Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ship of Dolls, by Shirley Parenteau

An exchange of "friendship dolls" between Japan and the United States has been announced to promote international peace and understanding, and Lexie's class in Portland has raised the money to purchase a doll to send.  She's a beautiful doll and Lexie longs to hold her, but even more exciting is the contest that has been announced.  The students are challenged to write a letter to accompany the doll and the winner will get a paid trip to San Francisco to see the send-off of the dolls.  This is especially important for Lexie because San Francisco is where her mother is living now.  Lexie hopes that by going down to see her mother, she can get her Mom to take her back so she no longer has to live in Oregon with her grandparents.

The exchange of the dolls is a historical fact that was also the setting of one of my favorite books (The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson) which focuses on the story of the dolls that Japan sent to the United States in return.  It's fascinating material for novelization and it's interesting how very different these two books are.  Larson's book is a rather metaphysical book that attributes all sorts of magic to the dolls, while Parenteau's book is fairly firmly set in reality.

There's a great deal of sentimentality and wholesomeness to this book that might make the jaded reader wince (this book will upset far fewer adults than the ones I've been reading recently!).  Lexie is a creature of her time (the 1920s), dutifully following expectations and living within her grandmother's strict conservative expectations.  But she is also a deceptively strong and empowered girl.  She makes quite a few poor choices, but she realizes her mistakes and is haunted by her conscience.  And even when she would love nothing better than to hurt people who have hurt her, she is able to put aside her desire for vengeance and do what must be done.  Certainly, her decision late in the story to give her most treasured possession away to someone who needs it more is heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Throughout the story, we see Lexie fearlessly stand up for herself and eventually make the right choices in the end.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Infandous, by Elana K. Arnold

Sephora and her mother are very close. As Seph explains it, given how little else she has in her life, they'd be "broke" otherwise.  Seph spends the summer between her Junior and Senior year drifting between summer school and hanging on the beach with friends.  But things are changing:  her Mom is seeing a guy barely older than Seph and Seph herself has had a brief hook up with an older guy that she'd rather just forget.  And while all of this may seem fairly trivial stuff, there are epic undercurrents to this story that will leave you shocked.

This is the sort of novel which is guaranteed to upset sensitive parents.   Between the profanity, sex, and drug use in the first dozen pages, this is a book begging to be banned.  The intensity of the subject matter seems inappropriate for a book targeted at teens.  But as a novel about a teenager living through a micro tragedy, it's a powerful read.

Arnold intersperses Seph's story with some less-familiar tellings of myths and fairy tales (focusing on the gorier and sexually-violent elements).  The intent is not so much a feminist retelling, but simply to highlight the extremely dangerous world that these stories portray.  As Seph herself says at one point, the whole empowerment project feeling "belittling." There is a weak attempt to tie these interludes into the main story by claiming that Seph has developed an interest in myths and stories, but it felt like a stretch.  However, it made for good reading and it also opened a plausible, but entirely unexpected and brutal twist at the end.

There is also the wonderful daughter-mother dynamic between Seph and her mother.  While we don't get much opportunity to hear her mother's voice, Seph's adoration is undeniable -- a mixture of need, jealousy, and protectiveness that she waxes eloquently about.  I loved the complexity and the opportunity to hear an expression of child-parent relationship that moved beyond frustration and anger.  And the one-sided exploration of that relationship made its pathos all the more strong.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Extraordinary Means, by Robyn Schneider

In the not-so-distant future, a new drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis has developed and reached epidemic proportions.  Without a means to treat the disease, society has turned back to the sanatorium approach.  Lane, obsessed with boosting his SAT scores and getting into Stanford, finds it hard to adjust to Latham House, his new home.  And the change of regimen (rest and relaxation) grates against everything he's strived for.  But unless he stops working so hard, the disease will kill him.  Sadie, on the other hand, has been stuck at this place for so long that she can no longer imagine life outside its walls.  

Faced with an incurable disease, a society that pities and fears them, and a longing for a normal life, this novel explores a wide array of issues, both emotional and ethical.  And it also finds time to explore a touching and rewarding romance between two young people united by the same threat to their survival, coping with it in very different ways.

