Friday, October 31, 2014

The Battle of Darcy Lane, by Tara Altebrando

Julia's plans for the summer get thrown askew when a new girl named Alyssa moves to her street.  Alyssa isn't very nice and seems to immediately set her sights on stealing away Julia's best friend Taylor.  Amidst the battle over Taylor lies a number of other major events:  a competition between Julie and Alyssa, a friendship with the boy next door that may be growing into something more, new friends at band camp, some sneak watching of a forbidden TV show, and the arrival of the cicadas.

Altebrando hits a number of key tween themes in a light, realistic, and respectful manner.  This isn't a story of big events.  In her own words, it's a "quiet" book.  Kids are kids, grownups are grownups.  Everyone is a bit flawed and acceptably happy.  And truth be told, Julia isn't a terribly nice girl (being almost as mean to girls she doesn't like as Alyssa is to her), but she recognizes it and the reader can sympathize with her flaws.  It all rolls up into a lovely honest story of the struggle to maintain friendships in the turmoil of pre-adolescence.  I'm really not sure where those bugs fit in though!

To All the Boys I've Loved, by Jenny Han

Lara Jean is the middle girl of three.  After their mother died, her older sister Margot kept things together and there was a comfortable routine.  But now, Margot's graduated and gone to study in Scotland.  So, it's Lara Jean, her little sister, and her father.

Things start off on an inauspicious note when five private letters that Lara Jean wrote to her secret crushes (and never intended to send) somehow get mailed out.  She must do some quick damage control (particularly because one of the recipients is Margot's ex-boyfriend and Margot doesn't know that Lara Jean liked him as well!).  Her peculiar Shakespearean solution is to conspire with another one of the boys to fake a relationship to throw off her sister's ex-.  This, as one can imagine, complicates things yet further and has numerous unintended consequences.

Jenny Han scores again with a beautiful book that combines authentic stories and behavior with finely nuanced and detailed characters.  The girls and their father felt so real it was impossible not to be sucked into their story.  Han gets teen angst and the complexities of adolescent love.  However, her talents go far beyond teen romance as she also shows a fine appreciation for family dynamics and has a real ear for how people actually talk and relate to each other.  A truly wonderful book about love, trust, loyalty, and being brave when your heart is on the line.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Free to Fall, by Lauren Miller

In the near future, everyone will have the Lux app on their handhelds to guide them through life.  They no longer have to worry about making mistakes and wrong decisions, because Lux tells them exactly what the correct choice is.  Of course, they could always choose to do something else, but why would they bother when Lux is always right?  That is, unless they were one of those disturbed individuals who listen to voices in their heads that make them act irrationally -- a socially dangerous condition known as The Doubt.

Rory is a bright kid, so it surprises no one (except her) that she's been accepted at the elite Theden Academy (a sort of Grande Ecole for gifted teens in Western Massachusetts).  Her doubts are not the work of humility; they are founded in a secret that she can't risk revealing:  that she hears The Doubt (an inconvenient fact that would lead to her immediate expulsion if it ever became known).  It's a hereditary condition and her mother (an alumna of Theden) suffered from it as well.

Once at the school though, far more serious issues rear up.  With the help of her roommate and a townie boyfriend, Rory discovers that there is intrigue afoot at the school.  And it has ramifications far outside of its walls.  The release of a new handheld device and its new improved Lux app threatens civilization as a whole and the project, Rory and her friends discover, is tied to the Academy itself.  It is up to them to save humanity from its own willingness to abandon free will for the convenience of technology.

So, it's a dystopian with a strong anti-technology message.  That message can be a bit too heavily delivered and the plot strays into the realm of the silly (particularly when it drags flu immunizations into its crosshairs), but Miller makes some good points and will set some young minds thinking about the benefits and costs of mobile social media.  Not all of it comes off as Luddite ranting.

It's a long book, though, and a busy story.  There are so many subplots that it is a credit to the author that she can tie them all up by the end.  It does though seem like a chore to do so and perhaps a more concise story would have made its point as effectively.

The Lost, by Sarah Beth Durst

Upset by her mother's worsening health, Lauren drives blindly out into the desert.  An unusual dust storm swallows her up and she ends up in a run-down town called Lost.  There, she finds a strange community of dangerous and desperate scavengers, criminals, and rabid animals.  But with the help of a beautiful god-like man and a resourceful little girl, she manages to stay alive.  Escaping from the place is another story however.  To do that, she is told, she must first figure out why she is lost in the first place.

An imaginative and creepy fantasy.  I didn't care so much for the ending, where in service to the continuation of the story as the first of a trilogy (why?), Durst veers far away from the compact world she so wonderfully has created.  Given how certainly the plot twists destroy the beauty of the novel's central conceit, I'll focus on the world of this one book alone.

