Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Midnight Dress, by Karen Foxlee

Rose and her father travel across Australia, rarely settling down for long.  So when they come to the town of Leonora, she figures that they won't last long.  But the town captures her imagination quickly.  She befriends a local girl named Pearl who is obsessively searching for her father -- all Pearl knows is that he is Russian and his last name is Orlov, so she is writing letters to every Orlov in Moscow.  Pearl is also obsessed with the local harvest festival and the chance that the girls have to appear in it in fancy dresses.  Rose has never worn a fancy dress, but Pearl convinces her to ask a mysterious local old woman (rumored to be a witch) to make a dress.  The woman accepts the request and, while Rose spends days with her helping to sew the dress, she reveals many secrets of her past.  In the end, one of the girls mysteriously disappears and is presumed dead.

The story itself is told in a broken narrative, with each chapter beginning with a police investigator trying to figure out what happened to the missing girl, and then the chapter switches back to the past where Rose and Pearl become acquainted, the dress is made, and things eventually fall apart.  More so than normal, the flashback approach is cumbersome and difficult to work through.  In the interest of being mysterious and "lyrical," the writing is dense and tricky.  I found it a lot of work to read and, in the end, not really worth the trouble (too much back tracking and confusion whenever I drifted and lost focus).  Reading shouldn't be that much work!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Followers, by Anna Davies

Something is rotten at MacHale, an elite boarding school outside of the town of Forsyth, Maine.  During winter term, the students are staging a production of Hamlet, but the production is plagued by death.  First, the school's drama teacher dies and is replaced by an eccentric and driven young director from New York.  Then a freak accident takes out the assistant director. Others mishaps and accidents follow.

The real story, however, is about Briana and her attempts to fit in at the school.  A recent transfer, Bree has tried to be accepted in order to appease her overbearing mother (an alumna).  Winning a part in Hamlet is part of that goal.  When she fails to do so, Briana finds herself saddled with the throwaway role of being the play's "Social Media Director," which involves stirring up excitement for the production through Twitter.

The blurb for the book makes these two plots sound intertwined but appears to largely be describing the final fifty pages of the book (where the body count rises and the plot's coherency fades).  The book succeeds best as a boarding school story -- a tired but usually effective setting for coming-of-age stories of under-supervised teens.  The overbearing mother fits in well and Briana has some interesting character flaws (vanity, insecurity, etc.) that are promising.  The homicides (which really don't kick into full gear until 3/4 of the way through the book), in contrast, just seemed distracting.  It felt like Davies took a decent draft of a book about Briana and tossed in some murders (and a Twitter account or two) to sell the MS to Scholastic as a horror piece.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC of this book in return for my consideration and review.  No compensation was received.]

Friday, May 23, 2014

If You Could Be Mine, by Sara Farizan

In modern-day Iran, homosexuality is a capital offense.  That makes the love that Nasrin and Sahar share a very dangerous situation.  Growing up, it's been easy for the two girls to hide the true nature of their feelings for each other.  But when Nasrin becomes engaged to the charming doctor Reza, it will all be over -- there is no way they can hide what they have been doing any longer.  Sahar becomes desperate to prevent the marriage and keep Nasrin for herself.  Thanks to her cousin Ali, who lives in the shady world of drugs, smuggling, and illicit sex, she discovers an unlikely and extreme solution:  a sex-change operation.  Because, while loving a person of the same sex is illegal, changing your sexual identity is not!

A truly remarkable story that shows a side of Iran that no one probably wants to see (or would believe even exists!).  I was fascinated by Farizan's accounts of gay bars, prostitutes, and illegal parties (keep in mind that consuming alcohol is illegal in Iran, so what does one make of opium!?).  But once we move beyond the titillation of these illicit scenes, there is a warm and authentic story of not just these two young women, but of their parents and friends as well.  The actual romance that forms the center of the story didn't have a lot of heat to it, but the honestly and depth of Sahar's feelings of loss, betrayal, and despair are heartbreaking and moving.  I was drawn to the book by the novelty of the story, but stayed for the appeal of the characters.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mila 2.0, by Debra Driza

Since her father died in a fire, Mila has struggled with piecing back together her life.  She and her mother have moved to a horse ranch in rural Minnesota and Mila.  It hasn't been easy and the kids aren't very friendly.  When a new boy shows up and he and Mila bond over their newness, jealousy from the other girls turns things ugly.  That's when stuff starts to get weird.

