Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Thirty Sunsets, by Christine Hurley Deriso

On the eve of her family's annual month-long beach vacation, Forrest discovers that her mother has invited Olivia (her older brother's psycho bulimic girlfriend) to join them.  Worse still, she's going to have to share a room with her!  All that Forrest wants is to have a normal summer -- meet a cute guy on the beach and have a first kiss, sort out why her brother has gotten so weird, and maybe lose Olivia in a riptide along the way.  What Forrest gets, however, is completely unexpected:  a summer of revelations (about family, her brother, and herself).

I liked Deriso's great sense of family dynamics and her ear for language in complex scenes.  I was less thrilled by her taste for melodrama and piling on crisis upon crisis.  This story features a rape, an attempted sexual assault, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, an abusive mother, alcoholism, and even a death.  Deriso doesn't have much patience for storytelling, so rather than focus on her strengths in character building she resorts to action and violence.  This ultimately makes the book exhausting and thin, and wastes some lovely and interesting characters.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Faire Lady, by Laura Wettersten

In this fairly basic story of summer romance, we get a bit of a twist in the setting (a Ren Faire) but a tale which pretty much follows an expected trajectory.  Rowena, recovering from being cheated on by her boyfriend, jumps at the opportunity to spend the summer working away from home at a local Ren Faire.  There, she is blown away by the pageantry and the friendly community that provides it.  Quickly, she sets off in hot pursuit of a sexy knight but discovers that her real true love is waiting in the wings for her to realize it.

The story is sweet but a little hard to believe.  What parent would let their teen daughter waltz off for an unsupervised summer at a Ren Faire (sheer luck and some attentive grown-ups seem to save Ro from bigger trouble that probably would have come her way).  And everyone is just a little too sweet and friendly for words (even the bad guys are a bit comic and harmless).  To me, this made the book seem like it was pitched for a pretty young audience, but with underage drinking and multiple veiled allusions to sex, I'm not really sure. I couldn't tell if this was for middle readers, YA, or NA (one review I read claimed it was for "all ages" -- but perhaps it was really for none?).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Fat Boy vs the Cheerleaders, by Geoff Herbach

Gabe has a love-hate relationship with the school's pop machine.  It certainly isn't helping his waistline.  On a good day, he can limit himself to only three bottle of Code Red.  But even though he has a bit of addiction to sugary carbonated drinks, the good news is that the proceeds at least benefit the band program.  A small comfort when the popular kids are making fun of your weight.

But then, the price goes up unannounced.  When Gabe goes to complain, he discovers something even more shocking: the proceeds from the machine have been diverted to a new program for the cheerleaders.  Summer band camp has been cancelled and the entire band program is in jeopardy.  In response, Gabe rallies the other band "geekers" to make a stand and defend the music program and their own self-respect.

A strange and fairly random story that delights in the sort of coarse razzing language that YA writers believe belong in "boy" books (and which always does a nice job of driving me towards the books with pink covers instead!).  There's plenty of frenetic activity and little troubling character development to interfere with it.  That would be fine, but most of the action is recounted by Gabe after the fact in the form of a one-sided interrogation.  This device drags things out and artificially builds up the suspense as important plot points are conveniently omitted until later to extend the story.  In sum, a pretty annoying read with a silly plot.

On the Road to Find Out, by Rachel Toor

Alice is an ace at getting good grades.  She's easily beat out all of the competition at school. But when her application for early decision at Yale is rejected, she has to do a reality check.  Outside of academics, her life is unbalanced.  Aside from her best friend (who's really more like her Mom's adopted favorite daughter) and her pet rat Walter, Alice doesn't really have anyone who understands her.  And when she has a falling out with her friend and a tragedy strikes at home, she realizes just how tenuous her situation is.

It is therefore something of a godsend that she discovers cross-country running around this time.  Having never done it before, a New Year's resolution to start doesn't go terribly well.  But Alice is persistent and determined to find something she can excel at, even if she really isn't sure what she wants.

