Saturday, November 29, 2014

I Kill the Mockingbird, by Paul Acampora

In the summer before they start high school, three friends decide to honor their late English teacher by hatching a plot to incite a mass movement for reading his favorite book -- Harper Lee's classic To Kill A Mockingbird.  The kids reason that if they can make the book seem controversial, they can artificially stir interest in it.  Learning that modern bookstore chains are incapable of tracking books that are mis-shelved, they trigger an artificial shortage by simply hiding copies of the books in every large bookstore in Connecticut. Their action inspires copy-cats nationwide and, before they know it, the whole thing has swung wildly out of control.

I liked the concept and eagerly dived into this short middle reader. The characters were smart and funny and I expected cleverness. But the book gets a bit too precious for my taste.  First of all, there's the very weird idea that To Kill A Mockingbird could go viral.  Weirder still, the way it is done (can you really manage in a few weeks to travel all over the state, misplace every copy of a book, and not get caught?).  Perhaps none of this matters and perhaps this absurdity is all supposed to be in fun, like a Kate DiCamillo book.  But it's really just silly and what is the point anyway?  There are a number of great opportunities to say something (about literature, growing up, romance, or even cancer) but Acampora just wants to be goofy and convince us that (since the book is about good literature) it must somehow be valuable intrinsically. But it never did it for me.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Pointe, by Brandy Colbert

Theo has struggled with an eating disorder and self-confidence issues since her first boyfriend disappeared on her and (barely two weeks later) her best friend Donovan was abducted.  Four years later, she's mostly recovered and well on her way to a professional ballet career.  But then Donovan suddenly returns and she's shocked to learn that her disappearing boyfriend was also her best friend's kidnapper!

What develops seems like a classic (and predictable) drama where everything comes to a head at the same time:  she'll have to testify against her former boyfriend, publicly reveal her shame, probably pass out from her increasingly dangerous starvation routines, and audition for her professional dancing career -- all in rapid succession.  But what turned my opinion of this story from "predictable drama" to a pleasant surprise was an ending that completely shocked me.  Colbert goes for something completely different, with an ending that was so fitting and so much better than I expected.   It's easy to get jaded when you read hundreds of YA books, so when an author throws you a curve ball, it will make your day!

The other characters are largely forgettable (and easily confused with each other) so it's important that Theo carry this story.  That is hard as she is hardly sympathetic.  Frankly, she does a number of plain stupid things and does a similarly terrible job of sorting through her life (for example, her hesitation over testifying became increasingly implausible to me the more it was drawn out).  Yet, there's no denying that she pulls herself together in the end (and not, as I said above, in the expected fashion).

Notes from Ghost Town, by Kate Ellison

Nearly a year has passed since Olivia's mother confessed to killing Stern -- a piano prodigy who was also Olivia's boyfriend.  As the time of her mother's sentencing approaches, Olivia is angry and scared, and going a bit crazy.  Literally.  Olivia's suddenly gone color blind.  Her doctor can find no physical cause of the disorder and suggests it may be stress-induced.  This is no small matter.  Mom suffers from schizophrenia, which can be hereditary.  And perception disorders can be a symptom of the disease.

Worse still, Olivia has started to experience hallucinations that Stern is appearing before her.  Or are they really hallucinations?  He tells her that her mother is actually innocent, that she was framed, and that he is stuck in limbo until the injustice is corrected.  Olivia, he says, must figure out what really happened and rescue her mother before she is sentenced.  While none of this makes any sense to her, Olivia decides to act.

It's a little of a slow starter, but once the sleuthing begins, Ellison weaves a tight story of intrigue that still finds time for all levels of trust and betrayal, and even a small romance.  The ending wraps things up a bit too easily, but we go through enough to get to that happy ending that it is welcomed nonetheless.  The story's debt to Ghost is a bit obvious, but it's recast enough that younger readers won't mind that this is hardly original.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Say What You Will, by Cammie McGovern

Amy is the girl in a motorized scooter, a hand-held computer that talks for her, and half a body that won't work properly.  Matthew is the kid who taps the lockers when he walks down the hall, washes his hands repeatedly, and never goes out.  Neither of them really have any friends.