The idea that when things are lost they end up in an isolated desert town is quite picturesque and the logic of the place is nicely played out here.  This original setting had a great mix of intrigue and danger to make things interesting without being too scary.  I also enjoyed the characters (who mostly play against type from the little girl who is so resourceful to the romantic lead who is notably blasé throughout to the heroine Lauren herself).  Technically, this isn't even a YA book, but it will appeal to teen readers (and folks who like the genre) just fine.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tom's Midnight Garden, by A. Philippa Pearce

Tom and his brother Peter are very close and, when Peter is diagnosed with measles, Tom is upset that he is to be sent away to spend ten days with his aunt and uncle.  But the pain of the separation from his brother is assuaged by an adventure shortly after his arrival.  One evening, he discovers that the door to the back of the house leads to a secret garden which only appears at night.  And in the garden he finds a young girl named Hattie, with whom he has many happy adventures.  Night after night he returns, not noticing that she is continually growing older while he of course stays young.  More frustrating, as Tom's brother recovers, it comes time for Tom to leave the house (and the opportunity to spend time in the garden with Hattie).

It's a classic story (first published in 1958) but I've never read it before.  One is immediately struck with how stiff and awkward the writing is (from a combination of the era when children's books were stiff and awkward with the English-ness of the writing and setting).   The mannerisms (particularly Tom and Peter's affection for each other) also seemed a bit creepy at times.

However, it has its charms.  The tale is terribly innocent in a way that children's books don't allow much anymore.  The appeal of the book (child able to take secret adventure to places adults can't go) is timeless, even if the story itself is horribly dated.  And the story, with a dash of The Secret Garden and Somewhere in Time even has a sweet romantic quality to it, although naturally enough (given the context it was written in) that romance is more infantile than passionate.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Torn Away, by Jennifer Brown

After a tornado devastates her town, seventeen year-old Jersey has to learn how to recover.  Her mother and little sister have been killed.  Her stepfather, while physically alive, is so emotionally damaged by the loss that he shuts her out.  All that is left are her estranged father (and his dysfunctional family) who don't want her and her mother's parents (whom she's never met and was well-warned off by Mom while she was still alive).  With her home and family destroyed, all would seem lost, but Jersey finds that even when you seem to have lost everything, there's always something left to hang on to.

A moving and engaging story that explores two powerful themes: the process of coping with loss and the meaning of family.  These are hardly new themes, but Brown breathes new life into them with compelling characters and tightly-woven narrative.  A story without a dull moment is a joy, but it's really the people in this story that made me thoroughly enjoy it.  Brown has previously shown a talent (see Hate List or Bitter End) for creating rich and realistic characters with complex motivations, and she does not disappoint here.  Most of all, it is Jersey's spirit and determination that wins over the reader, but even the most repulsive members of her father's family are interesting. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hidden Girl, by Shyima Hall

When Shyima was a little girl living in rural Egypt in the 1990s, she was sold by her family into slavery to pay off her older sister's debts.  After a few years of service, her captors moved to the United States and brought her along to continue her back-breaking servitude.  It took almost three years for her to be found and rescued, and many more years after that to recover.  While this true story was widely recounted in the press at the time, in this book she gets to tell that story herself.

The book itself is fascinating, eye-opening, and (of course) horrifying.  That said, it is hard to critique it.  It comes off as petty to point out the inadequacies of the writing as the author has the double whammy of being a non-native speaker and of being denied primary education until well into her teens.  If anything, the halting and sometimes unfocused writing gives the book authenticity and a clear sense of voice.  Some light assistance from co-writer Lisa Wysocky helps, but doesn't interfere with the immediacy of Hall's anger and hurt as she recalls her most painful memories.

What really makes the book shine is Hall's honesty about herself.  She has many strong opinions, but she is as quick to find fault in herself as she does in others. In particular, there's a fascinating section near the end of the book where she talks about her own personality and what enslavement did to how she relates to others and the outside world.   But even before you reach that point, you know that one of the striking legacies of her ordeal is her ability to be bold and frank here.

[Editorial aside:  I don't read much non-fiction and I have never reviewed it here, so this is a bit of a departure for me.  But as this autobiography covers Shyima's adolescent years, it seemed appropriate to include (and the book is being marketed as YA non-fiction by the publisher).  It also doesn't hurt that I've been heavily exposed to Egyptian culture through my father and can vividly recall visiting the type of town from where Shyima came.]

