Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Tragedy Paper, by Elizabeth Loban

No setting is as tired and trite in YA literature as the boarding school.  Traditionally single-sex (and usually just boys) but nowadays co-ed (and more casual about sexual exploration), the boarding school is always portrayed as a place where poorly-supervised teens spend their days committing petty infractions of the rules that build up to the point of tragedy and heartbreak.  At which point, students are usually dead and teachers' careers are ruined.  Growing up usually occurs.  The difference with this book is that it dispenses with the idea that there is any other purpose to the genre and instead starts us off from the beginning with the idea that tragedy is the central theme of the book.

The story is told a year after the facts through the artifice of a senior named Duncan, who moves into the former room of the tragic student and finds a series of CDs with the former inhabitant's confessions on them.  And it is the tragic figure, Tim who tells his story so that Duncan can both (a) avoid the same errors; and (b) get some juicy material for the "Tragedy Paper" (a senior thesis on the meaning of tragedy) that the students must write.

This is no Looking for Alaska or Dead Poets Society, but it is an interesting and sophisticated take.  Early on, we are introduced to Tim's and Duncan's love interests and it would be obvious to assume that they play a role in the tragedy, but the story is more ambitious than that.  Even Tim's unusual characteristic of being albino is a bit of a red herring.  Instead, the ending is a genuine (but well foreshadowed) surprise.

The story, with its series of CDs, reminded me of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, but Tim is a much less whiny narrator.  I cared less for the other characters, who were thinly drawn.  And then, there's the matter of Tim's monomania -- a hallmark of tragedy, as the book points out -- which I found as annoying as I find it in Shakespeare (but that's my problem with the entire genre, not this book in particular).

Firecracker, by David Iserson

Astrid comes from a super rich family of not-very-nice people.  She isn't very nice either.  Her role model is her ornery grandfather, a politician and corporate big guy, who teaches her how to screw over people and get away with it.

After she is kicked out of her elite private school for cheating, her parents decide to teach her a lesson by sending her to public school.  Being used to buying whatever she wants, public school is a bit of a shock.  Worse is her new therapist who wants her to practice being nice.  At first she tries to buy nice deeds as well, but when that doesn't work, she eventually figures out a way to complete her odious assignment.  Meanwhile, she is hot in pursuit of the person who ratted on her in the first place and got her thrown out of private school.

The result is a story that is long on snarkiness (lots of "whatever" and "I stopped listening") and short on heart.  It's funny for the first 20-30 pages but quickly wears thin.  If it had been more rich girl finds her heart of gold by slumming it (instead of nasty person stays nasty for most of the book but eventually makes points sacrifice), I would have been more taken by the story.  Instead, I simply failed to engage with the characters.  What was intended to be humorous just seemed tacky by the end.

Friday, March 28, 2014

How I Lost You, by Janet Gurtler

"Buds before studs" has always been Grace and Kya's motto -- never let guys (or anything else) get in the way of your friendship.  Grace and Kya have made plans together.  As two of the best paintballers in the area, they want to join the women's collegiate team at Seattle University (unfortunately fictional, although Seattle U does have a good paintball program!).  They just need to impress the team and keep their grades up.

But as they are approach realizing their dreams, Kya starts to go off the rails -- ending up in risky situations involving alcohol, drugs, and boys.  Her behavior becomes more and more erratic and threatens not only her safety, but both of their plans.  People tell Grace that she needs to jettison her relationship with Kya, and that continuing to defend her friend is going to drag her down.  But it's hard for Grace to let go.  Grace believes in her heart that she has to have Kya's back - on and off the field - and she can't bear to break her pledge.

A satisfying story of friendship lost and the pain that goes along with letting go.  It's a little hard to truly understand the depth of Grace's loyalty from what we can witness in the book (some flashbacks on the girls' past would have helped to fill in why the girls are so bound to each other).  Also, the conflict between the girls in the present grows tiresome, and their fights become repetitive and fail to advance the plot.  But in terms of showing the complicated dynamics of a long-term friendship coming apart, the story achieves its mission.

The Chaos of Stars, by Kiersten White

It's really hard to be a kid when your mother is Isis and your father is the Lord of the Underworld.  Isadora's father is literally in a different world and Mom not only thinks she's the Mother of Mankind...she like actually is.  They have an annoying habit of wanting to be worshiped and, anyway, who needs to look at yet another statue of your Mom nursing a pharaoh?  So, when the chance presents itself, Isadora latches on the opportunity to join her older brother Sirus in San Diego.