The result is utterly stunning.  Dying teens as subject matter is of course going to be heartbreaking literary material, but in the hands of an excellent writer, you can do amazing things with it.  The obvious reference point is John Green's philosophical and witty The Fault In Our Stars and Schneider dutifully acknowledges the debt.  However, this book is quite different.  Schneider's interest is in the social/emotional effects of incurable disease:  how society treats the sufferers as well as how they respond to that treatment.  And her interest is not just literary.  Schneider holds a degree in medical ethics from UPenn and this informs fairly lucid discussions in the story of topics ranging from alternative therapy to the prioritization of treatment.  The result is an intelligent novel that brings up a lot of deep thoughts.  That it places all of this amid vivid characters, a touching friendship, and a heartbreaking story is a bonus.  The result is haunting and memorable.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen

Coming together as a blended family doesn't come easily for Stewart and Ashley.  He's a brilliant, but socially awkward boy building a electric bike and missing his late mother.  She's a fashionista with limited academic skill and a latent anger against her father who has recently come out of the closet.  But while the two of them are antagonistic from the start, they can come together when they have to, in order to stand up for what is right.

A charming story of the many ways that families and friends can support each other.  I disliked the rather cruel way in the story that Ashley's needs were shortchanged and her intellect belittled while Stewart's social ineptitude is frequent glossed over.  However, in general, the novel has some good messages about the need to stand up against bullying. 

There are other things that stand out in this book.  As usual, I appreciate the attempt to show both the strengths and flaws of the adults alongside the kids (it isn't just the kids who bicker -- the grownups are equally as skilled).  And, as much as this is a message book, the sermon is not heavy handed, giving us a good story as well.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Alex As Well, by Alyssa Brugman

Alex struggles with sexual identity.  While she's been raised as a boy, she's never felt that way (even if she has a shrunken "noodle" to prove it).  And when she decides to go off her meds and enroll herself at a girls' school without her parents' knowledge, she takes a brave step out.  Her parents violently disapprove of her decision and they have a number of angry intercations that culminates in Alex's decision to move out.  Meanwhile, she finds it is just as hard to be a girl as it was to be a boy, although she also finds allies in her changes.

An interesting look at an intersex child.  Brugman struggles a bit with how to present the story, trying both an internal dialogue between Alex's masculine and feminine sides and interspersing her mother's exasperated online confidences about her struggles to understand her child.  The latter is painful reading as the mother is incredibly self-centered and abusive.  And it also distracts us from the more important story of Alex's own growth.  That there will be people who will hurt Alex, we can be fairly certain, but seeing so much of it really adds little to the story itself (after all, I imagine that Alex can do a pretty decent job of hurting herself without her parents' help).  A subplot about a fashion modeling career seemed similarly off-topic.  I think the novel would have been strengthened by simply focusing on Alex herself as she discovers how to interact with her peers and become the person she wants to be.

Monday, December 21, 2015

P.S. I Still Love You, by Jenny Han

In this sequel to To All the Boys I Loved Before, Lara Jean finds herself in a real relationship with Peter, but despite their promises to tell each other the truth and not hurt each other, the relationship is rocky.  He can't seem to keep his ex-girlfriend away and Lara Jean herself is tempted by a reunion with her old heartthrob John.  Both of them suspect the other of infidelity.  Lara's getting plenty of advice from the ladies at the nursing home and her younger sister, but she misses her Mom.  After having spent so much time thinking about love, she is surprised to find that the real thing is so impossibly complex.

A cluttered, less focused, and weaker follow-up to one of my favorite Jenny Han books.  In general, Han does a wonderful job exploring not only themes of romance but also of friendship and of familial ties.  All that is present here, but it so much more awkwardly assembled.  She's put in a whole bunch of subplots (cyberbullying, an elder sister's absence, a party for the nursing home residents, getting Dad to start dating again, etc.) and little of it fits together.  The writing, usually so brilliant, is sloppy (and sloppily edited) (howlers include a metal box which "has eroded from the rain and snow and dirt" that the protagonist "wash[es] in the sink so it gleams again"). The ending is even more annoying, doing a last minute flip that contradicts much of the rest of the story -- the worst sort of surprise ending.  All of this is shocking given Han's excellent prior track record and even the strong start of this novel.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Conversion, by Katherine Howe

