Friday, February 28, 2014

Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick

In seven short stories, told in reverse chronological order, we get the inter-related tales of Eric and Melle, and the isolated northern island of Blessed through the ages.  Some of the stories feature the rare Dragon Orchid, some an immense painting, and all a sense of historical destiny which we only learn the full truth of when we travel back to its source.  Not only does the era of the setting change (the first story takes place in the late 21st century, while the earliest is pre-historic), but the roles played by the characters change as well over time (adults become children, children adults, and even genders are switched).

It's a complicated and fascinating ghost story.  While slightly marred by an epilogue that makes an attempt for a happy ending, the seven stories within this book are rich and each stands on their own.  Together, they weave a compelling story that has been masterfully crafted:  elements of one story reappear in another - often to shocking effect.  The story is so complex and carefully designed that subtleties are undoubtedly missed on the first reading (and thus a re-reading is recommended).  The originality of the story captured me and I'll be thinking about it for some time to come.  I highly recommend this book if you like classic ghost stories and don't mind something that will stick in your head for days!

Hooked, by Liz Fichera

Out of the 1150 books that I've reviewed in this Blog so far, this is only the third Teen Harlequin I've read.  I've never expected much from them and have figured them to just be slightly less-explicit versions of the adult books (and with a cover like this one has, I was pretty much hiding it behind a paper bag on the plane!).  However, the three times I have read a Teen Harlequin have all been a pleasant surprise.  Far from being exploitative romantic fantasy, the stories have been stimulating and sophisticated.  Yes, it's a romance and it follows some of the basic conventions of the genre, but the writing is strong and the authors push the boundaries.

Fred is an avid golfer, even though she plays with second-hand equipment and can't afford the greens fees. When the high school team's coach recruits her to play, she's a bit reluctant:  it's a boy's team and she would be the only girl.  But there's another twist: she would also be the only Native American in the entire league.  But Fred manages to overcome these fears and prove to herself and her teammates that she can truly play, even as she faces hostility from both the white kids at school and from her friends back on the Rez.  Things get truly complicated though when she finds that she and her teammate Ryan share a love of each other as strong as their love of the game.

There's no major plot frontier being burst here (it's typical boy-meets-girl storyline), but the setting and the characters make this an unusual story.  Fichera doesn't move too far out of modern stereotypes of the Native American experience, but the idea of choosing such an unusual heroine for this story is remarkable.  And, for that matter, how many teen romances involve golf in the first place?  Somehow, I don't expect a Harlequin novel to tackle class and race conflict.  As for the romance, it's strictly G-rated (not at all like the cover!).

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Better Off Friends, by Elizabeth Eulberg

Macallan and Levi have been friends since seventh grade and just that.  As a boy and a girl, they've endlessly been subjected to questions about their "relationship." No, they aren't dating; they are just friends and that is all they ever intend to be!  But being boy-girl friends is complicated in adolescence and this novel traces how, over the years, their friendship is tested by all the other relationships in their lives.

It's a sentimental (and sometimes manipulative) journey through years of a friendship.  However, it is also a surprisingly intelligent romance that avoids stereotypes and the usual hallmarks of teen romance novels (since it is really about friendship).  Eulberg has done a remarkable job depicting both Macallan and Levi's take on adolescence and each other -- no small feat when most authors specialize in either boys or girls but not both!  By the end of this deceivingly simple story, you'll find yourself terribly invested in both of these young people and in the deep and meaningful relationship they have developed.  The result, in sum, is a humble teen "romance" with depth, pathos, and poignancy.

The Caged Graves, by Dianne K Salerni

After a long absence, Verity Boone returns to her father's home in Catawissa Pennsylvania, in 1867.  She has been betrothed to a neighbor named Nate and she is returning to marry and settle in her parent's house.  But her return is marred by a sinister mystery -- the discovery that her mother and aunt (who died around the time that Verity was sent away) were buried in caged graves on unhallowed ground.  No one will explain why this was done, but the insinuation is that the two women were witches (and that the cages were intended to keep them in their graves).  An alternative explanation that is floating around is that their bodies were interred with a long-lost cache of Continental Army gold and the bars are intended to protect the loot!