An accident that should have been fatal to Mila proves to be just a minor scratch.  But the scratch itself reveals that Mila's innards are mechanical and she is something very different from the sixteen year-old girl she thought she was.  Soon, she and Mom are on the run, pursued by a wide variety of forces of evil.  Mila learns that she is an android built to be an ultimate fighting machine.  She proves to be a fierce fighter, but her fears and anxieties prove to be a handicap.  Can she overcome her reluctance to harm the people who want to kill her and save herself and her mother?

It's an odd story that starts as a basic teen romance but quickly moves into high speed chase and violence.  Comparing the first 100 pages and the last 100 pages are striking -- as if Meg Cabot met Tom Clancy.  I suppose it works in the sense that the beginning of the book gives us the background to appreciate Mila's human side, while her ability to drive a Camaro around downtown DC in a high speed chase comes much later.  I'm happier with the moody adolescent girl we begin with than the gradually dehumanized machine that she becomes (despite her struggles to the contrary).  But I guess I understand the appeal of the message that even a "normal" teenage girl can become a super deadly killing machine.

For those interested in the character, her struggles continue in the sequel that was just released last week.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Freakboy, by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

Brendan is a tough wrestler with a tough wrestling girlfriend, but he harbors a secret:  he's always been more comfortable around girls.  In fact, he's always been a bit jealous of them -- of the way they dress and how they act.  He even sometimes wishes he could be one.  But he's not gay!  He's just....awfully confused! 

Vanessa, his girlfriend, can tell that something is wrong but she can't quite figure out what.  Brendan is distant.  He no longer seems to care about her.  She suspects he must have fallen in love with someone else. 

And then there's Angel, a transsexual who's been on the streets for the past couple of years.  Early in the book, she randomly befriends Brendan, and she'll help direct him through his confusion, but her purpose to the story is really to show his future by telling the story of her past.

It's an ambitious original story exploring gender fluidity.  Told in verse through shifting points of view, it tries to capture not just the process of identifying with transexualism, but also the impact that such decisions have on others.  Clark's depiction is authentic, showing that a great deal of research went into this.  Her poetry is sophisticated and often quite good.

In my opinion, however, the story itself tries to bite off a bit too much.  While we get a great story about Brendan's acceptance of his identity, neither that story, nor in fact any of the subplots, truly wraps up.  Rather, this is an ongoing adventure, whether it is the relationship with Vanessa, Vanessa's own self-realizations, Angel's story and her own growth, or the overall future choices that Brendan will make.  That's realistic but frustrating for the reader.  It's an enticing story, but one which is left (for reasons of space or just ambition?) unfinished.  I wanted to learn more about Vanessa!

A tighter story with fewer subplots could have done more. For example, dropping the character of Angel altogether might have allowed the space to take the main narrative farther to a more satisfactory point of departure.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Formerly Shark Girl, by Kelly Bingham

A year has passed since Jane was attacked by the shark, losing her arm in the process.  While the immediate aftermath of that was told in Bingham's 2007 book, Shark Girl, the author returns to her subject now to tell about the continuing healing process.  Surprisingly, for a sequel built on the same structure and same premise, the continuation is actually a far more interesting novel than the original.

A year later, Jane is still struggling with the psychological and physical trauma but determined to move on with her life.  The question, though, is move on to where?  Should she pursue her original dream of being an artist?  Or should she follow the inspiration of all the people who helped her through the last year and pursue a career in nursing?  In truth, she's not a natural in either (her artistry suffers from a loss of her muse and the physical challenge of learning to draw with her left hand; meanwhile, nursing requires stronger science skills than Jane has ever possessed).

Other themes also play a part in the story.  There's romance in the air (both for her, as well as for her mother who has started to secretly date again).  And finally, there are the never-ending letters from her "fans" -- people who tell her what an inspiration she is, much to her complete and utter astonishment!

