Friday, January 31, 2014

Unremembered, by Jessica Brody

When she wakes up, the girl is told that she is the lone survivor of a crashed plane flight - a crash that no human could have survived.  And that is all she knows.  Her memory has completely disappeared.  She appears to be super smart, multilingual, beautiful and physically strong, but she has no idea how she got that way.  The only clues are a locket around her neck and a tattoo on her arm.  And then there is a young man named Zen who informs her mysteriously that he is going to "rescue" her.

One of the very first things the girl figures out is that she is on the run and that Zen is a friend.  And she doesn't seem to have many of those as several groups of people are chasing after her and appear to want to cause her harm.  If only she could figure out why?  (And, by the way, it would be nice to know some simple basics like what is her name?)

This is not a deep think book, but it is a fast-paced action story with a decent mystery that takes most of the book to unwind.  It's a bit heavier on violence than I generally like and the characters are flat and disposable, but that's an artifact of the genre.  I found it entertaining for what it was.  I probably won't seek out the next installment of the trilogy, but I'm sure it will be amusing.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Fat Angie, by E E Charlton-Trujillo

Even if Angie wasn't big and uncoordinated, she would still never measure up to her sister.  But she would never want to do so.  Ever since Angie's sister was kidnapped in Iraq and went missing (and presumed dead), Angie's world has fallen apart.  The loss of her sister has made Angie more of a target to bullying from jealous classmates.  And without her sister to protect her, she is an easier target.  Angie's very public breakdown at the start of the school year didn't help anything.

Her remaining family is no refuge.  Her father is gone.  Angie's brother has turned against her and cruelly attacks her in public.  And Angie's mother accuses Angie of acting up for attention and uses her sadistic version of tough love on her daughter.

Her life, in sum, is hell, until a new girl named KC shows up.  KC is beautiful, West Coast cool, and ardently loyal to Angie, coming to her defense and helping her see beyond the abuse.  Angie can't begin to imagine how she has managed to luck out so much.  KC, however, has issues of her own and they complicate Angie's life further.

The story plays its hand very coolly.  The family may seem unnecessarily cruel, but friends are found in interesting places (in particular, from a gym teacher and a jock at school, who both look out for Angie).  It's a depressing story that you really want to end well.  Charlton-Trujillo teases a bit with partially happy endings, but the real conclusion leaves a lot of things messily unresolved.  That's not as satisfying, but it feels much more authentic.  The story has a lot of things going on:  family drama, sports competition, and love story, and it manages to balance it all fairly well.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Saying that Cath is a Simon Snow fan is a major understatement.  She and her twin sister Wren are deep into fan fiction, with Cath writing (and Wren editing) one of the most popular Simon Snow stories.  Simon Snow is the world to Cath and has sustained the girls through high school and family trauamas.  But now that Cath and Wren are freshmen at UNL, things have changed for Wren.  She no longer wants to do Simon Snow, being drawn to new social circles and parties.  Cath stays the path, but even she is opening her eyes to the broader world that exists after high school.

It's a book that straddles the line between YA and NA (New Adult) literature.  It's about growing up and (while not letting go of childish things altogether) about integrating them into a grownup life.  That's interesting stuff.  I also enjoyed all the local detail on Lincoln and Omaha, as I remember the area well.

In comparison to Rowell's Eleanor and Park, however, it pales.  Cath, Wren, and their roommates and boyfriends make relatively less interesting characters.  And the story itself is less compelling.  It's a long book and subject to a widespread abandonment of subplots.  To paraphrase Chekhov, if an estranged mother shows up in chapter one, you need to have a big confrontation with her by the last chapter.  Instead, the family traumas (and many other subplots) are allowed to wither without any significant conclusion.  And they could easily have been excised from the book, creating a shorter and smoother story.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Half A Chance, by Cynthia Lord

Lucy has moved to a new home on a lake in New Hampshire, just in time for the summer to start.  She quickly befriends a neighbor boy Nate, who is her age.  It won't be a long-term thing,because he is only spending the summer on the lake.  This doesn't stop them from becoming friends as they take part in the Loon Patrol, which monitors the lake's breeding pair of Loons.  Nate also helps Lucy in assembling her submission to a photography contest.

Their summer is darkened by two things:  another girl named Megan who is jealous of Lucy and Nate's new friendship, and the growing demise of Nate's grandmother who is losing her sense of reality (and afraid of becoming a burden to her family).  The former thread is never completely pursued, but the latter one combines a lesson about growing old gracefully with a bit about letting go of things.  It ends up providing the story with a nice poignant ending.

This summer story about a girl and boy developing a friendship is full of all the sweet and innocent stuff that one expects from a middle reader.  There aren't a lot of surprises, but it's a nice story that you can simply enjoy.  Sort of the tween version of a summer romance (boy and girl have adventures and fun, but we don't get into any kissing stuff!).

[Disclosure:  I received a review copy from Scholastic Press in return for my consideration.  After completing this review, I will donate this copy to my local public library.  The book will be released in late February.]

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Willow, twelve year-old genius and oddball, copes with the world by counting in sevens.  But no knowledge or coping skill can prepare her for the death of her foster parents.  Instead, she finds that life's salvation comes from the most unexpected places:  a Vietnamese family, a dysfunctional guidance counselor, and a Mexican taxi cab driver.  And, in the same odd way that they have managed to help her, she ends up changing their life in equally unexpected ways.