The result of all this is a rich historical novel that, while flirting with supernatural ideas, stays pretty soundly within the realm of the possible in its historical context.  The story is multi-layered and also includes a complicated romantic triangle that I found compelling and mature.  If I have a complaint, it is that the book is being mis-marketed:   despite its seventeen year-old heroine, the story could only passably be considered a "young adult" novel.

I liked the richness of the characters and the complexity of their motivations.  While superstitions and fears at the beginning convince even the reader that higher forces are at play, by the end it is revealed that complex human passions can be far more mysterious than evil spirits.  The story's own mysteries are plausibly and satisfactorily resolved by the end, but still manage to surprise and startle.  Very good storytelling!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Return to Me, by Justina Chen

Rebecca is on the verge of starting her freshman year at Columbia, studying architecture.  She has a premonition that things are not going to go well.  And there are certainly issues:  her father has landed a new job in New York and the family is literally following her out east, leaving their beloved island home outside Seattle.  Meanwhile, Rebecca has to say goodbye to her boyfriend and ponder the viability of a long-distance relationship.

But then, her father drops a bombshell on the whole family:  he's leaving their mother and shacking up with a new woman.  Moreover, he's been carrying on a secret affair for the past several months.  His revelation and decision to dessert the family plunges all of them into crisis, as they deal with their grieving, anger, and eventual acceptance.  It also leads Rebecca to revisit her plans and reconsider what she really wants to do with her life.

Justina Chen writes novels full of lots of layers and meanings.  Here it seems a bit more aimless than previous books like North of Beautiful.  While some key concepts, like the meaning of architecture and Rebecca's love for tree houses, are integral to the story, there's a whole thread about Rebecca and her maternal relatives being clairvoyant which hangs awkwardly.  I have bigger issues with Chen's depiction of male characters, which are strikingly flat in comparison with the women.  The father is a glaring example, being at best shallow and seeming like a caricature.  For a story with so much insight on grieving and healing from a feminine perspective, Chen struggles with her male characters.  Rebecca's brother is a throwaway character and Rebecca's boyfriend seems to serve no further purpose than to be endlessly understanding.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Better Nate Than Ever, by Tim Federle

Thirteen year-old Nate dreams of making it big on Broadway.  Not just for the fame, but for the chance to escape his small town Western Pennsylvania existence.  He's tired of being mocked for being short and fat.  And he's tired of everyone assuming that he's gay (he's, in fact, decidedly undecided on the topic!).  So, on a weekend when his parents are away, he slips out of the house, buys a bus ticket, and makes his way to New York City to audition for a new musical based on the film ET.

It's quite an adventure for a small-town kid, and Nate's innocent and wide-eyed love for the Big Apple is a major part of the book's charm.  Nate learns in short order how to manage the chaos of the street as well as the ropes of the audition process, and he does both in his own unique way.  Through the intervention of his long estranged aunt, he also learns some family history and opens some doors.  And, while the subject of Nate's sexual orientation is addressed only fleetingly, it is obvious that he is beginning to have revelations on that front as well.

As with many books targeting middle readers, the frankness and sometimes "adult" nature of the story may make grownups squirm, but at a distance, it all seemed quite age appropriate.  For children too young to understand everything, the sympathetic Nate and the lack of serious harm that befalls him will make the book entertaining and enjoyable.  As a grownup, Nate's string of good luck seemed improbable, but it is in keeping with the spirit of this fun adventure, which promises a run of sequels.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Tangle of Knots, by Lisa Graff

A wonderful middle reader fantasy about kids and grownups who have particular talents (whistling, disappearing, baking, etc.) and a surreal series of coincidences that bring them together in just the right way to fix everything.  It's a story that's so chaotic and jumbled that it's hard to explain, but it basically involves a bitter old man who steals away people's talents, and the efforts of a motley group to stop him.  Learning to break from past mistakes and forgiving oneself, finding a home, and a mysterious man riding a balloon in a well-pressed grey suit figure in as well.  Some homespun wisdom (e.g., "It's the way we deal with what fate hands us that defines who we are") and a series of interesting looking cake recipes fill out this fun offering.

