Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Skin, by Donna Jo Napoli

[Gotta get that 100th review in tonight....]

Vitiligo is a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the pigment of the skin and causes patches of white to appear at random locations on the body.  Like other autoimmune disorders, there is no known cause and no real treatment for the condition.  It's chronic and, in this case, not terminal.  Still, for sixteen year-old Sep, it might as well be....

When Sep wakes up one morning to find his lips have gone completely white, she is terrified.  It isn't so much that she has been afflicted with a rare condition, but with how this one manifests itself.  She's a scientist at heart and loves to learn the causes and results of everything.  And what she sees isn't pretty.  Victims of vitiligo are just plain ugly.  Soon, she knows, she will be just as bad as they are.

She hides her condition, applying makeup and strategic clothing to cover up the "splotches" that are appearing on her body, in denial of what is happening.  And she refuses to tell anyone beyond her family and her best friend about the condition (and even then, she tries to obscure how far the condition has advanced).  She even keeps her boyfriend in the dark, until it is too late.

A great story about coming to terms with illness and learning (quite literally) to be comfortable in your skin.  Napoli always does great storytelling, but she usually works with mythic or historical settings, so this is a bit of a new thing for her -- and she does just fine.  The story itself works well because it takes any interesting concept (a disease that no one has heard of that has a particular resonance with image-conscious adolescents), creates a well-rounded character with realistic friends and family, and just lets the story wind itself out naturally.  As Sep grew meaner and nastier to her boyfriend and friends, I started to really hate her, but that was really just a measure of how much she had gotten under my skin.  By the conclusion, she redeems herself in an ending that wraps things up in a nicely sloppy way that felt plain right.  What better way to round out a year?

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Suburban Strange, by Nathan Kotecki

At the start of her sophomore year, Celia (like so many heroines of YA novels) is something of a wallflower at Suburban High.  But, out of the blue, an uber-stylish clique of kids called "the Rosary" adopt her.  She gets a complete life makeover - changing her hair, her clothes, and her social circle.  It is a fantasy come true for so many heroines of YA novels.  And finnaly, like far too many heroines of YA novels, she discovers the alleged artistic superiority of obscure New Wave bands from the Eighties (more on that later).

But meanwhile at school, things are turning darker that Celia's new outfits.  Girls are suffering an unusually large number of freak near-fatal accidents -- always on the day before their sixteenth birthdays.  It doesn't matter if they stay home or come to school.  In fact, the only thing that seems to protect some girls is losing their virginity.  Celia and her chemistry lab partner Mariette don't consider that to be an option.  They have a theory about what is causing the accident, and have to move cautiously but purposely towards a solution before their own birthdays come!

It's all over the place story-wise, but actually a nice original story with supernatural themes but an adolescent sensibility (how would you know that black magic was afoot?  why, what else would explain why everyone is failing chemistry?).  The book is long and really has a few too many moving parts, but it comes together in the end.  And while Kotecki is a clumsy writer (particular at the start of nearly every chapter), the creativity and the pace cover his sins.  That's a mixed review, but I enjoyed it.

Most of all, what bothered me was that way overused fiction that today's coolest kids would listen to their parents' alternative music.  I realize that writers have to write about what they know and that few of them can be bothered to research contemporary music, but get real!  Even though I am a child of the 80s myself, I can assure you that the Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Cure are not gods.  And old dudes trying to claim that they are are simply pathetic!

Neverwas, by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed

Sarah's father has a dream to unite New England, the Confederate States of America, and the free territories of Astoria in a last-ditch effort to defend the Americas against the Nazi Reich of Europe and the Japanese Empire.  It's an audacious plan for survival in the early 21st century.  It might even work.

Meanwhile, Sarah senses that something is not quite right.  Somehow, she remembers a different version of the present, where the American colonists did not lose their war of independence in the late 18th century, and where England was not defeated by the Germans.  The answers lie again with the famed Amber House and its mysterious "echoes" of the past.

In the sequel to the surprise wonder of Amber House, the mother-and-daughters writing team of Moore and Reed once again spin an outstanding supernatural tale.  The stakes are much higher this time and the story is a great deal more complicated (filled as it is with plenty of paradoxes of time travel), but basically this is another shot at the young female sleuth finding allies (quite literally) in the woodwork.  This time, I have to admit that I never quite figured out what was going on, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the ride and I let the story simply take me along with it.  With that in mind, this may be a book that rewards handsomely in the re-reading.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Friday Never Leaving, by Vikki Wakefield

Friday has never felt rooted in any one place.  Years of living on the road and in the bush with her nomadic mother ensured as much.  But she always had Mom...until she didn't.  After her mother dies of cancer, Friday is cast adrift and leaves her grandfather's home for life on the street.  Out there, she falls under the spell of a charismatic teen named Arden and a gang of kids that Arden leads.  While uneasy around them, the gang gives Friday the sense of family she has been missing.  Her years on the road growing up, however, make her more savvy than the others and ultimately brings her into conflict with Arden, with deadly consequences.