I went through a lot of opinions about this book as I read it.  At times, I found it unfocused.  I wasn't really sure what it was supposed to be about (love for a rat, reconciling with mother, a search for meaning, etc.).  The story seemed to change more than the character.  Unhelpfully, Alice can be a terribly inconsistent character.  For such an insightful and intelligent narrator, she seemed far too capable of being clueless and boneheaded.  It's a character flaw that's supposed to be endearing, but it just seemed implausible and more like a lazy bit of writing.  But by the end, it seemed to hit its stride and it goes out on a high note, so I'll give it a qualified endorsement.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Geography of You and Me, by Jennifer E. Smith

The night the lights go out all over the Northeast, Lucy and Owen find themselves stuck in a stalled elevator in their Manhattan apartment.  Once rescued, they decide to spend the evening together.  The city -- without electricity -- has become magical, a surprisingly friendly town where you can even see the stars from Central Park.

Afterwards, they move on -- Owen and his father move out west, while Lucy and her parents relocate to Edinburgh and then to London.  Long distance relationships are hard (especially when you're not really sure what the nature of the relationship is in the first place), but the friendship born that night survives and they stay in touch through postcards and occasional emails.

I loved the characters (so full of hope and anxiety).  I loved the settings (so many familiar places from New York to Seattle to Edinburgh, and just enough detail to make them seem authentic without overdoing things).  But most of all, I loved the sheer beauty of the story -- a simple romance to be sure, but a captivating one based on honesty and believability.  I might have gotten a bit annoyed towards the end when Smith drags everything out a bit more, but I forgave her as soon as I got to the pay-off.

The Truth About Alice, by Jennifer Mathieu

Everyone knows that Alice is a slut.  She slept with two guys within the same hour at a party.  She even was responsible for one of those boy's death a few days later when she sexted him while he was trying to drive his truck.  So what that folks haven't been nice to her?  And so what that people have sometimes exaggerated the things she's done when they re-tell the rumors?  The graffiti in the girls' bathroom?  And the casting out and shunning?  She deserved all of it!

However, the truth is a slippery thing.  As four of Alice's peers recount their stories and admit their small contributions and omissions, a somewhat simpler yet more damning story is revealed.  And it is all the more shocking for its plausibility.

A well-written and ultimately icky story about bullying and the role that adolescent insecurity plays in it.  It's a story that is calculated to make you mad.  While there are acts of courage and decency in the story, the overall message is of how pride, vanity, and arrogance will trump the truth.  Mathieu makes no attempt to whitewash and the result is an ugly (but very honest) story about the near destruction of a human being a mob.  Almost certainly the book is on its way to becoming a book discussion subject!

We Are the Goldens, by Dana Reinhardt

Nell and her older sister Layla have always been inseparable, at least, that is, in Nell's mind.  Going to separate schools, it's been only too easy to explain away any distance between them.  So when Nell starts at City Day as a freshman, she is certain that she and her sister (a junior) will bond tightly.  On her first day, Nell is surprised to learn that Layla has a secret life.  And when Nell learns what the secret is, she is torn between loyalty to Layla and her conviction to do the right thing.  Meanwhile, she's making her own mistakes and torn over her feelings for her best friend Felix.

Written in the heart-aching pleas of an extended letter directly to her older sister, Nell's story early on sets a high expectation of tragedy and heartbreak.  Unfortunately, this particular expedition into pathos didn't gel as well for me as her earlier fraternal take, The Things A Brother Knows.  It hurts that the material is not all that original and that the storyline is cluttered with subplots.  The story felt more like a novella that Reinhardt has stretched out with other stories that were peripheral at best.

Yet, there is no denying the strength and beauty of Reinhardt's writing.  Her ability to drop emotional bombshells with seeming ease makes this a pleasure to read.  And while I very rarely quote from the books I read, I can't help but quote a passage (from page 184) that knocked the wind out of me for its amazing insight into the pain of adolescent transition:

"It's suited Mom and Dad best to think of us as smart and mature young women with good sense who make good choices so that they could wrap themselves up in their own lives and fall asleep a little on the job of being our parents.  All these years, Layla, we've tried to make things easy on them.  We go back and forth, back and forth, smart and mature, building a bridge between two lives and crossing it over and over again.  You know I've always hated being called a baby, but I started to wish it were true.  The baby of whom nothing is asked or expected.