Sometimes a book is just silly enough and a tale is just heartwarming enough that it captures that niche of children's literature that doesn't have to try to be loved.  This one fits in that special place.  Graff's story is reminiscent of Because of Winn Dixie and Savvy but the story is simpler and more direct. Like those stories, the characters are quirky and multi-generational (kids get to be kids, but adults have a role to play in the fun), and the plot isn't afraid of reaching for a little matter-of-fact magic when the real world can't be special enough.  It's a charming story that middle schoolers through young teens (and those with similar young hearts) will enjoy.

The Ruining, by Anna Collomore

Annie is excited about her new job as a nanny in San Francisco.  She'll be able to attend classes at SF State, live in a fabulous house on Belvedere Island with a great couple, take care of a sweet little girl, and (most importantly) finally escape her traumatic past.  It is a dream come true.

At first, things go well, but slowly circumstances change.  Her employers accuse her of doing things she cannot recall doing.  Strange things start to happen (Annie get mysteriously sick, things disappear, the walls get redecorated).  Annie begins to question her sanity.  In the end, her employers completely destroy Annie's life.

This very creepy story is at its best in the beginning when the freaky manipulative stuff is just starting to unfold.  But the pace picks up and eventually simply goes over the top.  At that point, since I no longer believed that the story was plausible, I stopped caring about the character.  And, since Collomore painted herself into a very tight corner, her solution has to be pretty drastic (and invoking a deus ex machina solution, it is dramatically disappointing).  The ending also completely sidesteps the issue of the evil that was done to Annie, so we're robbed the satisfaction of a final confrontation.  In all, I'll grant that the earlier parts of the book are engrossing psychological stuff, but I felt let down in the end.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Sophronia is the type of girl to drive a mother mad.  Unlike her older sisters who managed to become proper young ladies, Sophronia is always managing to get into some sort of trouble (and always of the most unladylike nature!).  She can't even curtsy correctly! So, Mumsy is only too happy to send her errant offspring off to finishing school.  Little does the woman or her daughter realize what is in store.  Mme Geraldine's school for young ladies teaches poise and etiquette, but also deceit, subterfuge, and diversion.  It is a school for girls to learn how to get what they want one way or another (through coquetry or espionage).  And, in this case, what almost everyone seems to want (and is willing to kill for) is the prototype (whatever that is!).

Apparently based on Carriger's popular steampunk universe The Parasol Protectorate, this new series of YA novels imagines the adolescents' view of a world of steam power, vampires, werewolves, Picklemen, and flywaymen.  Not being so well versed in steampunk, the concepts were a bit odd for me and seemed a bit too precious and pretentious.  The counterposing of traditional finishing school subjects with espionage is a cute joke the first couple of times, but after a couple hundred pages, the humor grows stale.  Much like steampunk fashion for me, the book is pretty to look at, but seems to paint itself in an artistic corner from which there is little room to move.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Gated, by Amy Christine Parker

Lyla feels safe in the Community.  Thanks to the wise leadership of Pioneer, her family and twenty other families will be saved when the End comes.  They will simply barricade themselves inside an underground bunker and hold out against the Outsiders.  If there is anyone she fears, it is the Outsiders!  It was one of them that abducted her sister in front of their house in NYC so many years ago.  But now she is with friends.

However, as the End time draws near, Lyla begins to notice that things are not quite right.  Pioneer doesn't always appear to be acting in their best interests.  And a chance encounter with an Outsider, a boy named Cody, opens Lyla's eyes to what is really going on.  However, as she tries to awaken her family and friends to the true source of danger in their midst, Pioneer turns his deadly attention directly on her!

A very tense (and bloody) thriller.  This one is definitely not for younger readers and it contains a fair amount of blood, major animal cruelty, and disturbing scenes.  The outcome of the story isn't terribly in doubt, but thanks to some excellent writing it remains a nail biter to the very end.  So, if you have a thick skin, this one is worth reading.