Colleen is a whisker away from becoming valedictorian at St Joan's Academy in Danvers, but the competition is pretty intense.  That is, until her classmates start exhibiting strange medical symptoms (tics, hair loss, coughing up pins, etc.).  Panic grips the school as a variety of increasingly implausible explanations are floated for what is happening.  The reality, however, is that no one is really sure.  More and more girls start to fall ill to the symptoms and a media circus develops.  Told in parallel with the story of the Salem Witch Trials, Howe attempts to provide an explanation for both the current events and that historical moment of mass hysteria.

An interesting premise where Howe, inspired by a real-life outbreak of mysterious symptoms at a private school in 2012, combined that story with her knowledge of Salem's unfortunate events, to create a novel about the intense emotional pressures that girls face around graduation.  I found that to be a clever concept and the storytelling to be exquisite.  I'm less of a fan of the actual story, but that is because the subject matter has always seemed distasteful to me.  The combination of egocentricity, prejudice, and sheer spiritual vacuum that is exhibited at Salem holds about as much appeal as a slasher movie for me.  But the story works and I certainly finished the book.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Galgorithm, by Aaron Karo

Shane has figured out how to get a girl to like you (be different, notice her, tell her, and -- if all else fails -- say something nice about her eyelashes).  And he's developed a secret "galgorithm" that proves his ideas scientifically work.  Or at least that's what he tells his classmates who seek out his advice in getting girls who are entirely out of their league to like them.  Shane is in such demand that even the teachers are looking to him for advice.  Yet, Shane himself doesn't seem to have anyone in his life, except for his best friend Jak who he's known since they were babies.  But she's just a friend, right?

Billed as a book for John Green fans, Karo has some of the funny attitude of Green, but lacks the insight and the depth of that author.  The story moves briskly, but Karo is entirely too self-conscious about the potentially offensive nature of his material and refuses to play it for full comedic effect.  And rather than run with it (and apologize later), he bends over backwards to show that Shane is really a Good Guy.  That he may be, but it makes him look like a bit of a wuss (as Shane himself notes, you should never run around and apologize all the time -- perhaps Karo should have taken his character's advice?).  There's a lot of romantic tension between Shane and Jak, but you kind of expect them to work through it at the end so you don't hold your breath a lot.  And the teachers are pretty dopey for what tries hard to be a smart comedy (hint:  awkward teachers are not funny!).  In the end, the story couldn't really ever get serious enough to talk about what makes relationships work and it refused to go over the top and make the whole thing funny.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Secrets We Keep, by Trisha Leaver

Ella has never managed to be popular like her identical twin sister Maddy.  Instead, she has quietly enjoyed being an artist, hanging out with her friend Josh, and avoiding Maddy's mean friends.   But Ella's resented Maddy's sense of entitlement and the love which their parents seem to lavish so easily on Maddy.  Then, one tragic night, there is a car accident and Maddy is killed.  Ella, however, is mistaken for her sister and people assume it was Ella that died.  Seeing the grief pouring out for her sister, Ella decides to swap identities and pretend to be Maddy.  Doing so becomes much harder than Ella ever imagined.

Leaver goes through great pains to explain how the story is even remotely plausible, but I think that misses the point.  While this novel is a fairly pedestrian high school drama, full of mean girls and jealous plots, it has a more interesting parallel track.  In this higher story, Ella's struggle to be her sister becomes a means to grieve for her, moving beyond both her childhood love and her adolescent jealousy to achieve a mature acceptance.  Seen in this light, the story (while still predictable) is quite clever and original.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, by Sara Farizon

In Farizan's first novel (If You Could Be Mine), she explored a lesbian romance in Iran.  It was an exercise that was deeply colored by politics and history, in which the romance itself got fairly smothered, in my opinion by the fact it was placed in such an exotic and hostile setting.  Now she's brought it home.  This new novel features Leila, a teenage Iranian-American living in Boston, attending an elite private school, and struggling with her own identity.  The change of setting makes a world of difference, and it allows us to now focus on Leila herself.

