Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory, by Laurie Halse Anderson

The injuries that Hayley's father received in the war are only partly physical.  Rather, it is the psychic traumas, the ones that can't be easily seen, that hit him the deepest.  And while Hayley desperately wants her father to get better, she wants him to stay even more.  He may have trouble holding down a job, making ends meet, or even keeping his sanity, but as long as she has him, it is enough.  Or, rather, it has to be.

It comes at a terrible cost.  After five years of caring for her PTSD-suffering father, Hayley's own life is coming loose at the seams.  While intelligent, she barely functional in school, alienated from her peers, and struggling to maintain any social connections.

Anderson wrote one of my all-time favorite YA books (Speak) and a number of less-notable other novels since then.  This one nearly breaks the recent streak.  I found the story deep and insightful.  It sensitively explored what combat does, not only to soldiers, but also to their families.  In fact, it nearly stands out as being in the same caliber of Speak, except for one (in my mind) fatal decision: a very weak story.

On its face, this book shares a lot in common with Speak.  Both books are about people who have suffered terrible traumas and their attempts to heal.  The difference is that while Melinda was the central character in Speak, Hayley's father is simply the instigator of the drama of this story.  And, while Melinda's search to regain self-worth drove that earlier novel's story forward, here, Hayley's father's problems serve mostly to drag Hayley down.  The Impossible Knife of Memory is about pain and suffering, but more than anything it is about co-dependency.  Drama is what drives any storyline, but when the drama is based on character stubbornness and refusal to accept help, my patience with the story and the characters frays.  I get that the dad is proud and I get that this arrogance rubs off on his daughter, but at some point I care less and less what happens to them.  There is tragedy here, but it is so easily resolved (in the last ten pages when the characters just suddenly start accepting help after 380 pages of refusing to do what they are told) that one wonders what the point was.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Time of the Fireflies, by Kimberley Griffiths Little

One evening, in her home above her parent's antique shop in a small bayou town in Louisiana, Larissa answers a phone call on one of the antique phones from the shop - a phone which isn't hooked up.  A mysterious voice tells her frantically that she must "trust the fireflies" and that it's "a matter of life or death." The message and the medium make little sense to Larissa but soon she is embroiled in a mystery involving ancient curses and betrayals, time travel, and family tragedies.

This wonderful and complex story plays well as a decent supernatural mystery novel, and includes some nice gentle (and subtle) lessons about forgiveness and familial reconciliation that are appropriate for a middle reader.  There are a few rough spots in the narration (and the resolution is a bit from out in left field), but overall this is a satisfying story and engrossing read.  Little avoids the types of good ol' boy Southern stereotypes that plague stories place in the bayou, and instead uses the setting and local color to prettify the story.  I also appreciated the fact (which I only realized in conclusion) that all of the important characters in the story are female -- proving that one can write a story that is empowering without having to make a big point in doing so.  People who are squeamish about creepy possessed dolls, however, should probably give this one a pass.

[Disclosure:  I solicited and received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.  The book is planned for release at the end of July.]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pawn, by Aimée Carter

At the age of seventeen, in this version of America's dystopian future, every one has to take a test which determines their future.  Kitty never had big ambitions - just perhaps the chance to get into a decent job.  But when she fails the test because of her dyslexia, she gives up and decides to throw herself into prostitution instead.  That plan too goes awry and she finds herself offered the opportunity, instead, to enter the inner sanctum of the Hart family who rule the country. 

But what in fact is she signing up for?  Once ensconced, she finds that the rulers may live a life of amazing luxury, but it is also a world of depravity and bloodlust.  Family members plot and counterplot to hold on to power -- a cycle of violence that Kitty finds herself drawn in to as a helpless pawn.

So, what is there to say about this new addition to the vast family of dystopian trilogies?  Not much. The setting isn't terribly plausible and, aside from an obvious dig at aptitude tests, there isn't much useful social commentary.  Instead, we have to look for interesting characters and a strong story.  Unfortunately the characters aren't terribly deep.  Aside from a constant barrage of empty threats to kill to protect each other, there aren't really any signs of passion.  There are at least two separate romances, but neither one feels real or elicits much interest.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Roomies, by Sara Zarr & Tara Altebrando

At the start of the summer after graduating from high school, Elizabeth receives a notice from Berkeley about her room arrangements for the fall, including contact information for her roommate.  Coming all the way from New Jersey, she figures it would be good to coordinate who's bringing what, so she reaches out to Lauren, who lives in San Francisco.  This starts up a correspondence that runs through the summer, full of plenty of adventures, anxieties, fall-outs, and reconciliations -- all without ever meeting in person.