The characters are well-developed.  It is hard business to develop a large cast of characters and make them vivid enough to distinguish. The kids in the gang are a notably strong cast.  And the dynamic between Arden the leader and each of them is complex and interesting.

The book is nicely written, but the story didn't grab me.  Wakefield put a lot of effort into her writing, and it shows...sometimes a bit too much.  The title (and the cover) are an allusion to a prophecy that Friday will die from drowning on a Saturday (just as all of her female ancestors have).  A nice image, but one which is so obvious in its literary pretensions that you trip over it (you know from the first page that drowning will figure in prominently by the end...and are constantly watching out for any mention of water).  It's the obvious literary pretensions that make this beautiful book feel lifeless.  Too much like a book that you'll be assigned to write a book report on than actually enjoy.

Flowers In the Sky, by Lynn Joseph

Nina has always been happy with her flower garden and her quiet life in Samana, on the coast of the Dominican Republic.  But after her mother catches Nina in a compromising position, mami is determined that Nina will go to New York and live with her older brother Darrio.  Darrio has lived in the North for many years, sending a steady stream of money home, and Mom is convinced that Nina will find great fortune there, by marrying a rich doctor or baseball player.

What Nina finds is that life in Washington Heights (where all the Dominican immigrants live) is nowhere as easy as her mother thinks it is.  It's a rough life and it takes a while for Nina to make friends and find a place.  A young man named Luis with a secret past captures her heart but Darrio doesn't like him and won't explain why.  Meanwhile, Darrio has secrets of his own and Nina realizes that the beautiful life of the USA comes with dangers and a dark side.

All of which probably makes the story sound cliche.  However, there's a gentleness and honesty to the book that makes it stand out a bit.  Nina acclimates to her new environment, but maintains a strong sense of self and a strong moral center (loyalty, beauty, and love) that make her interesting as a person.  The story ties up sweetly in the end, but with just enough messiness to make it believable.  A good read.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Lost Girl, by Sangu Mandanna

Eve is an "echo" - a clone of a living person -- created and stored at a sufficiently remote distance for the sole purpose of serving as a replacement if something should happen to the original.  Amarra, Eve's "other," lives in Bangalore, while Eve lives in rural England.  Eve's job is to study everything that Amarra does and memorize every key fact about Amarra -- in case she has to step in and take over Amarra's life.  It's a job that is all encompassing, but largely unfulfilling, as few echos ever need to take up their other's life.  And for Eve, whom longs for time to be herself, it has grown unbearable to be enslaved to Amarra's life and be unable to have any life of her own.  And then, there is the small problems of "hunters" (vigilantes who oppose the concept of echos and try to find them and kill them) and also growing instability amongst the "weavers" (the three creators of the echos who work at the "Loom" that manufactures them).

Eve's growing self-enlightenment is interrupted when Amarra is killed in an accident.  Suddenly, Eve is sent to India to take on the role for which she has been preparing.  Despite all of Eve's study, things do not go well as neither she nor Amarra's family are able to adapt to the change.  And as Eve, her new family, and Amarra's friends struggle with the situation, it unveils a deep complexity to the issue.  Eve may have little choice of the role she has been created to play, but for the family that chose to do this, how do they make it work?  And is replacing your deceased daughter with a clone really going to fill the gap in your life?

It's thoughtful and original science fiction.  While paying homage to Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein, Mandanna has created a finely textured study of the meaning of relationships (both friendly and familial) and of loyalty.  The book runs a bit long and the ending becomes muddled by a subplot about the weavers that is allowed to achieve too much prominence, but the story is quite fascinating.  From the ethical questions of life replacing life as a means to achieve immortality (a topic borrowed from Shelley) to the meaning of self for a clone, there is plenty of thought-provoking stuff here.  Finally, it's nice to have some science fiction placed in India.  While Mandanna doesn't really explore the local color, it is notable as India doesn't often feature in YA lit (or in sci-fi, for that matter).

A Really Awesome Mess, by Trish Cook and Brandan Halpin

Any book that significantly name drops my alma mater Simon's Rock deserves a special shout out, even if a main character disses the school in the end.

Emmy and Justin have both been involuntarily committed to Heartland Academy, a residential facility for troubled teens.  From their own accounts, their offenses seem minor and the punishment is disproportional.  However, by the end of the third chapter, the reader can clearly see what their issues are.  It takes the rest of the book for the characters to finally admit their problems.  Through friendship with the other kids in the program and the experience of adopting a pet piglet, they come to terms with these issues and begin to rebuild their lives.

{An aside:  Residential psychiatric programs for teens are an essential literary device in YA lit for getting a bunch of screwed-up teens together without parents (filling the void left by the demise of the boarding school genre).  Given how poorly the kids in these stories are monitored, one wonders how the institution survives, but I digress!]