She knows that she likes girls and is fairly convinced that this is not a temporary phase, but she struggles with coming out for fear of how her friends and family will react.  Her father, in particular, is quite conservative and she has observed how other gay Iranian-Americans were treated by the emigrant community when they announced their sexual identity.  The arrival of a very exotic foreign student at her school adds urgency to the matter and also gives Leila some additional problems.

I found the book both amusing and touching.  Leila has a great sense of humor and there are lots of fun moments through the book.  This in no way detracts from the seriousness of her concerns or the struggles she goes through, but rather keeps things light and draws us to her.  The characters, in general, are largely portrayed in a way that makes them sympathetic and familiar, whether it is neglected friends or anxious parents.  Aside from the sheer evil of the bullying Saskia (and even she can elicit some sympathy!), these are characters with whom we can relate.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

When You Leave, by Monica Ropal

Cass has trust issues, so when the cute football player at her new school starts showing an interest in her, she has a hard time believing he's for real.  After all, she's just an angry skateboarder from the wrong part of town.  Their relationship, however, blooms into something special and she appears to be turning over a new leaf...until he is murdered.  Worse than the shock of losing him is the fact that one of her friends (Gav) is accused of being the murderer.  Cass becomes obsessed with clearing Gav's name and finding the real killer.  But can she conduct the search on her own?  Or must she somehow find the strength to trust others?

This is a surprisingly effective story and I can easily call it one of the best novels of 2015.  I was hooked from the beginning by one of the grittier and more interesting romances I had read in a long time.  So I was pretty ticked off when the guy got murdered.  But Ropal has a lot of skills in her pocket and, out of that crucial plot twist, she produces one of this year's most memorable heroines.  Cass is no shrinking violet and she has a dedication and bravery completely unknown to YA.  All of the characters are strong, in fact, and there is a refreshing bluntness to the way that they interact with each other. I particularly liked the development of Cass and her silent friend Mattie's relationship that will have many readers scratching their heads.

Ropal doesn't waste time with the misunderstandings that so many writers use to drag a story out.  This is a story that instead continually puts out and just as steadily surprises.  And it does hurt to have a female character that can fight off the bad guys without a big bad boyfriend to defend her.  These are coarse characters and the story isn't pretty, but the storytelling is compelling.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen

In comparison with her vibrant, risk-taking older brother, Sidney has lurked in the shadows.  When he goes too far and ends up in jail after injuring a boy, Sidney finds she still can't escape from behind his shadow.  Mom has grown obsessed with staying in contact with him and doesn't see how things are falling apart for Sidney.  To compensate, Sidney changes schools, makes new friends, and even find a new romance, but the inability of her family to confront the reality of their star son in jail continues to tear them apart.

A bit darker than Dessen's more recent novels and notably better than most of them.  Dessen is, as always, a great writer, but she has grown complacent in the last decade or so as she has found a successful formula and stuck to it.  Too often, her stories become tired rehashes of the old romantic boy-helps-girl-open-up chestnut.  To this work's credit, the romance doesn't even kick in until page 251.

In this one, she tries try to expand a bit, but it's mostly back into territory she explored in her earlier novel, Dreamland -- girl is unable to seek help from grownups and so suffers until she finally gets brave enough to ask for help.  So, we're basically waiting for that moment to arrive.  At the same time, not much else actually happens and there's a real pacing problem.  So much so that the last ten or so pages of the book is a massive epilogue in which all the loose ends get wrapped in retrospect (i.e., rather than actually showing us the resolution, we get told how it all ended).  This is pretty unsatisfactory, but after 400 pages of build-up, Dessen probably needed to close down the story.  I wish she had started that wind-down about 200 pages earlier!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Last Time We Say Goodbye, by Cynthia Hand

In the aftermath of her brother's suicide, Lexie comes to terms with her grief.  It grows so intense at time, that she becomes convinced that her brother's ghost is still lurking in their house and she seeks solace from a long-forgotten friend with an interest in the supernatural.  The process of grieving is lengthy and involves coming to peace with her parents and her friends, as well as  understanding what pushed her brother to the brink.