It's not a book of surprises (girl meets girl, girl develops strong friendship with girl, girl hates girl after misunderstanding, girl makes up with girl -- plus the usual boyfriends, sex, younger siblings, and parents thrown in), but it is a charming read.  I would describe it as "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" without the sisterhood ... and without the pants.  The book is helped by the fact that Zarr and Altebrando are both decent writers and this team effort is good for showing their particular talents.  Presumably, they each took care of one of the characters, which allows for strong distinct personalities.  But being good team players, the characters interact well with each other.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Living, by Matt de la Peña

Shy comes from a town on the border just south of San Diego and his job on a luxury cruise liner opens his eyes to the immense wealth that some people enjoy.  He's hoping to make some money and get his mind off of the recent death of his grandmother to a new virulent disease called Romero.  But on his first trip out, an upset older man commits suicide right in front of Shy.  Soon, Shy finds that all sort of figures are interested in what Shy saw before the man died -- Shy is being followed, his cabin broken into, and a man in a black suit makes vague threats against him.  Meanwhile, Shy has other issues closer to home.  He's grown close with a fellow crew member Carmen (who is engaged but seems interested in Shy).  And, from back home, Shy learns that his nephew has now contracted Romero's.

The story, however, takes a sudden left turn when a huge earthquake levels California, sending a massive tsunami out into the ocean and threatening the ship.  By the time that threat passes, Shy finds himself on a wrecked lifeboat, in the company of a spoiled young woman named Addie.  Larger dangers await!

Sometimes, even I need to take a break from the "pink" books, but at the end of the day the mindless violence, nonsensical plots, and sheer brutality of action stories doesn't really do that much for me.  I kind of liked the dynamic between Shy and his crew mate Carmen (and even Shy's budding attachment to Addie), but the romance never really develops very far and character development is not a major focus here.  I think I'll go back to my usual stuff again.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The White Bicycle, by Beverley Brenna

Taylor, a nineteen year-old woman with Asperger's Syndrome, spends the summer in the south of France with her mother and the family of her mother's boyfriend.  During the summer, Taylor comes to discover her own independence through the friendship of an older woman -- it is a change to which Taylor's mother has trouble adjusting.  Told entirely through Taylor's voice, the reader is provided a unique perspective on how the world appears when you have Asperger's.

A quiet and gentle book, but still challenging because of the unreliable narrator of the story.  People have tried to write books like this before, but I think Brenna succeeds largely because the story is modest and this allows us to patiently explore Taylor's mind.  That mind can certainly be frustrating, and there are times when you want to just throw up our hands and give up (the way, apparently, Taylor's father did in her youth) but by the end we're cheering along with her.  Nice!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Now I'll Tell You Everything, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Alice McKinley has grown up.  She's left home and started school at the University of Maryland.  But unlike the other books in the series (that tackle 4-6 months of Alice's life at most), this book covers the next forty-two years of her life -- including marriage, children, and grandchildren.  It's a longer book, but still a whirlwind of activity.  The details, of course, are all spoilers, but suffice it to say that Naylor covers pretty much all of the key moments of Alice's life (although not quite to the funeral).

I really had not intended to read this book.  As the twenty-eighth (and final) book in the series, however, I felt obligated to finish what I had started.  Keep in mind that I absolutely despise series books so the simple fact that I read the entire series -- over the past fifteen years -- is an impressive endorsement.  The series has always impressed me for its realism and painstaking detail, but my love is tempered by my frustrations.  The books covering Alice's younger years work well as middle readers, but as Alice hits adolescence and gets older, the chaste style of Naylor's writing grates.  It's not that the books lack sex (far from it, Naylor packs the later books with plenty of good sexual information in a Judy Blume tradition), it's the moralistic and preachy quality that never feels quite right.  The later books also lack much cohesion -- being, instead, anecdotal and disjointed.  A few individual books (Reluctantly Alice, Alice In Between, and Dangerously Alice) stood out by being thematic and more plot-driven, but for the most part, Naylor has preferred unrelated events that are age-appropriate for the given book, delivered by the often too-perfect Alice. 

In the breezy survey of the bulk of Alice's life that the current tome covers, these issues are even more pronounced.  The chapters read a bit like Christmas letters and the speed at which events go by leaves us with very little story to grasp on to.  And because the events speed up as the years go by (200 pages on four years in college, leaving 300 pages to cover 38 years of life), the sense of disconnect simply grows as you read the book.  There are plenty of sad, joyous, and poignant moments, but nothing sticks for long.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Flowers In the Attic, by V. C. Andrews

So, if I'm reading YA literature in my late 40s, what was I reading when I was actually in the demographic?  Mostly science-fiction and fantasy.  However, if I had been reading YA in the early 80s, I probably would have cracked this book.

