Monday, September 29, 2014

The Here and Now, by Ann Brashares

Prenna and her mother live in a tight secretive community that lives by twelve key rules designed to keep them at arm's length from others.  It's necessary to protect the "time natives" of the present from contamination from their community of time travelers.  After all, they all understand what the future will bring:  global warming and plagues.  No matter how tough life might seem now, it is paradise compared to where these people come from!

But Prenna discovers that there is even more danger in not interfering. With the help of a time native (i.e., a particularly talented classmate named Ethan), she is trying to influence a series of events that form a "fork" in the continuum.  This juncture will take place very soon and decide whether the future will turn into nightmare or whether it will take an unknown alternative path.

It's a strange choice of genre for an author most strongly associated with those amazing traveling pants!  And, while she struggles a bit with the usual rigor expected in science fiction, Brashares does a surprisingly good job with this time travel yarn.  That's mostly because she keeps the story very much in the present and (mostly) in New Jersey.  In her telling of the tale, Prenna and her friend Ethan are just a bunch of normal, impulsive teens.  The focus is strongly on their relationship, while the high stakes adventure takes a back seat.  Even though the pacing is brisk, its doesn't stop Prenna and Ethan from having time to hang out and even walk on the beach as the world hurtles towards its critical moment.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Boy in the Dress, by David Walliams

After Dennis's mother moves out, Dennis finds it hard to express the feelings he is having.  Neither his father nor his older brother want to talk about it.  Dennis misses his mother but he finds he also misses her dresses.  Dennis has always had a thing for women's clothing.  At first, he tries to smuggle home copies of Vogue, but when those are discovered and tossed out by his worried Dad, Dennis befriends Lisa (a budding fashionista).  The two of them enjoy long hours discussing clothes and she eventually convinces him to try on some for himself.  That leads to the idea of smuggling him into school as a girl, which ends up disastrously.

A surprising and unusual book for its subject and for its target audience (middle readers).  The book goes a bit silly in the end with just about everyone wearing dresses and giving out fashion advice, but it's all in service to the theme that self-expression is a wonderful thing.  And despite the implied subject of transgender identity, Dennis's sexuality is never really brought up (beyond the fact that he has a strong crush on Lisa).  A breezy and fun read -- and probably a great way to freak out uptight parents!

The Chance You Won't Return, by Annie Cardi

Alex is an absolutely atrocious driver.  It isn't that she's reckless, but quite the opposite:  nervous and terribly afraid that she'll cause an accident.  It's a phobia that is endangering her ability to pass Driver's Ed.  But thanks to help from Jim (an older boy with the patience of a saint and, ironically, a worse driving record), she may master driving.  However, this is really the least of her worries.

Alex's mother is suffering from the delusion that she is Amelia Earhart.  The condition appeared suddenly and grows worse quickly.  The family's insurance won't cover residential treatment, so they have to bring Mom home and care for her as well as they  can at home.  This causes immense stress to Alex, her siblings, and her father, as Mom loses touch more and more with reality.  And Alex begins to realize that Mom has taken to playing out Earhart's life, recreating in her mind each of Earhart's trips, which gets Alex worrying about what will happen when Mom "sets off" on Earhart's last round-the-world trip -- the one from which she never returns!

An ambitious story that tackles vibrantly the crippling impact of mental illness on entire families (and also neatly underscores the financial difficulties of doing so).  The book is at its best when it focuses on Alex's relationship with her parents and the maturing influence of having to rise to these new challenges.  These relationships are nuanced and show both strength and weakness and heartbreaking honesty.

Less successful for me was the driving story and the boyfriend.  I kept waiting for those plot points to get tied in, and one might stretch and find a few places where they converge, but in general they seemed like separate stories.  Cardi's focus is (where it should be) on the family tragedy at play here so those other stories are frequently neglected.  As much as they help to fill out Alex's character, I would have given them an editor's red pencil altogether.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Famous Last Words, by Katie Alender

Willa has been seeing things (dead people, flashes, water on the floor, writing on the wall) that no one else sees.  It appears to be tied to her obsession with reaching out to the Afterlife to contact the spirit of her dead father.  But when she and her mother move into her new stepfather's mansion in Hollywood, these hallucinations take on more sinister tones.  And it takes the help of an obsessive-compulsive outcast at school to help her figure out that it all has to do with a serial killer who's stalking young actresses and forcing them to reenact famous death scenes from movies.

Yes, it doesn't make a terrible amount of sense (and it only gets worse in the end), but it's fun enough escapist stuff to read.  Not a lot of character stuff here either (a forgettable girlfriend seems particularly inconsequential), but it's a story with a breakneck pace.  If you like sociopathic killers and poor little rich girls, you'll probably enjoy this.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC from the publisher in return for my critical considerationThe book is scheduled for release on September 30th.]