While Hand acknowledges that the story is inspired by her own tragedy, I'm prone to accept her assertion that it is a work of fiction.  Still, having lost a loved one to suicide obviously helps her to flesh out a story which is rich with detail. 

Premature death and grieving for it are common YA themes and this story does not break any particular new ground, but it is exceptionally well-written.  So, of all of the many options available for this subgenre, I'd recommend this one in particular.  The setting is realistic, the characters deep and compelling, and the story well-told.  Unlike so many other examples, Hand manages to tell her story without the tired tripe of recounting the Five Stages of Grief (in order!) -- Lexie's progress is more organic.  And finally, for the detail-obsessed, Hand's description of Lincoln Nebraska is spot-on (although lacking the much-anticipated Runza reference!).

Finding Mr. Brightside, by Jay Clark

A year ago, Abram's father and Juliette's mother were in the midst of a clandestine affair when they were killed in a car together.  Things since then have naturally been a bit tense between their families.  No one is doing particularly well. Abram's mother is addicted to gambling, Juliette's father mopes in the dark, and both kids are addicted to prescription meds (Adderel and Paxil).  None of this, however, prevents the kids from falling in love.  And thanks to their distracted and largely absent parents, they have free reign to do so.  The relationship naturally fixes everything!

From the odd premise, the unrealistic freedom that these kids enjoy, and the beautiful way everything sorts out, this is a hard one to swallow.  And while some lip service is paid to what should be awkward in this story (grief, guilt, and impact of drug abuse), not much is developed.  The story isn't too big into consequences or repercussions.  In fact, it isn't really too much into detail.  The characters are interesting and the premise has potential, but little is developed.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Everything That Makes You, by Moriah McStay

It's an interesting experience to read a book and to completely miss the entire point of the story.  I happened to tackle this one when I was a bit tired and exhausted during a thirty-hour flight to New Zealand so I have a good excuse readily at hand.  However, in quickly skimming through the book again, I realized that it actually was an easy mistake to make.

The novel, according to the blurb, is a what-if thriller about how one girl's life would be different if a crucial moment in her childhood had turned out differently.  However, you would never realize that this was the purpose of the novel if you hadn't read the blurb (which I in fact did not do until after I finished reading the book).  So, instead, what I read was a story that alternated chapters between two girls with similar names (Fi and Fiona) who seemed to move in the same social circles (they had the same friends) but for some mysterious reason never interacted with each other.  One of them starts off with a sucky life but rises above her set-backs.  The other one starts off golden and goes down in flames.  The idea that they were supposed to be the same person (in parallel universes) never even occurred to me.

Now, the fact that I completely missed the entire premise of the story would normally lead me to disqualify myself as a reviewer, but in this case I think it's my point:  When the writer can't tell the story without a summary (and the summary is not actually part of the book), the story isn't well told and cannot stand on its own.  Knowing the premise now, I love the idea of the story, but I shouldn't need a publicist's intervention in order to appreciate the book.

Little Peach, by Peggy Kern

Beat up and lying in a hospital bed, fourteen year-old Michelle recalls how she ended up as a child prostitute in the streets of Brooklyn.  From her relatively happier younger days being raised by her caring grandfather (until he died and she was forced out of her home by her junkie mother) to her arrival in New York City and being groomed by a pimp.  It's a cruel and brutal world, and seen in this novel entirely through a young girl's eyes.

This short, tightly written, and utterly brutal story is as compelling as it is stomach churning.  Michelle is a rough and crude character, and her behavior can be at times mystifying, but the story is told with such sympathy and insight that I felt drawn in the entire time.  I wished for a more uplifting ending to provide some sort of catharsis, but Kern knows better than to sweeten a story where, as Michelle puts it, "there isn't a magic place for kids like us." Haunting and essential.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

My Heart and Other Black Holes, by Jasmine Warga

Ever since her father was convicted of murdering a boy in her school. Aysel has lived as a social outcast.  She may not have been the killer but she bears guilt by association.  She also knows that her mother can't stand to be around her on account of the incident.  She'd frankly be better off dead.  But she can't find the courage to end her life. So she turns to a website called Smooth Passages which helps connect you with a "suicide buddy" with whom you can end it all.  And there she meets Roman.

