Friday, September 27, 2013

Darkbeast Rebellion, by Morgan Keyes

In this sequel to Darkbeast, Keara, Goran, and Taggart are fleeing for their lives, trying to escape the Inquisitors and simultaneously searching for a group of renegade "Darkers" who will take them in.  As adults who have rejected the mandate that they must kill their animal familiars ("Darkbeasts") on their twelve birthdays, the three of them are not only heretics, but a deep threat to the social order.  The Darkers, it is said, shelter similar rebels.  If only they can be found!

But their problems do not disappear when the three of them find a colony of Darkers, as all is not quite as they hoped.  Instead, soon they are thrown back into peril.  By the end of the story, Keara must find a way to prove herself, without the help of her Darkbeast.

I loved the first book in the series so much that I eagerly threw myself into this one, casting aside all the other books on my pile in favor of this one when it arrived unannounced in the mail.  Even though I am not a fan of sequels, I had high hopes for this novel.

It held up surprisingly well.  I liked the first book for its originality and for the depth of its vision.  A tremendous effort was made into imagining this fantasy universe, as Keyes explains the theology, culture, and mores of these people.  She continues this forcefully in the sequel, expanding into the complicated politics of the society as well.  Even if young readers won't always appreciate it, there is an amazing consistency and logic to the world the author has created.

What young readers will certainly appreciate is the description of the changes that Keara is going through.  While the first book focused on the difficult problem of letting go of childhood, the second explores the more complicated process of navigating the beginnings of adulthood.  From the dawning of the realization that social interactions have grown more complex to the cold reality that friendships are easily betrayed to the novel need to build social bonds, Keara goes through many familiar challenges.  In this way, Keyes's complex coming-of-age story is much more honest than the more "reality" based versions on the market.  And in the safety of this fantasy world, readers can see their own difficulties exposed and conquered.  Truly, this is the glorious purpose for which middleschool fantasy was intended!

And it is also an excellent and fun read!

[Disclosure:  I did receive an unsolicited free copy of this book from the publisher (and am grateful to them for calling attention to the book).  It does not impact the nature of my review.  I look forward to finding a receptive young reader for this book in the future.]

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor is an awkward redhead from a difficult family situation.  Park is a half-Korean punk rocker (and the only Asian kid in Omaha to boot!).  When she boards the school bus on the first day, she looks like a train wreck ready to happen.  Park takes pity on her.  And over a series of silent bus rides together, a friendship develops that turns into something more.  Yes, it's just a love story.

But it's also a lot more.  Told through the alternating voices of Park and Eleanor, Rowell has crafted an amazingly honest book about emotions and the flowering of love.  There are the mandatory references to Romeo and Juliet, but the novel itself is surprisingly fresh for a story that ought to be so overdone.  And while I hate the setting (did it really need to be set in the 80s?), the writing is pitch perfect.

This is also a story that grabs you by the jugular. It has tragedy painted all over it, which ought to prepare you for the ending, but the expected train wreck still devastates you.  These are kids that it is impossible not to care about and when bad stuff happens, it strikes you in a surprisingly effective way.  Perhaps, because these are good people and you want to see the best things happen to them.

The characters are key, of course. Park can be a bit clueless but he is likeable.  Eleanor captures your heart as intensely private and proud, and compassionate beyond her years.  And what's not to love about Park's mother, who is part Asian tiger mother stereotype, but with so much more depth and heart than Koreans ever get painted with by popular media?

In sum, a truly memorable and excellent book.  Plenty of other reviewers have said as much so I realize I am not breaking any ground here, but for anyone who fears that I hate everything I read, it's a pleasure to prove that I'm not a total curmudgeon!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

13 Gifts, by Wendy Mass

Because of some trouble at school (involving the kidnapping of a goat), Tara's parents decide that bringing her along with them on an upcoming trip to Madagascar might not be a good idea.  Instead, they send her to live with her aunt, who lives in her Mom's old home town (where Tara has never been).  There, she makes new friends, loses her shyness while engaging in an elaborate scavenger hunt, and discovers hidden talents, all because of a mysterious woman named Angelina (with whom readers of the previous installments in this series will be well-acquainted).  It all ends with a rousing performance of Fiddler on the Roof and some wild twists and turns that introduce the next installment (to be reviewed in a few weeks - stay tuned!).

While this is a series (third out of four and counting) and thus I should be predisposed to hating it, Wendy Mass writes such wonderful books for middleschoolers that it's hard to dislike this charming coming-of-age story. I love the way that the characters can have coed adventures with a middle-schooler's (age-appropriate) awareness and curiosity of the opposite sex, but make no big deal about it.  Getting kissed by the right boy would definitely be a lot of fun, but there's a mystery to solve!  The adventure itself is giddy stuff (I myself almost squealed with delight when teen heartthrob Jake Harrison made a cameo appearance!) and keeps the pages turning.

Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots, by Abby McDonald

When Jenna's parents announce that they are both going away (to different places) during the upcoming summer, she suspects that they are separating.  However, her immediate worry is that she is not going to be able to engage in the eco-activism program she and her best friend are planning.  And while their plans seem to be wrecked, Jenna is eager to avoid the probability of going with her mother to Orlando and hanging with the over-65 crowd.  It's her friend who points out that Jenna does have a godmother Susie living in rural British Columbia.  There's plenty of nature therefor a green activist, and she'll be able to help her Susie set up a new Bed and Breakfast (and maybe even arrange an eco-tourism package while she's at it).  Jenna is excited when she convinces her parents to let her go.

But things don't go smoothly when she finally gets there.  Susie's sullen step daughter Fiona is a major pill.  The other kids in their small town aren't terribly friendly and they become downright hostile when Jenna tries to lecture them about environmentalism.  But once the initial bumps are overcome and Jenna learns to be a bit more sparing with the rhetoric, things smooth out and an exciting summer awaits.

An above-average summer read, with a bit of adventure in the woods led by an energetic (but lovably self-mocking) narrator.  There's plenty of humor, some light romance, and a little drama to move things along.  The kids are all memorable and appealing in their own right.  The adults are realistic, but conveniently distant and unobtrusive.  It's not fluff, but nothing too weighty holds this story down (even if McDonald does toy briefly with the topics of divorce and homophobia).  In sum, a nice light read.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Lovely, Dark, and Deep, by Amy McNamara

After living through a car accident that killed her boyfriend and her unborn child, Wren flees to remote Maine to live in her father's house and just sort things out.  Worried by Wren's lack of activity, Wren'smother who tries to get Wren to do something and pressures her ex-husband (the parents were divorced long ago) to nudge Wren out of the house.  Both of their clumsy attempts are rebuffed by Wren.

Instead, Wren meets a young man named Cal with issues of his own.  And in sharing their issues with each other, Wren and Cal develop a relationship on their own terms.  However, their  friends and families worry that neither Wren nor Cal are in any shape to take care of each other.  They may be in too deep.

A slow-paced but ultimately authentic look at depression.  McNamara captures well the spiral of a young person very much sucked in by her grief. And, however much it may offend fans of this sort of story, I found that excruciating, not "insightful."

While the grieving process can take considerable time and there is no doubt that well-meaning (but ultimately pushy) family members in Wren's life should have laid off, it really does get very old to listen to her rant on about how every thing that happens is just some attempt to hurt her.  Wren's combination of adolescent self-centeredness and arrogance gets old pretty quick.  I presume that McNamara believes that Wren's persecution complex is a sign of strength, but it is pretty obvious that Wren is in fact her own worst enemy.  When someone is nice to her, she relabels it as pity or lack of trust.  When someone gives her space, they are neglecting her.  And when someone tries some tough love, she whines that they just don't "understand" her.  However, Wren doesn't want to be understood and needs, in fact, to drag out her misery as long as she can because it has become habit and provides the only meaning at the psychic corner into which she has painted herself.

Kudos to the author for portraying the downward suck of depression so accurately but shame on her for not calling it out as a dead end.  The process (of healing) will come when Wren realizes that there are other behavior patterns (like caring for Cal) that are worth following and which don't have to hurt as much as the path she has chosen.  But that piece of good news is not really the purpose/goal of this harrowing story.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Serafina's Promise, by Ann E. Burg

There's nothing like reading a story about a impoverished Haitian girl, whose one dream is to be able to go to school and become a doctor, to make you want to retch at all those whiny suburban white girls who complain because they can't get a boy to kiss them.  At least, that was my first thought when I read Ann E. Burg's forthcoming verse novel, Serafina's Promise about a little girl growing up in the developing world.

But once I moved beyond the obvious differences between Serafina and her financially-better off sisters, I realized that there were plenty of similarities as well.  She dreams of a better life, but views the world socially (valuing her friends as much as her successes).  She enjoys playing, but understands her responsibilities to her family. She simultaneously loves her mother, yet wants to surpass her, being unwilling to settle for the life that her Mom seems to live.  Like many other children, she exaggerates her responsibility for the misfortunes of adults (even if her experience with murdered relatives is a bit more extreme than an American's) and searches for a balanced understanding of where she fits in.  And, if anything, Serafina is blessed by a tight family unit, a particularly strong work ethic, and some good fortune.

Verse novels are a bit of a flighty affair.  In this case, the verse doesn't add much to the story, but it doesn't hurt the story either.  What is wonderful is Burg's ear for the local Creole and the cadence of the spoken language of Haiti.  The dialogue of the characters makes the setting come alive and is itself fascinating.  As an opportunity to travel to another place and see the world through another's eyes, this is a memorable read.

[Disclosure:  I was sent a free copy of the book by the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.  After I finish writing this entry, I will donate the book to my local public library.]