Once out of Egypt, she makes some friends, meets a boy who looks good enough to be a god (but to the best of Isadora's knowledge is a mere mortal), and helps to supervise the set up of a small exhibit of some priceless odds and ends that her parents have lying around.  There's some danger afoot but Isadora is worried most of all about Mom finding out that her new boyfriend is Greek (for understandable reason, Ancient Egyptian deities don't like the Greeks!).

It is all beautifully absurd and hilarious, and has a nice undercurrent about intergenerational understanding.  The first half works spectacularly well as comedy (mostly based on the premise that modern dysfunctional families share a great deal in common with Egyptian gods) and is lively and fun.  The second half is a decent adventure and mystery, but lacks the originality of the first part.  That could be a mood killer, but overall there is that nice poignant familial reconciliation stuff that gets me all weepy.  It's funny and ultimately uplifting, with a pleasant romantic coating.  Overall, reminiscent of a better-than-average Meg Cabot novel like Avalon High.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, by Susin Nielsen

As Henry starts at a new school, he's worried about making a good strong first impression.  He's reminded of the trouble his older brother got into when he didn't do so and he ended up being cruelly bulled.  That took a tragic turn last year when his brother brought a rifle into school and shot the bully, before turning the gun on himself.

Since that tragedy, Henry's family has fallen apart.  Mom has moved back in with her parents and been in and out of institutions.  Dad and Henry have moved to a new town and are struggling to rebuild their lives, come to grips with grief and anger, and keep their past a secret.  Why couldn't life be more like the professional wrestling matches that Henry loves -- where good and evil are well-defined and the good guys usually come out on top in the end?

In all, a pretty sweet book for a story that ought to be difficult and traumatic to tell.  It ends on a saccharine sweet note (which is probably demanded by the young target audience of the book), but Nielsen is restrained and avoids tying too many things up.  This leads me to the book's strongest suit:  the complexity of the characters.  From the non-romance of Henry and his classmate Alberta, to the strained relationship of his parents, the awkwardness of Henry and his best friend Farley, and the great lightening impact of the neighbors bickering, there are some wonderful characters and great interactions.  It's quirky, but very endearing.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Allegra, by Shelley Hrdlitschka

Allegra is the daughter of two professional musicians and, while musically talented, she longs to become a dancer.  When she enrolls at an arts high school, she even tries to place out of music theory.  However, the teacher, Mr. Rocchelli, won't let her withdraw.  He's young and handsome and turns out to be full of unorthodox ideas.  Recognizing that Allegra's knowledge of music really does cover the class's curriculum, he challenges her to compose an orchestral piece instead.  She accepts the alternative assignment and, with his help, produces a masterpiece.  But their close collaboration on the work sparks rumors and accusations of inappropriate behavior from their peers and Allegra finds herself defending their integrity as well as her talent.

It's a good story and I enjoyed reading it in spite of two systemic problems.  The first is the challenge of describing a musical composition in prose.  Without being able to hear the beauty of it, we are stuck with the author's descriptions (and there are only so many times one can read how incredible the music is before the assertions fall flat).  The other issue is the plotting of the story.  The core of the story (Allegra's relationship with her teacher) builds in tension but never resolves, ending in a bit of a literary whimper.  Similarly, the subplots (her dancing career, tensions with friends, a might-be romance with a classmate, and the pending separation of her parents) all peter out without resolution.  This left me at the end with a sense that the story was unfinished.

Pieces, by Chris Lynch

When Eric's brother dies, he is the only member of the family to resist the idea of allowing the doctors to harvest useful organs.  But after a year has passed and his parents have largely moved on, Eric becomes curious about the recipients of those pieces of his brother and reaches out to the people who received them.  Some of the recipients choose to remain anonymous, but three of them agree to meet.  The initial meeting surprises just about everyone and gradually a friendship develops between Eric and the people whose lives his brother's gifts changed.  It's an odd friendship.

The book starts out with an interesting premise but after a few moments of wonderment about what it means to have parts of your brother inside of strangers, the story starts to unravel.  By the end, it has become a disorganized mess of ideas and characters that largely failed to capture my interest.  I don't think Lynch really knew what to do with the story.  No character really develops and the original premise merely serves as an excuse for these disparate characters to interact.  The highlight of the book is actually a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese, but that could have been spun off as an amusing short story, as it has nothing to do with the story.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu

An unusual romance about what happens when two teens who both suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder fall in love.  It's an easy mental disease to make fun of, but, while there are certainly some very funny parts of this book,  the overriding sense of this story is respect for what the condition puts its sufferers through.