Roman looks like a popular guy and seems to have lots of people who like him.  But since the day that his younger sister died while he was babysitting her, he hasn't been able to forgive himself.  When the two of them meet, ostensibly to plan their mutual suicide pact, they find that they have a lot in common.  And Aysel, who has never imagined that someone could ever like her, begins to doubt that she wants to go through with killing herself with him.

An interesting take on the subject of teen suicide and depression, but the story is terribly predictable.  While we are supposed to see these two as clinically depressed, the presentation of their condition makes them seem terribly self-absorbed, which makes them hard to sympathize with.  They are richly drawn, but come off as mopey and stuck on themselves.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Vanishing Girls, by Lauren Oliver

A few months ago, Dara and Nick were in a car accident.  Since then, the relationship between the two sisters just hasn't been the same.  Dara has become distant and trouble, while Nick tries to remain the good daughter and cover for her.  But it isn't just sibling rivalry, as Nick can tell that something has really happened to her sister.  And at a time when their parents are separating, Nick could really use a more supportive sibling.  Meanwhile, Nick is managing an exhausting summer job at a local amusement park and both of the girls get involved with a manhunt for a missing child.

Oliver has a good collection of best sellers under her belt now and that tends to encourage experimentation.  This novel is full of the stuff.  In addition to a complex narrative that switches back and forth between the girls' voices, the timeline also shifts between past and future, leaving the reader just slightly off-balance.  She's interspersed online news stories (complete with readers comments) and some random photographs.  The former works pretty well and speeds up some of the more tedious details in the plot, but the photographs really didn't work for me.  They are marginal to the story and mostly distract the reader.  Overall, I get why Oliver would be itchy to experiment with her storytelling, but the resulting novel becomes hard to read.  The plot twist at the end takes a while to digest and seems a bit of a stretch.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch

Sixteen years after her Kingdom of Winter was conquered by the Kingdom of Spring, Meira and a ragtag group of resistance fighters struggle to regain their homeland.  Their key goal is to recover the pieces of their last Queen's locket which hold the sole means of drawing on the "Royal Conduit" (a magical force) that gives rulers their strength.  Without it, there is no hope.

But as Meira's mission to recover a piece of the locket goes horribly wrong and the resistance fighters flee overland to the Kingdom of Cordell, the game grows more complex.  Ambitions and plots are unveiled, and Meira finds herself betrothed against her will (a situation she only frees herself from to fall into an even more precarious position).  And so on it goes.

It's a complicated story in a complex setting with a romantic triangle, lots of blood and mayhem, and some good old destiny fulfillment.  The action keeps moving but doesn't really amount to much in the end.  The romances lack warmth (aside from a short hot kissing scene oddly juxtaposed in the midst of a battle), some subplots about gaining respect get sidetracked, and the final climactic showdown is a fizzle out in the end.  And, throughout, a rather monotonous repetition of decapitations, endless blow by blow battle scenes, and exaggerated barriers (what's the point in telling us that doing something is impossible and then having the characters do it?).  If you like detailed descriptions of every sword swing, you'll enjoy this, but the story seems to always take second place to the combat.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Paper Things, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Ever since their mother died, Ari and her older brother Gage have stuck together.  So, when he moves out of the home of their guardian and wants her to come along, she does.  But life on the streets is hard for an eleven year-old girl and as brother and sister struggle to establish a foothold, Ari discovers just how tenuous her life is.  Her grades, friends, and even her self-respect begin to slip away.  Her dream of getting accepted to a special magnet school next year seems lost forever.  What keeps her together is her collection of cutouts (her "paper things") that she has collected -- images cut out of clothing catalogs that illustrate a happier world of smiling models who enjoy the one thing she wants more than anything else:  a home.