Friday, September 19, 2014

Don't Look Back, by Jennifer L. Armentrout

The first thing that Samantha remembers is walking along a road in her bare feet.  She's badly injured.  She doesn't know it then, but once she is rescued, she discovers that she has been missing for days.  Worse, she was not alone when she disappeared and her companion (her best friend Cassie) is still missing.  Samantha doesn't know what happened to Cassie and, in fact, can't remember anything about herself or her life.

Much to the surprise of everyone around her, the amnesia causes her to change.  People with whom she was apparently friends before no longer appeal and she doesn't feel drawn to her rich and stuck-up boyfriend Del.  Instead, she bonds with hunky, but low-class Carson, the son of her family's groundskeeper (a choice that elicits strong disapproval from her peers and her family).  But the real issue is the mystery of what happened to her -- a matter which grows more urgent when Cassie turns up dead and suspicions are aroused that Alice's amnesia may simply be an act to cover up her guilt.

With the whole amnesia plot (and particularly the opening), I was reminded of the book Pretty Girl 13 (which I reviewed a few months ago), but this is a very different story.  Less creepy and far more suspenseful, it's a classic whodunnit.  I enjoyed turning the pages in search of the answer to the mystery.  The pacing is near perfect and played out well.  I had plenty of suspicions of the culprit but nothing definite until the reveal.  As for that ending, it was a bit too melodramatic, but had a good pay-off.

This is not, however, a great character read.  I liked Sam, but the other characters are less memorable.  The romance isn't very interesting and even the peer rivalries seem weak and contrived.  The characters are there to make their required appearance.  The plot itself is king.

Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy

When Alice got sick with leukemia, life went on hold.  Alice's problems with her ex-, the knowledge that her mother was cheating on her Dad, and even her arms-length relationship with her friend Harvey changed.  She was dying and in the period of a year, as her condition grew worse and worse, she found new joy in her family and in Harvey.  She settled scores with old enemies with particularly poetic forms of revenge and came to peace with her fate.  Harvey meanwhile adored Alice and devoted himself to being whatever she wanted, completely losing her own sense of self.

Then a terrible miracle happened.  Her condition reversed and she went into remission.  Suddenly, the idea of living long enough to go to college didn't seem so crazy.  And that is when Alice realized that she's in trouble.   Those kids she settled scores with are still out there.  Her family's issues haven't gone away (they've just been on hold during her illness).  And now that she isn't dying soon, she knows that Harvey is no longer what she wants (despite the fact that he still wants her).  Facing death was easy -- now Alice must face life!

A strikingly original story about life and living in an imperfect world with flawed people.  If you want your characters to be likeable, this isn't a very good book for you.  Most of the kids (and some of the adults) are selfish and mean.  Harvey is weak and spineless.  But Alice takes the cake as a self-centered, cruel, and manipulative young woman.  And while she gets cut some slack for being sick, there's no denying that she's simply not a nice person!  Yet, these are recognizable people with real raw emotions and their struggles ring very true.  So, while this can be unpleasant to read, it is engrossing for its honesty.

My only complaint is the structure of the book -- which shifts between Alice and Harvey's narration and jumps around fairly liberally along the timeline.  Stylistically, I found the combination of regular flashbacks and multiple POVs to be a bit hard to follow (it took about a hundred pages for me to get into the swing of things).  However, it's still a great book!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Summer of Letting Go, by Gae Polisner

It's a beach story (there's a boy who's off-limits and best friend to betray), but it's also not your typical summer romance.

Four years ago, Frankie's brother drowned in the ocean while she was supposed to be watching him.  In the intervening years, her mother's never quite recovered and seemingly never forgiven Frankie either.  Her father has drifted away from the family, leaving Frankie pretty much on her own, to wallow to self-pity.

Frankie lives in fear of the ocean, of taking care of others, or of opening up to (even to her best friend).  But this summer she decides to be brave and put one foot in front of the other and confront her fears.  In the course of finding out why her father is sneaking around with a next-door neighbor, Frankie stumbles into a job caring for a rambunctious little boy who bears a striking physical and personality resemblance to her dead brother.  As the coincidences and similarities pile up, Frankie becomes more and more convinced that this child is actually a reincarnation of her brother.  Somehow, in the midst of all this drama, there is still some time to squeeze in the love triangle.

Obviously, it's a book trying to do a bit too much.  In general, the romance gets sacrificed to the rest of the story, but by the end, almost every plot line suffers through a quick fix.  This is a shame as the originality of the potential reincarnation plot is interesting and needed a fuller resolution.  Still, I enjoyed a late summer beach novel that finds some novel territory in which to explore.  And, as usual, I want to give a shout out to another YA book that does a decent job of portraying grownups as being real people (and not clueless boobs!) -- parents and other random adults got to be human beings, much to the chagrin of the adolescents in the story.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Felix the Comet, by Cathy Coley

Felix is a first class geek with two geek parents (they are both teachers at a local college), but Felix can't help the fact that he's smart and knows stuff.  Thankfully, at his school, it's never been a problem.  He's been free to pretty much be himself.  Kids just know that's how he is. 