The story is infamous enough:  Recently widowed and desperate mother returns to her parents' home to live with her sadistic parents.  Because her father would not approve of the fact that she had offspring with her late husband, she hides her four children in the attic of their grandparents' huge mansion.  For several years the children live in these cramped corners and endure all sorts of mental and physical tortures.  And the two oldest children develop a strong bond that eventually spills over into incest.  Several sex scenes - while tame and fairly oblique by modern standards - were probably mandatory reading by teen-aged readers at the time.

It's a classic and spawned a major literary phenomenon (five books in the series and two film adaptations -- the most recent just a few months ago).  It is a book that will not die.  Yet, it doesn't really have that much objective literary merit.  It's depressing and rather plodding:  the kids suffer and then they suffer some more.  After a while, there is more suffering (you get the idea!).  The prose is turgid -- intended to emulate Dickens, but without much of the wit.  And the naughty bits, as previously mentioned, are pretty tame by modern standards.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Things I Know About Love, by Kate Le Vann

Seventeen year-old Olivia comes to visit her brother in Princeton for a month in the summer.  Away from her home in England, she lets down her guard and falls in love with (an ironically) English boy named Adam.  But before all of that, she recounts for us all the previous experiences she has had with boys.  It's the usual heartbreaking and awkward encounters of adolescence and calculated to pull our heartstrings and make us feel sympathetic to the character.  And, if you left the story about ten pages before the ending, you would feel pretty good about the sweetness of Olivia and the wonderfulness of her love with Adam.  Unfortunately, the book takes a nasty sharp turn at the end and the whole thing goes up in smoke.

I started out really liking this book.  Olivia was wonderful and her recounting of her first boyfriends was poignant and realistic -- the sheer authenticity of the feelings and actions of the boys and her reaction to them were enchanting.  And when she meets Adam, the romance really grew organically and felt right.  Olivia is such a self-effacing and modest girl that it is hard for the reader not to embrace her.  All of which makes Le Vann's decision on how to end the story particularly brutal and cruel (and largely unnecessary!).  I don't reveal endings as a policy, so I can't tell you much more than that, but the ending basically ruined the story.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Theory of Everything, by Kari Luna

String theory and giant panda bear shamans, oh my!

Sophie, like her father, is obsessed with late 80s alternative rock.  She considered it one of the few ties she has to the man, since he walked out on her and her mother four years ago.  But there are apparently other similarities.  She’s been having “episodes” where she leaves reality for a few minutes at a time (sometimes to a place where rock videos come to life, sometimes to a world with giant pandas, and sometimes to a land where inanimate objects  come to life).  These experiences, she learns, are similar to what her father went through when trying to explain his theory about the universe.  With that realization and a desire to prove to her mother that she’s not losing her mind, Sophie and her friend Finney go to New York to search for her Dad.

It’s hard to succinctly summarize this quirky and original novel.  The late 80s rock thing is old and tired but Luna gives it the most original twist she can.  The rest of the book is just way out there and loads of fun.  What can you say about a giant panda named Walt?  Or hallucinations about jamming with The Cure?  Or just the funky weird way that even the normal people are in this story?  Or about how seriously the characters are  about love’s relationship with theoretical physics?  It’s weird, lively, and worth a read as one of the more unusual YA books of the year!

Monday, June 09, 2014

Lily and Taylor, by Elise Moser

Over the years, Taylor has watched her older sister being brutalized by her boyfriend, and she has copied her sibling and acquired an abusive boyfriend of her own.  But when Taylor's sister is murdered, Taylor has to relocate to her grandmother's home and the physical distance provides her a break from her own boyfriend (not that that stops him from jealously tracking her in regular phone calls!).  Just before Christmas, he shows up at her new home and abducts her and her friend Lily, and takes them to an isolated cabin in the woods.

It's a brutish story that starts off with an autopsy and ends in terrible violence.  This is not a story for the squeamish.  No doubt, these two young women have horrendous lives, but the book itself feels exploitative and not very informative.

Moser does a great job of showing the brutality and depicting Taylor's inability to break out of the cycle, but she does a less successful job of explain how Taylor got in that place.  There's no story of how the boyfriend charmed her, of how he only slowly revealed his ugly side, and only oblique intimations of how Taylor had been basically bred to accept extreme physical abuse as a normal part of life.  All of that has to be inferred.