Gut wrenching and touching, this is a great novel in search of an audience. Who is the target audience for this book? The age of the protagonist would normally slot this book for middle schoolers, but the subject matter is far more mature for that.  Outside of those of us who are "not acting our age," I fear there isn't much of a readership for this moving story of a brave young girl.  More problematic is Ari, herself.  She has a voice that is wise and mature far beyond her years.  And so it is often quite jarring when she grows foolish and forgetful in a way that is entirely appropriate for a fifth grader but so out of character for her wise narration.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale

In this third (and last) installment of the Princess Academy series, Miri still has not managed to get home to Mount Eskel.  Their kingdom is under threat from an aggressive neighbor and a plot is hatched to propose marriage between the foreign king and a princess.  However, where to find a princess?  The answer is an obscure set of royal cousins in a backwater swamp called Lesser Alva, and Miri is sent there to tutor them and prepare them to become suitable material for a royal marriage.  But when Miri arrives, she finds that her charges are wild abandoned children and that things are very much not as they should be.

A wildly convulsive story that combines material from the first two books, while introducing new and interesting characters to the adventure.  We move through life in the swamp to dealing with exploitative adults to invasion and war -- the pace is unrelenting!  It also felt very rushed at the end and failed to gel as we are pushed into a series of crazy coincidences and convenient resolutions.

This last book in the series is notably more political than its predecessor (which is saying something!).  The Disneyfication of the covers of the books in the series (now featuring wide-eyed princesses) seems symptomatic of a storyline which has become far too self-conscious in its message-making.  If this is truly the last book in the series, then I will be happy that it wrapped before becoming too precious in its social commentary.

But let me wrap on a positive note.  From the beginning, I've enjoyed the strength of the female characters.  Even in the face of men with weapons and greater physical strength, the girls always manage to come up with plausible counter-strategies that rely on intelligence, cunning, and bravery (although admittedly more violence in this book than the predecessors).  And even in a story that accepts that girls are subjected to training in poise and demeanor that boys are spared, Hale finds empowerment instead of shame in such feminine curricula.  Yes, you can have your cake and eat it daintily too!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Better Than Perfect, by Melissa Kantor

Juliet has a pretty good life.  She's smart, she's got a handsome and intelligent boyfriend, her family is affluent, and she has plenty of friends.  But when her parents separate and her Mom overdoses, Juliet discovers that her perfect life really isn't all it's cracked up to be.  And realizing that causes her to examine the rest of her life as well.  And that, in turn, leads her to explore some alternatives.

A number of other readers seem to focus in on Juliet's decision (twice) to cheat on her boyfriend, but that particular bad choice worked for me from a dramatic standpoint.  What I found harder to stomach was Juliet's privileged and coddled existence, and the lack of consequences for any of her decisions.  Yes, I was a bit relieved (plot spoiler!) that we are saved from the predictable boyfriend-finding-out scene, but the fact that she can blow off her school and her scholarship and basically accepts no responsibility for flipping off all of these fantastic opportunities she gets handed was what bothered me.  And I never could quite figure out what was so wonderful about her perfect boyfriend.

All that said, the plot is the classic learning-to-understand-yourself trope that fulfills all of the basic dramatic requirements of a YA novel.  You start with the clueless slave to parental and peer expectations, you throw your little sheep for a loop with a few traumas, mix stuff up for a hundred+ pages, and end up with a cathartic Moment of Truth where the young person throws away their perfect life and decides to become a llama herder in Peru.  It's beautiful and touching, and utterly unrealistic.

But hey, it's well written and a good read!  Kantor does human interaction beautifully, capturing the imperfections of child and adult fairly and evenly.  This makes Juliet's scenes with her parents particularly memorable and authentic.  And they work so well, because these characters are anything but perfect, which is probably what makes them better....

Monday, October 12, 2015

Flashes, by Tim O'Rourke

Since her mother died ten years ago, Charley has experienced seizure-like visions (which she calls "flashes") of the lives/deaths of victims of violent crimes.  Always the victims.  And never anyone she recognized, until suddenly she does:  a young woman who died on the train tracks in suspicious circumstances.  No one believes that she actually sees things, of course, especially her concerned father.  That is, until a young idealistic police officer named Tom becomes aware of her talents and realizes how useful and important they could be for the investigation.  But as she gains a clearer picture of the truth, Charley finds herself getting closer to danger.