"I wanted to go to them, to tell them, to put them in charge, but I didn't know how.  I was afraid to cause that earthquake."

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Love and Other Foreign Words, by Erin McCahan

A precocious student, Josie has skipped a few years of school, but her social skills haven't necessarily kept up with her academic advancement.  To cope with her challenges, she's learned to speak everyone's "language" (student-teacher, her sisters, her parents, etc.).  But when Josie's sister Kate brings home a fiance, Josie is dumbfounded.  He's just obviously wrong for Kate and Josie cannot imagine what she sees in him.  Worse, the new couple have taken to communicating in a new language that Josie finds she doesn't understand -- a realization that leads to the even bigger bombshell that Josie really doesn't understand "love" at all.

For a story about language and communication, it is a good thing that McCahan excels with dialogue in this rather chatty book. Unfortunately, she is less successful with telling her story.  There are some pretty obvious directions that the story will go (reconciliation being the obvious consistent solution in all cases), but there isn't much in the first 200 pages of the book to give any indication of where McCahan intends to go.

It didn't help that I failed to gain much sympathy for Josie or Kate.  For much of the book, they were just plain mean to each other.  And, while I know full well how siblings can be, it's hard for me to believe that the parents wouldn't have more effectively stepped in.  Finally, there's that silly infatuation that Josie has over Denis DeYoung -- excuse me?!  Gag!

A Time to Dance, by Vadma Venkatraman

Veda loves dancing and has talent in the Indian art of Bharatanatyam dance.  Her strength, flexibility, and dogged determination have given her the ability to strike amazing and difficult poses demonstrating immense technical proficiency.  She wins competitions and is justifiably proud of the achievements which have come from years of hard work.

Then an accident injures her, leading to the amputation of one of her feet.  Her once-supportive dance instructor tells her that her career is over, but she refuses to give up.  Instead, she focuses on rebuilding her strength and learning to use a prosthetic foot and picks up a new teacher.  From this new teacher and the inspiration of another dancer, she discovers an entirely different approach to dance which is focused more on spirituality than form.

A beautiful story that sheds light on an unfamiliar world of Indian dance and spirituality.  Veda is a great ambassador for the reader, providing us with a sympathetic heroine with a heart of gold.  She is both strong and virtuous and, in Venkatraman's gentle hand, she both rewards us and is rewarded.

I was less taken by the writing itself.  Venkatraman chose to write the novel in a pithy broken form that claims to be free verse, but which felt more like half-finished ideas.  The writing lacks the coherency of prose or the beauty of poetry, leaving us with words that seek to be poignant in their minimalism but that just look sketchy and rough.

Searching for Sky, by Jillian Cantor

For as long as Sky can remember, Island has been her world. Surrounded by endless Ocean, she and her friend River have survived on captured rabbits, fish, and berries.  Her mother and his father perished some time ago, so now it is only them.  But then, they are rescued and brought back to a world that Sky does not know or understand.  Sent to live with her maternal grandmother (who she doesn't remember) and separated from River, she has to learn entirely new survival skills.

Beautifully written, Cantor delights (perhaps a bit too enthusiastically at times) in contrasting the innocent life on Island with Sky and River's existence in California -- all a little Gods Must Be Crazy (but without the laughs)  Those contrasts and the process these two young people go through in acclimatizing to their new world could make for a stellar book on its own, but Cantor is not content to tell that tale. Instead, she throws in a lot of back story about Sky and River's parents belonging to a cult and a mass murder that implicates River -- all of which ultimately seems unnecessary. Thankfully, this extra stuff is more of a distraction than something to ruin this otherwise nice story of innocence lost.