girl.  It's barely even human.

All that said, the story is taut and fast-paced.  You won't be bored reading the book.  You may even have trouble putting it down.  I read it to the end, mostly because I madly wanted to know how it began.  But in the aftermath, I really don't know if I would recommend that someone else start it.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Kill Me Softly, by Sarah Cross

Growing up, Mira's godmothers (who took over raising her when her parents died in a fire) have kept a close eye on her.  They have a strict set of rules, including a few odd restrictions like not handling sharp objects.  But as Mira's sixteenth birthday approaches, she decides that she must break one of their most important rules: never returning to Beau Rivage -- the town where she was born and where her parents died.

So, she runs away from home and shows up at the town.  Her goal is to scour the town's graveyards and find her parents' grave, so she can finally come to terms with their demise.  Instead, she finds a town with an obsession with fairy tales and befriends two brothers who run a local casino:  Felix and Blue.  Felix is charming and takes Mira in, while Blue seems angry at everyone (alternating between attacking his brother for scamming on Mira and sniping at Mira for being receptive to Felix's overtures).  But something more serious is going on here than just fraternal jealousy.

A creative and unique twist on the Grimm's tales, combining the dark and nasty side of the originals and placing them in a contemporary setting.  The details are complicated and can't really be revealed without spoiling the story, but suffice it to say that it mostly works.  The result is a steamy adventure story that tends to work best when it focuses on action, overcoming destiny, and some good hacking and slashing.  The romantic parts try a bit too hard and the combination of curses and lust is heavy handed -- the type of thing that sounds good in theory but which reads like wet cardboard.

The ending becomes particularly messy as two very important threads (one involving Felix and the other concerning Mira's parents) get suddenly dropped and forgotten in favor of a romantic subplot that most of us could see coming.  It's not a bad twist, but the decision to completely drop the ball on the primary plot lines is a bit jarring, to put it mildly. So, bag the last fifty pages or so, they will just drive you nuts and take my word for it that the story was never wrapped up.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Every Other Day, by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Kali has a double life:  one day she's an invisible sixteen year-old, but the next day she's a killing machine hunting down hell hounds, basilisks, dragons, and other "preternatural" creatures.  She doesn't know why she has to endure the cycle, but simply that it's been that way since she hit puberty.  On the days she is the hunter, she is invincible and capable of anything.  On the other days, she is vulnerable and fearful.

For the most part, she keeps a low profile and doesn't reveal her alter ego, but one day that changes.  At school, she notices that Bethany (one of the cheerleader/It girls) has been marked by a demon in a way that indicates that she will die within the day.  Despite the social class divide, Kali is determined to save her, but there is one problem:  it's the wrong day!

If this description (which more or less follows the book's jacket blurb) was the extent of the story, it would have been a clear riff on how a nerd and a popular girl became friends facing a mutual adversary.  The trouble is that this part of the story wraps up after about 120 pages, leaving an additional 200 more in which to unfold a pretty complicated plot that lacks consistency.  The story was far more interesting when it was simpler (awkward girl fantasy about using superhero powers to save the popular girl and gain acceptance).  Once it becomes an industrial conspiracy and every adult (including the parents) are involved in it, the story gets silly and drags.

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kristin Cronn-Mills

In a small town south of Minneapolis, Gabe dreams of making it big as a DJ.  He's got a mentor next door, an old man with an amazing collection of music (and some great stories about Elvis).  The neighbor even lands Gabe a late-night slot on the community radio station, where Gabe plays classic rock for a show he calls "Beautiful Music for Ugly Children." The show is a big hit with the kids at school and Gabe builds up a following. There's just one problem:  Gabe's birth name is Elizabeth and just about everyone off the air knows him as a her.

Since Gabe was little, he's known that he wasn't a girl, even if his body didn't agree.  When he was younger, he dressed the part and played with the boys.  But what was cute or maybe awkward growing up has now become dangerous.  At first, Gabe hopes that he can remain anonymous on the radio, but what will happen if the kids at school figure out Gabe's identity?  But even that is not so simple: at the same time, Gabe welcomes the danger -- he's tired of being in the closet and hiding his identity from his family and friends.  But, even for those who accept him for who he is, stepping out has its costs and unexpected complications.

There's a bit of a split focus to the story as it tells the more conventional story of seeking fame in the radio industry, but combines it with the more unusual quest by Gabe for acceptance of his transgendered state.  Of the two stories, I found the first one to be the weakest.  I lose patience with YA writers who can't be bothered to give their characters contemporary music tastes (C'mon! How many teens really care about Matt the Hoople!?).  It either seems like the author is too lazy to study contemporary music or they hate what the kids are listening to.

But the story of Gabe's struggle to break free of his Elizabeth identity was much more compelling.  Just how much?  Well, I very nearly missed my flight reading in the airport and, once on board, completely missed the flight attendant asking me if I wanted something to drink!  I was totally out of it, being so sucked in to the story.  I liked Gabe.  I liked his way of handling people.  I was fascinated by his relationship with his BFF (the straight and very confused) Paige.  The mentor, the parents, and even the kids at school were all interesting.  No easy answers, not even a complete ending, but plenty of things to think about.  In sum, a nice addition to the very small "T" section of LGBT literature.