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy, by Kate Hattemer

When it is announced that a reality show will be staged at the Selwyn Academy (a high school for the arts in Minnesota), a group of nerds and outcasts decide that they have to do something to fight back against it.  Reality television and this show in particular, is simply an exploitation of the school and a perversion of true "art." Inspired by the poetry of Ezra Pound, which they are studying in English class, four of these students embark on a secret plan to strike back.  Even when their plan is betrayed by one of their members, the other three double down to bring this television show to its knees and to expose the hypocrisy of the show's producers and the school's administrators who are in cahoots with them.

It's an odd story that flirts with absurdity while maintaining humor and originality.  Undeniably, it's very funny, but in the crass and tasteless way that I associate more with male writers like David Levithan.  In the end one doesn't know how seriously to take a story featuring defecation artwork, a heroic tumor-ridden gerbil, and an 864-page "long poem." It works best as an adventure, but Hattemer makes the mistake of occasionally trying to add gravity by exploring hero Ethan's fear of commitment and decisiveness.  The story doesn't have the patience to pursue this, though, and Hattemer was better off sticking to the crude and the rude.

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

Every summer, Cady and family have come to their private island off the coast from Martha's Vineyard.  Three families in all (grandparents, uncles and aunts, and lots of cousins) -- the entire Sinclair clan in their rich privileged WASPish glory.  The eldest three children (Cady, Mirren, and Johnny) and Johnny's friend Gat (who Cady has been crushing on for many years) have been inseparable.  But something happened in their fifteenth summer and Cady got very sick.  She was found in the water, suffering from terrible migraines and, for some unknown reason, totally alone in her underwear.  And she had no memory of how she ended up this way.  She missed the opportunity to return the next year but, now in her seventeenth summer, she looks forward to being reunited with Gat and her cousins.

However, something is not quite right.  No one will talk to her about what happened two summers ago.  Her grandfather has torn down his old house and put up a new one.  Her younger cousins keep their distance.  As the summer progresses, memories come back to her and the terrible horrible truth is re-emerges.  For Cady, who has been unable to recall it all, the horror is being relived.

A rather darker tale than I usually associate with E. Lockhart, and I don't think I cared for it much!  The story is well-written and the mystery unfolds at a nice pace (although, once revealed, the book really has nowhere to go for the last twenty pages).  I did love the little interludes where Lockhart goes off on the gruesomeness of Brothers Grimm in a lovely set of parallel tales.  But the story was not very pretty or beautiful or even as suspenseful as I hoped it would be.  It was ultimately gross and tragic and a bit cruel.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Never Ending, by Martyn Bedford

And while we're on a dead brother kick, here's another one...

After Shiv's little brother Declan dies, she can't shake the sense that she was responsible for his death.  The guilt is tearing her apart, making her prone to sudden violent acts and memory loss.  When traditional therapy fails, she ends up at a remote institute that practices an extreme form of immersion therapy.  Along with a group of other young people who have also lost loved ones, they struggle through the emotional healing process. As for the facts of what happened to Shiv's brother, they are slowly unfolded through alternate chapters of flashback, recounting how an idyllic and romantic Greek vacation went tragically bad.

It's well-written and the characters of Shiv and Declan are interesting and their relationship complex, but it's hard to shake the fact that we've done this story all before -- the tragic accident, the exaggerated self-blaming, the institutionalization (with its combination of patients who want to get better and those that don't), and so on.  There simply isn't anything new here.  In fact, there's plenty of the old tricks, like not revealing the great "trauma" until the end so we can't evaluate how legit (or usually, illegit) the main character's sense of guilt is.  All of which leaves us with the Big Question:  why read it?

In Honor, by Jessi Kirby

After Honor's older brother Finn is killed in Iraq, Honor is basically an orphan (their parents died when they were young).  In his last letter home, Finn sent Honor tickets to Country-Pop singer Kyla Kelley's final concert and, after the funeral, Honor decides to fulfill his final wish and take a road trip to California to attend the concert.  Awkwardly, she is joined by Finn's estranged best friend Rusty on the trip.

As these stories tend to go, there are plenty of adventures and things do not go quite as planned.  And, as is to be expected, there is lots of recollection and reconciliation as Finn and Rusty come to understand each other (and their relationship with Finn) better.

Not quite as original as Moonglass or Golden, the book follows all the standard conventions, but Kirby's writing still manages to enthrall.  It's a combination of a great sense of character and voice (with the weird exception that her Texans add a "the" to Interstate Highway names the way that only SoCal folks do!) and her eclectic tastes (who ever thought of watching the sun rise from underwater in the middle of New Mexico?).  There's always something interesting going on in this book and that makes the typical navel gazing of the road trip genre slide by a bit faster.  Kirby really is one of the better YA writers currently out there and not nearly appreciated enough!