But when a new boy transfers in, trouble begins.  The kid takes an instant dislike to Felix and goes out of his way to tease and torment Felix.  The book's title however comes from a side plot: Felix and his dog Cosmo discover a comet.  This makes Felix instantly famous and all that attention further infuriates the bully.  Felix tries to cool things down by maintaining a low profile, but it does no good.  Felix's friends, meanwhile, try to convince Felix to tell an adult.  Felix, however, wants to figure out a solution on his own (and he's no tattle-tale!).  But, as the situation escalates, Felix discovers that he may be in over his head!

Coley is great with details, portraying in loving detail the dynamics of Felix's friendships and family life.  The parents, in particular, are well-rounded and authentic.  Dialogue is less of a strong suit and I found the kid's voices stiff and not as true.  That said, the story (and Felix's motivation to avoid making trouble in particular) made sense and build a satisfying dramatic arc.  I would have liked to have seen more development of his nemesis (we get a small bit of that in the end when Felix observes that the bully's family may be the source of his anger, but it is an underdeveloped idea and a lost opportunity.

[Disclaimer:  I'm friends with the author and she bravely asked me to review her book (even sending me a copy for the review).]

Can't Look Away, by Donna Cooner

Torrey has always liked being in the public eye.  Her popular fashion VLOG has been a dream come true, garnering plenty of attention.  But after her younger sister is killed by a drunk driver, Torrey finds that public attention isn't always kind.  As the comments turn from sympathetic to nasty, she shies away from posting to her site.  Conveniently, her family decides to move from Colorado to Texas, giving her a chance to start over (at least outside of cyberspace).  But once in Texas, she finds that the desire to re-establish her credentials as an It-Girl conflicts with her desire to escape her past.

Her attempts to ingratiate herself into the company of the popular clique also come into conflict with her romantic aspirations as she finds herself falling for brooding Luis -- an outcast.  Luis, however, understands her grief over the loss of her sister in a way that no one else does.  And he helps her to understand the futility of seeking fame and popularity.

It's a pleasing story with most of the tropes of YA fiction.  The girl doesn't quite fit the plain Jane standard for a heroine (she far too pretty and vain), but she has the right amount of insecurity to make her instantly worthy of empathy.  But Torrey didn't really grab me.  She's too narcissistic and her complaints are repetitive and whiny.  Her coming around at the end is entirely too neat.  The boy is, of course, too perfect as well as being conveniently unattached.
Not everything is standard and predictable.  There is a nice side story about Mexican death customs.  And I also liked the side story of Torrey's awkward cousin Raylene, who provides a not-so-subtle comparison with the dead sister.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Milk of Birds, by Sylvia Whitman

Nawra (a refugee in Darfur) and K.C. (a high-schooler in Richmond VA) make an odd match.  Through a correspondence sponsored by an NGO, they spend a year trading letters.  Their differences are stark:  Nawra deals daily with starvation, disease, threats of physical harm, and privations that K.C. cannot even imagine.  But as the two girls learn about each other, they find the ability to inspire each other.

Of the two of them, Nawra's story is by far the most compelling.  Not only is she facing daily unimaginable challenges, but she does so with strength and optimism that nearly defies belief.  Her proverbs, which pepper the story, are wonderful.  In comparison, K.C. comes across as a terribly whiny and spoiled suburban brat.  While K.C. slowly redeems herself, the book's primary weakness is the handicap that K.C. presents from the start.  How many First World problems can we tolerate when the stakes are so dire for Nawra?  It's hard to read about genocide and then be expected to care about K.C.'s desire for a smart phone.  It seems a bit overkill:  Even a less spoiled American girl's life would have come across as a contrast with the world of Darfur.  Perhaps this book would have seemed less uneven with a milder opposite number?

Still, I think it is a remarkable achievement to tell this story and to do so with such authenticity and love.  Whitman excels in opening up the world of Darfur and making it accessible to Western readers.  It's the little moments where the characters misunderstand each other, but the reader realizes that they are in a privileged position to realize it that really make the reading of this book a joy.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The F*** It List, by Julie Halpern

Alex has a lot of trouble in her life.  Her father recently died in a car accident, her best friend has cancer, and there's a guy (Leo) who she isn't sure she wants to get close to (which doesn't stop her from tearing off her clothes, when given the opportunity).  She's a supportive friend to Becca and good older sister to her fatherless brothers, but it pulls her in way too many directions.  What she does have is a great love of horror films and Becca's bucket list, which they have renamed the "Fuck It" list.

The result is a story that meanders along through the year as Becca goes through treatment, Alex and Leo struggle to figure out what they want.  Surprisingly, the List itself doesn't play much of a role in the story.  There's a lot of death and also a lot of sex (the first masturbation scene is on page 57, if you're looking for it!).  Neither the death nor the sex really did much for me, as there isn't much emotion behind it.  Some of that flat emotionless delivery v is the cynical dark attitude that Alex carries with her, but mostly it is the lack of investment that the storyteller conveys.  A functional story, but it doesn't really add much to the genre.