Bea's illness manifests itself through obsessions with tracking other people.  Constantly afraid that the objects of her concern are in danger, she needs to "check up" on them.  Given the repetitive nature of her anxiety, the behavior is easily misconstrued as stalking, and it lands her in all sorts of legal problems.  Beck's obsession lies with hygiene and fitness.  He literally works out at the gym to the point of exhaustion and then rubs his skin clean off trying to wash up afterwards.

To the extent that it is possible between these two colorful young people, the romance follows the traditional pattern of acquaintance, misunderstanding, and forgiveness.  What is different is how their disorders affect their everyday lives and how they complicate each other's already-complex routines.

At times, this is a hard book to get through.  The nature of the disorder is exhausting in itself and one is tempted to simply wring some necks, but overall impression I found the book fascinating.  Haydu's accomplishment is creating a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of such unusual young people, and bringing them truly to life.  Mental illness is hard to get right in a book and she does an impressive job here.

Samphire Song, by Jill Hucklesby

Hit by the double blow of a father killed in action in the Middle East and a younger brother suffering from kidney disease, Jodie soothes herself by taking care of the horses at a local stable.  When she is offered the chance to buy her own horse, everyone thinks she'll find a nice gentle mare or pony to take care of.  Instead, she is drawn to a wild-eyed part-Arabian stallion.  Considered unmanageable by just about everyone, Jodie sees through his exterior and feels sympathy for an animal who needs as much TLC as she does.

It would be hard to find the justification for yet another horse book for girls as it's already a pretty crowded field.  Unfortunately, this one doesn't break new ground.  It has plenty of appealing elements and, if you like the genre, the authentic details, some adventure, a loving family, and a brave girl, then you can't really go wrong with it, but it doesn't stand out in any particularly unique way.

There is one super-distracting element of the book.  Originally published in the UK, someone made the editorial decision to Americanize the story.  This is a half-hearted affair where "Pounds" are changed to "Dollars" and "County" is (inconsistently) changed to "State." Even so, there are plenty of Anglicisms slipping in (for example, a "pub landlord") that seems sloppy.  Honestly, it would have been better to leave it alone.  Girls who love horses, also love horses in the UK just as much (if not more) than horses in the US.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch

Carey and her little sister Janessa have eked out their survival in an old camper in the woods for years.  Their mother, usually strung out on meth, leaves them alone for weeks at a time.  The absences grow longer and longer until finally she doesn't return at all.  As their food is just about to run out, they are found by a social worker and their estranged father.  Brought back to civilization, the two girls struggle to adjust to their new life and move beyond the terrors of their past.

As you can imagine, it's a heartwrenching story with plenty of opportunity to shock the reader.  I'd be cold-hearted (and lying) to claim that it didn't move me.  However, a few days later as I write this review, the impact of the reading has faded surprisingly quickly.  The culprit in my mind is the roughness of the writing (a narrative that is paced irregularly - skipping forward and sometimes unnecessarily repeating).  The characters also are thinly drawn (with the adults either entirely evil or unbelievably virtuous and self-sacrificing).  Some attempt to draw out the mother and father (and even the step mother) a bit more would have made the situation more interesting.  As is, only the children have any sort of depth.  I get that Murdoch wants to keep the focus on the kids and they certainly have an interesting story to tell, but in the vacuum of capricious and mysterious adults, they are merely pawns for events that the reader wants to understand better.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Burning Blue, by Paul Griffin

Nicole is the most beautiful girl at school.  Therefore, jealousy seems like the most likely reason for the brutal assault in which half her face is burned with battery acid.  But Jay is convinced that there is more to the story.  Frustrated by the slow pace of the police investigation, Jay hacks into computer systems and pounds the pavement in classic sleuthing fashion, uncovering a truth that reaches far wider (and simultaneously far too intimately close to home) than is comfortable.

The book is billed as "a tender, haunting look at life after beauty." It isn't really.  Instead, it's really a very complicated whodunit with an extremely sloppy wrap-up (for about 240-odd pages, the story slowly rolls out, but something lit a fire under Griffin and the last fifty pages just become a messy unveiling of the real story with little-to-no effort to have it make sense).  Some heartstring-pulling at the end winds this mess up (probably that "tender" stuff in the blurb), but the characters feel neglected and unresolved.  It doesn't help that the cast of characters is vast and the story is unfocused.  Basically, it's a mess!