The job of telling Taylor's story is clouded up by Moser's desire to also tell Lily's story (of neglect and falling between the cracks of the system). Towards the end of the book, Moser does a much better job of belatedly explaining how Lily got to where she is.  It is ironic that Taylor's story is not similarly explained.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Promise Me Something, by Sara Kocek

Thanks to redistricting, Reyna gets assigned to a different junior high school than her BFFs.  As one of the only "new" kids at the school, she has a hard time making friends.  So, she settles for Olive, an extremely intense girl who everyone else seems to avoid.  Olive has definite anger issues and has an unfortunate habit of saying whatever pops into her head.  But, over time, Reyna grows to like her.  That lasts until Reyna discovers that Olive is a lesbian.  While she doesn't consider herself homophobic, Reyna doesn't want the other kids at school to get the wrong idea and she puts distance between herself and Olive.  This does not go well and, after a tragic incident occurs, Reyna has some major soul searching to do in order to straighten things out.

Numerous subplots also have their place in this story (including Olive's alcoholic mother, Reyna's discomfort with her widower father getting re-married, the growing chasm developing between Reyna and her old friends, a homophobic teacher, a runaway teen, and even a romance).  It's these subplots that are probably the weakest part of the book.  Any one of them would have been sufficient, but together they seem a bit excessive.  Resolving all of them satisfactorily is nearly impossible and the wrap-up is a bit perfunctory.

But the book simply soars on the strength of its characters.  Reyna feels unusually authentic.  She is not a character that one will like at first, but her personal growth feels real and you gradually like her. As painful (and maybe even distasteful) as it was to watch her rejection of Olive's homosexuality, it felt realistic.  The fluidity of the relationships overall (as Reyna flits from one circle to another) also felt painfully right for the age group.  By getting the kids right, Kocek is able to make a story which is otherwise set in very stereotypical settings (even including the traditional unsupervised party) feel extraordinary fresh.  Anyone who reads a lot of YA knows how the characters are supposed to interact, but Reyna defies those expectations and takes us places that just feel better and more appropriate.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Catch A Falling Star, by Kim Culbertson

Carter loves her small town of Little CA.  She loves its beauty, quiet, and solitude.  And while other kids dream of getting away, Carter just wants to stay.  So, when a film production company comes in during the summer to shoot a film, tearing up the tranquility of the town, Carter wants nothing to do with it.  Every other girl in town is excited that hot young bad boy Adam Jakes is part of the cast (Carter's BFF Chloe is absolutely loopy over the chance to see him!), but Carter could care less.

But then Adam's manager approaches Carter with an outrageous proposal:  pose as Adam's girlfriend for a few weeks and help to resuscitate Adam's image.  For Carter, there's a huge cash offering -- money that her family could really use to help Carter's gambling-addicted big brother get into rehab.  And Carter decides to go for it.

At first, things don't go well, but with time Carter and Adam - as one fully expects in a summer romance - find a halfway point.  With time, their pretend romance threatens to bloom into the real thing.

The story has some serious ambitions (with a lot of family swirl involving the brother and Carter's own issues with being afraid to leave the nest) but it gets ultimately buried in the silliness of the romantic plot.  Far better, IMO, to have just done the romance and abandoned the ambition.  After all, no one minds a bit of escapist fluff where bad rich boy falls for small-town girl with heart of gold and takes her away -- she cleans him up and he provides lifetime financial security.  What's not to like?  But when you bring in all this heavy stuff about seeking your dreams, it just gets distracting.  Sure, I loved Carter's honesty and kind heart, but it really was out of place in this bit of summer good time.

[Disclosure:  I requested and received this book from the publisher - without cost - in exchange for my review.  I'm donating the book to my public library and my evaluation was unaffected.]

Stitches, by Glen Huser

Travis and his friend Chantelle have long been a focus of unwanted attention from the local bullies.  If you ask Travis's uncle, however, Travis just brings it on himself.  Between hanging out with girls, a love for puppets, and some serious sewing skills, Travis isn't exactly sticking to normal gender stereotypes.  And while Travis doesn't want to stand out as different, it's hard to do otherwise when he enjoys puppetry, sewing, and his friend Chantelle so much more than "boy" stuff.  Set in a small Alberta town, the book also provides a vivid look at what life is like in rural Canada.

A bit of a mixed bag for me.  I like the idea of Travis and the portrayal of life in Acton, Alberta was interesting (albeit a bit depressing), but the book was hard to engage with.  There are a lot of characters and the pace is uneven.  The drama of the bullies is artificially drawn out by Travis's unwillingness to seek help (an issue that is never really addresses, although even he admits it is pretty stupid by the end of the story).  And, while Huser does a decent enough job with exposition, the conclusions are pretty rushed affairs.  The ending itself comes out of left field and reads more like an epilogue, as if Huser couldn't quite find a way to end the book.