When Amy complains to her mother that having a grown-up health aide with her at school basically ensures that she'll never meet anyone, a plan is hatched to hire four "peer helpers" to work with her at school.  Matthew gets hired as one of those helpers.  It's an odd match-up and Amy's over-protective parents aren't thrilled to have Matthew (with his steadily worsening OCD) taking care of their daughter.  However, the two kids discover a special chemistry that transcends their usual public identity as "the girl with CP" and "the OCD boy." The result is a surprisingly touching story of two young people with a special relationship.

The strength of the book is the characters.  They can be stiff (McGovern struggles with Matthew in particular), but they are sympathetic and insightful.  Frustratingly prone to doing dumb things, this makes the reader root for them all the more.  Sales reps with limited imaginations have tried to bill this novel as Fault In Our Stars meets Eleanor & Park, but it really is none of the above.  The kids are not dying and they really aren't geeky nerds either.  They are, however, the only two young people who can see past each other's disabilities due to the sheer fact that they know what it is really like to be labeled.  Their relationship is frighteningly lovely and fragile in a way that grownups will appreciate, and it will break your heart.

The only criticism I have with the story is how long it was dragged out and how randomly the story weaves and dodges.  McGovern has a near-stubborn refusal to follow the usual predictable arc and the story that we begin with is hardly the one with which we end (to paraphrase the wisdom of Chekhov, the pistol in the first chapter is used in chapter three to dig up turnips!).  Yet, the completely unpredictable trajectory of the story is also its strength as it serves to underscore the truth that life goes in unpredictable directions.  Those looking for a definitive conclusion will be disappointed by the one chosen here.  In the end, the story doesn't end so much as slow down enough for the reader to leap off.

Friday, November 14, 2014

A Girl Called Fearless, by Catherine Linka

In a parallel universe, genetically-modified beef has triggered a mass cancer epidemic that has killed off most of the adult female population of the United States (wiser countries outside of the US never allowed the GMO beef to be consumed).  In the country that was left behind, the Paternalist political party has risen to power and gotten the government to restrict the surviving women and girls to the home.  Banned from going to college, girls are sold off to the highest bidder as breeding stuck when they reach adolescence.

Despite the political changes, Avie had hoped to attend college when she completed high school, but her cash-strapped father has instead sold her off to an odious, rich and powerful benefactor of the Paternalists.  Determined to avoid her fate as a trophy wife and provider of offspring to a man twice her age, she decides to flee to Canada (where the authorities remain sympathetic and have been known to grant asylum to women fleeing the US).  However, the escape won't be easy.  More so, because Avie has unwittingly stumbled over a conspiracy whose exposure threatens the entire status quo, placing her in the position of having to choose between her dreams of college and freedom, and her sense of duty to her sisters.

The obvious inspiration is Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but Linka's story doesn't have quite as lofty literary ambitions.  Pitched more for the adrenaline and hormones of a teen audience, the story features more violence/action and the gratuitous attention to fashion and glamor that one expects in the modern YA dystopian (a sequel is due out next year and, yes, this book is already optioned for a movie!).  An amazingly accommodating boyfriend provides suitable eye candy.

All that said, Linka is a bit grittier than the usual YA writer.  There's significant attention given to real-life survival skills, a realistic lesson on how to fire a 9mm, and a focus on the practical details of this (nonetheless far-fetched) alternative world.  I especially appreciated the fact that this isn't set in some "near future" but most explicitly in a parallel time-line (the mass extinction of women took place in 2002, shortly after the Towers fell).  I found it readable and engaging.  Fluffy but good!

Infinite Sky, by C. J. Flood

In the aftermath of her mother's abandonment of their family, thirteen year-old Iris discovers love from a Traveler whose family has squatted on her family's property.  But while the boy's company brings her peace, the gypsies' presence becomes a focal point of rage for her father and her older brother (who both redirect their frustration from Mum's departure against the unwanted trespassers).  As one can imagine, tragedy ultimately ensues.  But in the calm before the storm, Iris and the boy enjoy a summer of quiet talks and nature walks.

A gentle and tightly-written novel that is ultimately a bit dull and seemingly geared at an adult audience.  Precocious young readers might enjoy its pacific pace, but there is entirely too little about Iris's feelings and little appreciation for how a young heart thinks.  Instead, this seems like a book for adults looking back wistfully on a "summer that changed me forever" -- an admittedly popular and appealing genre, but something quite distinctly different from YA.