While I still find Bingham's verse underwhelming (it takes a lot of skill to write a novel in verse!), I really did find the story more compelling this time around.  There's a greater distance from the trauma and Jane is focused enough to lend a strong direction to this sequel.  It's a more compelling adventure (moving on, rather than just healing).  In sum, it just works better.  And where the non-verse parts of Shark Girl were distracting, the letters from the fans in Formerly Shark Girl are well grounded to the story and provide an well-integrated Greek Chorus to supplement Jane's own musing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Revenge of the Flower Girls, by Jennifer Ziegler

When Lily announces that she's planning to get married to dorky nincompoop Burton, her three little sisters - Dawn, Darby, and Delaney - are aghast!  Under no circumstances can they allow this to happen!  They've always preferred Lily's prior boyfriend Alex and they know that Lily and Alex are still in love with each other!  So, with a month before the great day, the three girls start plotting how they will prevent the wedding from occurring, and also how to get Lily and Alex back together.  Many tricks and hi-jinx follow in what imagines is the beginning of many stories about these spunky eleven-year-old triplets.

While the story is lighthearted and cute, I found it a bit hard to enjoy a story about a group of children intending to sabotage their older sister's wedding.  Despite numerous warnings from all the grown-ups around them, they persist in their goal.  And their stubborn persistence made them seem more like selfish brats concerned with getting nice presents and having fun, than caring younger siblings.  Perhaps younger readers won't be bothered by the story's inherent mean streak (the title itself is a misnomer - there is no "revenge" going on here; but rather, simple plotting), but it interfered with my own enjoyment of the book.   And regardless of the happy ending, it was hard to not feel that a lesson in respecting people's choices and proper boundaries was called for.

A note on the cover:  in the book, the girls resist wearing dresses and end up attending the wedding in tuxedos.  Somehow, the marketing department at Scholastic didn't get that message!

[Disclaimer:  I received the book from the publisher in return for my consideration and review.  No other compensation was received.  As is usual, I'm donating the book to the public library.  This book will be released on May 25th.]

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Storm, by Donna Jo Napoli

When the rain begins to fall, young Sebah just thinks that they have come early this year.  But as the rain turns to flood, she finds herself climbing higher and higher to find safe ground.  As that becomes harder and her situation grows more desperate, she is rescued and joined by a young man.  Eventually building a raft, they set out on the sea.  Still, the rains continue.  Tragedy strikes but as all seems lost, they suddenly come across a large mysterious ship, full of animals, messianic humans, and few new allies.

Napoli loves to explore legends and myths.  In this novel, she takes on the story of Noah.  Genesis doesn't actually provide much detail and since this story doesn't actually focus on any of the known participants, she has a great deal of license to imagine instead what stowing away on the Ark might have been like.  It's an interesting premise but surprisingly different than I imagined it would be.  Much of Napoli's interest is in imagining life for the animals and the book focuses on how hard spending a year in the Ark would have been for human and animal passengers alike.  It's a sort of brutal realism that doesn't quite work for a story like this (Genesis is not exactly the most realistic of books in the Bible!).  And some might argue that her literal interpretation sort of misses the point.

Towards the end, Napoli makes a belated exploration into the entire mindset of being Noah and what that experience might have been like.  It's an interesting digression and gets into territory that would have been much more interesting to explore.  Overall, the book seemed a bit of a lost opportunity.  Well-written, but simply not rising up to the glory of its source material.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Remarkable Life and Times of Eliza Rose, by Mary Hooper

Eliza's arrival in London starts off badly: nearly immediately she is tossed in prison for theft.  Through a series of struggles and set-backs, Eliza gradually works her way up through the theater and gains the attentions of the nobility and the royalty in Charles II's Court.  Along the way, she holds a number of occupations as diverse as selling oranges at the theater to being an accomplice highway man.  Her quest throughout is to find her true family, having been cast out of the only family she knew, when she discovers that she is not the child of either of the parents that raised her.
No one writes as richly about seventeenth-century London as Mary Hooper.  Beautiful historical detail fills this story, which will serve mostly to impress upon readers just how terribly hard life was - especially for an unattached woman.  Hooper hasn't ventured far from the settings of her other books (and there is even a small cross-over to the heroines of her Petals in the Ashes and At the Sign of the Sugared Plum books), but this provides familiarity and lends her confidence to tell a slightly bolder story that mixes fiction and fact, and remains truly entertaining throughout.

Letting Ana Go, by Anonymous

She always thought that girls with eating disorders who starved themselves to death were dumb.  Yet, when she sees her father abandon her mildly overweight mother in favor of a more streamlined girlfriend, she learns the importance of watching what you eat!  Along with her friend Jill (and Jill's mother guilt-inducing cheerleading), she starts counting calories and losing weight - in search of a perfect body that is always just a few pound less than her current weight.