The book is a team effort with Cook and Halpin trading off writing the story (a popular experiment in writing seminars and one that leads to far two many published books).  It suffers from a common issue with the format -- a general incompatibility of the writers.  The book starts off fine, but Trish Cook's attempts to write a straight story with insight are quickly derailed by Halpin's gonzo writing.  He'd rather gross-out the readers and subvert Cook's attempts to build meaningful dialogue and interactions.  In her chapters, the story is actually formed, but then Halpin comes in like a typical preschool boy and knocks everything over, leaving things a mess for Cook to dutifully clean up in her next chapter.  By the end, I cringed each time I started to read Halpin's chapters (fearing what damage he would do).  It wasn't cute and it wasn't interesting.  It was simply plain dumb.  Maybe Cook should write her own books instead?

And I think Emmy missed out by not going to the Rock!

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Next Full Moon, by Carolyn Turgeon

Nearly thirteen, Ava is turning into a swan.  But, while the phrase may be metaphorical for most girls, for Ava it's quite literal.  She's growing feathers and gaining the ability to transform herself into a large bird.  And even how to fly.

At the same time, she's discovering that the changes in her body that were once made her feel gangly and ugly, now give her beauty.  And where she once was awkward with others, she is gaining grace.

It's a nicely written story and pleasant, but it's hard to escape the issue that there's not much new here.  The metaphor of becoming a swan itself is a tired trope and the story (girl experiences transformation, gets together with dream boy, and reunites with long-lost mother -- sorry, it's so obvious that saying it here is hardly a spoiler) is very well-trod.  Perhaps it can be enjoyed for the beauty of the story and for the way it captures succinctly the specific moment of being on the verge of adulthood, but it seemed tame and unadventuresome to me.  As a coming-of-age story, the fantasy elements were distracting.  As a fantasy, it was underdeveloped.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Imperfect Spiral, by Debbie Levy

While babysitting five-year-old Humphrey, Danielle loses sight of him for a moment, he runs into the street, and is fatally struck by a car.  At first, Danielle cannot remember the details of the accident and is frustrated by a sense that she was responsible for Humphrey's death.  Her guilt is compounded by her inability to speak up (an issue with stage fright that predates the accident).  But when the community blames both bad traffic controls and illegal immigrants for the tragedy, she searches for the courage to speak out and set the record straight.

A muddled novel that has a hard time deciding whether it wants to be about celebrating life and grief or if it wants to be a polemical work about immigration.  In the book's blurb, the subject of immigration never comes up, but in the afterword, it is all the author can talk about.  One suspects that Levy wrote one thing and got led astray by the other (although which thing?).  Regardless, the two themes don't mesh very well and the result is the lack of a clear focus to the story that ultimately distracts from its power.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nothing But Blue, by Lisa Jahn-Clough

A girl finds herself walking down the street with no memory of her immediate circumstances.  Someone has died and she must get away!  Voices haunt her and danger seems to lurk everywhere.  So, she lays low and tries to survive on the street, with help from random strangers and an uncannily intuitive dog.  As time passes, her memories slowly come back to her.

I really like Jahn-Clough's spare writing style.  Her other two novels are both on my very short list of perfect books.  This one is also well-written, but the story didn't work for me.  There are a couple of explanations for this.  Maybe it is because it is too predictable (memory loss stories have a pretty standard dramatic arc).  Or maybe it is because the novel's length relies solely upon having a main character who turns down rescue repeatedly (a choice that always seems to me more designed to extend the story than to serve a literary purpose).  It is, in sum, a short story stretched out into a thin novel.  It could easily have been resolved in thirty pages and maybe should have been.

This Is What Happy Looks Like, by Jennifer E Smith

Graham and Ellie met completely by accident when Graham mistyped the address of an email and reached Ellie instead of his pig sitter.  By random chance, they hit it off and traded emails back and forth.  But after months of chatting, Graham has decided to tempt fate and come to Ellie's town to meet her.  And she is in for a big surprise!

No, Graham isn't some creepy 46 year-old guy who reads YA literature in his free time.  He's actually Graham Larkin -- major teen hottie and up-and-coming young actor.  He's easy on the eyes, famous, rich, sensitive, Ellie's age, and miraculously available.  And Ellie is just a plain small town girl from Maine, so she is presumably as out of his league as the readers of this book.

But everyone is not quite who they seem.  Graham's heart of gold belies his fame and his decidedly simple small-town tastes.  And Ellie?  Well, you'll have to read the first 120 pages or so to find out what her special secret is because I'm not going to spoil that secret!

In many ways, this is over-the-top romantic teen fantasy (hot famous guy falls for normal girl).  He's famous but no one understands his true needs except her, and so he is willing to lavish all of his attention on her.  Not that the complete lack of a realistic fiber in this tale makes the story any less fun.  Who doesn't like a story about two totally nice people meeting and falling in love?  The story is adorable and you'll be happy while reading it.

But Jennifer? Check your map:  what part of Maine is located one hour south of Kennebunkport?  If that's where the town of Henley is, then it's somewhere in Massachusetts! :)