Somehow, I also miss the significance of the cover or the book's title.  They are both pretty but not really much related to the ideas of the novel.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Guy in Real Life, by Steve Brezenoff

Lesh is a heavy metal fan who's grown tired of the same old grind. His best friend is trying to turn him on to online multi-player gaming, but Lesh can't get into the constant violence and mayhem of hacking and slashing.  It just seems like a boring waste of time.

Svetlana is an introvert and a creative genius.  Leader and dungeon master for the school's gaming club, she spends endless time in her room planning out vividly hand-illustrated and carefully plotted adventures for the club.

When these two young people literally cross paths one night, an unlikely attachment develops. Svetlana isn't used to being noticed (aside from a sleezeball that her parents are trying to hook her up with).  But it is Lesh who truly goes all out:  inspired by her qualities, he creates an online avatar that represents how he sees her and he starts to play this online "Svvetlana," discovering that being a healer rather than a fighter and helping others appeals to him more.  Pretending to be a girl online, however, creates complicated when you are really a G.I.R.L. (guy in real life).

A mixed bag for me.  I love the originality of the story and the idea of an adolescent boy who is growing comfortable with his feminine side.  I just wish that the idea had been developed further. Instead, we spend an awfully long time in the gaming world (inside the characters themselves in a pseudo-fantasy environment), which isn't terribly interesting because it's mostly narrated (apparently gamers in Minneapolis just sit back and get told what their characters are doing, rather than play them).  I wasn't entirely sure what the point was?

And while I liked Lesh and felt he had some great nuances, Svetlana is neglected.  You get some sense of the sexism in role-playing, but not much about why she likes it nonetheless.  As a general observation, guy writers seem to have trouble giving their female characters depth -- which seems ironic in the context of this book's theme!

Lies My Girlfriend Told Me, by Julie Anne Peters

The shock of having her girlfriend die from heart failure is about as big of a surprise as Alex can imagine (who dies of something like that in High School?). That is, until she discovers that her girlfriend was seeing someone else at the same time that they were together.  Meeting Liana (the other woman) is hard for both of them, but as Alex gets to know Liana, the two of them discover that they have a lot more in common than just the same taste in girlfriends.

Peters writes great YA fiction, where the fact that her characters are gay plays second to simply writing a good story.  On the sheer desire of wanting to support the normalization of LGBT YA fiction, I enjoy reading and promoting her books.  Unfortunately, this particular novel is not her strongest.  The plot (which really doesn't have that much to do in the first place) meanders about. Subplots involving the dead girl's younger sister and another one about Alex's former BFF are never well integrated into the focus of the story on Alex and Liana's budding relationship.  However, I still enjoyed this story of girl-meets-girl as an appealing romance.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Ask Me, by Kimberly Pauley

Aria Morse is cursed to be an oracle -- a speaker of the truth. Following her grandmother and a string of ancestors running back three millennia, every time someone speaks a question within earshot (rhetorical or not), Aria must respond (often with answers she didn't even know until they were altered) and always truthfully.  When the behavior first appeared in middle school, it branded Aria a freak at and she learned to keep a low profile and try to avoid being around people asking questions.  And that mostly worked.  But when a string of brutal murders rock her small Florida town, Aria finds her talents bring her into the crosshairs of suspicious police and the murderer.

It's a clever idea and creates lots of interesting twists to the plot.  I like the setting as well.  But the sociopath storyline left me cold. Compared to the fascinating ramifications of a teen who only speaks the truth, a homicidal crazy simply wasn't very interesting. And, while foreshadowing is largely absent, I had figured out whodunnit about fifty pages before Aria did and that just made the rest of the book a chore.  So, a great concept but the execution was a disappointment.

Girls Like Us, by Gail Giles

Quincy and Biddy have known each other from their years in the Special Ed program together, but they were hardly friends.  Quincy is perpetually angry and aggressive with others while Biddy cowers inside her jacket with an eating disorder.  But when these two young women graduate from school, they are placed together as roommates, caring for an elderly widow.  What develops is a touching and sensitive portrayal of discovery, growth, self-respect, and burgeoning understanding between the three of them.

Written in alternating chapters with Quincy's and Biddy's distinctive voices, the text takes a bit to warm up to.  But once you do get accustomed to it, the story is an eye-opener.  Giles takes her career in Special Education and uses it to give an authentic and inspiring voice to these two marginalized women.  The result can be heartbreaking at times, but it is ultimately uplifting.