The author has drawn out a pretty classic text-book case of anorexia nervosa (perhaps a bit more eager to blame the grown-ups than the media that normally gets the nod).  It's a book with a mission (one that few of us would disagree with) but not much to sell it.  The characters and story exist to scare or warn the reader of the perils of eating disorders.  It seems unlikely that most young readers would be unfamiliar with the concept already.

If not original, is it still a story worth repeating?  If someone reading this book learns enough from doing so that a death is averted, than some good will have been done.  The problem, I fear, is that the book probably can't do that for the simple reason that the story illustrates so well:  the behavior is not rational.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Rules for Disappearing, by Ashley Elston

Meg and her family are in Witness Protection and have been relocated six times in the past ten months.  Each time, they are forced to assume a new identity.  Meg doesn't know why they are hiding out - her parents won't tell her - but the strain is wearing everyone out.  Dad is continually on edge, skulking around, and having angry private conversations with strangers.  Mom has dived into the bottle and turned her social drinking into a major problem.  Meg's little sister is fleeing every time men in suits show up, afraid that they are about to be relocated again.

Meg is convinced that this most recent relocation needs to their last.  She wants answers to why they are hiding and has started sleuthing to figure out what is going on.  She has also decided that, after numerous hasty departures, that she won't get attached to anyone or anything this time - no clubs, no friends, nothing to miss if she has to leave again.  But that plan is thrown when she meets Ethan!

A little slow to start and periodically rough (the "rules for disappearing" at the beginning of each chapter are consistently silly and unnecessary), the story does pick up as it goes along.  Also, important for a story with lots of subplots, Elston does a great job of tying everything together into a satisfying conclusion.  Some of this gets a bit too neat and convenient, but it's a good piece of escapism (no idea, however, about whether the sequel coming out later this month can keep up the magic!).  The romance did less for me than the action, but thankfully Meg and Ethan's relationship is not a critical part of the story.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Secret Tree, by Natalie Standiford

Minty and her friend Paz love to roller skate.  They dream of becoming roller derby stars together.  And while their older sisters warn them that starting sixth grade may bring changes that will challenge their friendship, they are sure that they will stay best friends.  However, as the summer progresses it seems like those warning may come true even before school starts!  Suddenly, everyone seems to have secrets!

But the real adventure occurs when Misty finds a strange boy spying on her and her friends.  Tracking him when he runs away, she finds that he is living alone in an abandoned house next door to the crazy "Witch Lady" who strikes terror in the local children.  But it is his pastime - collecting other people's secrets - and how he does it (pulling them out of the trunk of a tree in the woods) that interests Minty.

If that synopsis sounds a bit odd, it's because the story is a bit hard to summarize.  It's an odd mash-up of realistic middle school drama and junior supernatural lore.  It's a story where your best friend's sister can be casting voodoo spells on your friend, but the biggest problem is that that same friend has failed to invite you to a pool party!  As crazy as this all sounds, it actually works.  There's just enough fantasy to seem magical and enough realism to be grounded.

Tales from My Closet, by Jennifer Anne Moses

Five sophomores struggle through family difficulties.  While the specific details of their obstacles differ (and encompass some pretty heavy subjects like divorce, addiction, and parental neglect), each of these young women share a love of clothes.  And while it might sound a bit pathetic, each chapter (rotating narrators) ties in to a particular piece of clothing.  Rather than displaying vanity, the stories instead show us the importance of clothing and the varieties of ways it plays a role in our lives.

The writing itself is functional and the characters fairly stock items, but the novel benefits from its clever and ambitious concept.  When I cracked the book, I fully expected some tired fashionista agitprop and maybe a bunch of shallow clothes-obsessed girls gabbing about their fave brand names.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while the story does indeed center around clothing, it isn't really about it at all.  There's plenty of wardrobe details here for the reader who craves that stuff, but the clothes are really just props (or maybe literary devices) here.  And, as much as I'd like to chide young readers for caring too much about style and fashion (being a crotchety middle age guy!) I found these stories about self and self-expression to be surprisingly deep.

[Disclosure:  The publisher supplied me with an unsolicited free copy of this book with the hope that I would review it.  Upon finishing the review, I will donate the book to my local public library.  No other compensation was received.]