The general path of the story won't surprise anyone -- it basically begs to becomes a tale of random good fortune and luck -- but what makes this book a joy is the connectedness of the random events.  The message is that no matter how hard you try to order the world and control the outcome, in the end you never quite know where you will end up.  Meanwhile, it is such a nicely written book with such charmingly odd and unusual characters, that you'll be willing to swallow a whole lot of sentimentality along the way.  As with many books of this sort, it's more designed for adults (and librarians) than for kids, but one hopes that children will just enjoy a gentle story.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Manor of Secrets, by Katherine Longshore

Lady Charlotte lives a life of luxury, but her existence is hardly happy.  She envies the kitchen maid Janie, who has the freedom to pursue her dreams.  Charlotte meanwhile is bound by her mother's oppressive rules and has little to look forward to beyond marriage to a boring local lord.  Janie, on the other hand, longs for Charlotte's pampered existence.  For Janie, live is about constantly being on the verge of poverty; only a wrong step away should she be dismissed from service.  She would give anything to have Charlotte's comforts.

A chance encounter in the woods outside the estate (where neither girl is supposed to be) brings them together in friendship and secret rebellion against the roles they must play.  It also helps them see the truth behind the rosy appearance of each other's lives.  However, the manor won't tolerate any fraternizing between upstairs and downstairs.  Too much is at stake in the calcified hierarchy that has developed.  As the two girls grow closer, the scandal that is unleashed throws the entire household into disorder.

With an obvious debt to Upstairs Downstairs and Manor House (and probably Downtown Abbey as well), we get a junior version of the Georgian soap opera genre.  It's highly sanitized and a bit too Americanized for my tastes, but I can see the appeal.  Glamorous gowns, some forbidden love, a little acting out, and a whole lot of convenient coincidences in the end to make it wrap up neatly.  It would seem to be a perfect candidate for moderate commercial success and maybe even spawn a sequel (and a few copycats).  It's not great literature, but that's not its role either.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC from Point-Scholastic for the purposes of reviewing this book (it is scheduled for release on January 28), but no other compensation for my consideration]

Friday, January 10, 2014

Peaceweaver, by Rebecca Barnhouse

Hild has grown up in a privileged existence as the daughter of the king's sister.  And while her uncle has, in recent years, fallen too easily under the advice of short-sighted and war-mongering men, he is a kind man.  So, when Hild saves the king's son from an assassination attempt, she is confident that she will be honored by a grateful father.  Instead, she is accused of being possessed by demons (on account of her instinctive recognition of the assassins before they had attacked) and she is threatened with exile.

Instead of exile, she is betrothed to the son of the recently-slain king Beowulf from the neighboring (and hostile) kingdom of Geat.  Geat was, until the betrothed prince slayed it, terrorized by a dragon and has suffered greatly from years of the beast's attacks.  But it was always a backwards place and hardly suitable for Hild.  Her situation is worsened because Hild learns on the eve of her departure that her uncle intends to betray the peace that the betrothal promises.  He's using the marriage as a ploy to camouflage plans to strike against Geat.

A richly-drawn fantasy, deeply rooted in Norse culture, with a fair bit of the epic of Beowulf thrown in for good measure.  Hild is resourceful, strong-willed, and handy with a weapon, but also annoyingly indecisive.  This is the primary weakness of this colorful novel.  Most of the story is spent with her plotting to escape -- trying to figure out a way to get away from her uncle, from the Geats, and eventually from her uncle again.  However, each time she does actually run, she reconsiders and comes back on her own free will.  This gets tiresome as it feels like a lot of lead up for nothing.  And given the vast number of unresolved plot points, the energy could have been much better directed on the parts of the story that really matter.

Manicpixiedreamgirl, by Tom Leveen

Ever since ninth grade, Tyler has had a massive crush on Rebecca Webb, but he's never been able to find the will to tell her.  Instead, he's told his friend Sydney in honors English.  She even offered to hook them up, but Tyler couldn't imagine doing it.  Instead, he started dating Syd instead.  And so a weird triangle developed:  Sydney likes Tyler and Tyler is OK with hanging out with Syd, but both of them know that Tyler dreams of Becky.  Meanwhile, Becky doesn't know how Tyler feels about her at all.  At least, not until tonight, when Tyler's thinly-veiled story about Becky has just been published.

And what has Tyler written?  He's created a short story all about the wonderful way he feels about Becky.  About how perfect she is and how he is not worthy of her.  The problem is that Becky (big surprise!) is hardly the perfect creature than Tyler imagines.  She's hardly the straight-A perfect student of Tyler's dreams.  In fact, as everyone at school (including Tyler) knows, she's pretty screwed up.  Becky, to put it mildly, has self-esteem issues and a reputation for hooking up with any boy who asks, which Tyler would know if he ever asked her.  Doing that, however, would destroy the dream world that Tyler has created.  He would rather imagine rescuing her.

An amazingly intense story of how human beings (and perhaps adolescents a bit more strongly) create fantasies to avoid awkward truths.  It's an unpleasant story -- there are no true heroes here -- and Leveen makes no attempt to sweeten any of the protagonists.  Whether it's Tyler's obsession for Becky, or Syd's hopeless desire to stay with Tyler, or Becky's complete self-destructive behavior, these are messed up kids with very believable issues.  If you've never been in one of these roles, consider yourself lucky -- the rest of us have the t-shirt to show for it in our closet!

I especially like the fact that this is a book written by a man about a boy.  I take no small amount of flak for reading "girl" books all the time.  I do so because it usually takes a woman author writing about a girl to tell a story with this much emotional honesty.  Male authors don't have the patience to tell this story and everyone assumes that only boys will read about a boy (and that boys won't read something like this with so little action in it).  The result is that it is very rare to find a novel like this.  Leveen truly is an outstanding YA writer who has the insight and the skills to create strong and realistic young men and women, and tell a story with brutal honesty.

This may well be the best book I read in 2014.  What a way to start the year!