Based on a popular self-published series of crime stories, this novel suffers from much of the hubris (and dearth of editorial intervention) that I tend to associate with the self-published.  The author is a former police officer and he shows great comfort with writing about the profession, but his characters are stuff and lack much depth.  The cops and the killer are stereotypes, and Charley herself lacks much of interest as a YA character.  So, instead, the novel relies on its plot, which moves briskly (if somewhat improbably) towards a conclusion that some may find unsatisfactory but which is probably the best possible solution for its set-up.

[Disclosure: I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on October 27th.]

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes

Hallie dreads attending youth group functions ever since a humiliating incident between her and the preacher's son Luke.  But her parents think it's time to move on and force her to go on a church-sponsored camping trip.  It starts off every bit as dreadful as she is expecting, in spite of an offer of friendship from a new girl named Rachel and some unexpected kindness from Jonah, one of her ex-friends.  But the stakes change when Hallie, Rachel, and Jonah find themselves lost in the woods and struggling for survival.  And the struggle becomes an opportunity for Hallie to redeem herself and fix her broken life.

With a plot not-so-full of surprises, the quality of this novel turns upon Holmes's strong writing and strong characters.  In the beginning, I found Hallie's whining pretty annoying (and I could easily see why she didn't have any friends anymore!) but that made her blossoming into a strong-willed protagonist that much more compelling.  The romance with Jonah never quite reaches its full potential, but you've got a lot of action to plot out here and some things had to give.  I also wanted a more cathartic ending, but Holmes got everyone to where they needed to be (physically and emotionally) by the end, so the story did its job.  I found it bracing, but realistic and thoughtful.  A great combination of emotional growth drama and survival story.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

I Was Here, by Gayle Forman

After friend Meg kills herself, Cody goes in search of an explanation.  And when she discovers that her friend's death may have been helped along by a suicide "support" group that provided both the encouragement and the knowledge for how to end her life, Meg becomes obsessed with trying to track down Meg's "killer." But along the way, Cody finds out just how unclear intentions are, and comes to question the values she holds herself.

An interesting riff on both the themes of suicide and of finding the strength to live your life.  Cody has a lot of strikes against her ranging from rural poverty to a broken family.  And she makes a fair share of poor choices along the way.  But she's got strength and perseverance and that makes her interesting.  Less so the supporting cast and the love interest (I could have given all of them a pass!).  But the story hits the good points and moves along at a crisp pace.  Nothing spectacular, but a decent read.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle

Vivian never paid any mind to her parents' conviction that Rapture was coming and that they would soon be taken to heaven, until the day she came home to find two holes in her roof and her parents gone.  Right on schedule, five thousand people have disappeared and, for the thousand more Believers who were not taken and for the people who were simply left behind, there is the question of why it happened?  With the world itself seemingly coming to an end and anarchy taking over, Vivian and her friends embark on a desperate road trip across the United States to try to find some answers.

This novel is a rough story -- entertaining, but ultimately flawed.  It works best as an apocalyptic thriller and less well as a polemical diatribe against religion and consumer culture.  Unfortunately, it's the latter that really interests Coyle.  We've seen paper tiger depictions of the evils of Evangelical Christianity before, and her particular take would be offensive if it were not so ludicrous.  Even if you aren't distracted by her silly religion-bashing, the plot has an annoying habit of relying on belated reveals of plot points essential to the story (when the story makes less sense in the re-reading, you know you're having trouble!).

But hey, there's a sequel, so people found it entertaining enough to buy it!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Faceless, by Alyssa Sheinmel

Recovery stories fill a special niche in the YA genre.  The juxtaposition of a youth with a hospital setting and lots of physical therapy is a premium dramatic concept.  One of my all-time favorite books (A Face First) dramatized the idea of a burn victim having to wear a mask on her face to help it heal.  Faces are important to everyone but particularly to adolescents, so the idea of damaging it is captivating to a youthful reader.  Alyssa Sheinmel's latest novel Faceless captures that same experience.

Maisie has suffered severe burns on her face -- damage which is so extensive that it has destroyed parts of her.  The only solutions are skin grafts or another more exotic solution:  a face transplant.  This procedure will replace parts of her face with the parts of a cadaver.  With misgivings, Maisie opts for the procedure, knowing it will be ghoulish to be "wearing" someone else's face for the rest of her life.  The novel itself traces the recovery process and the difficulties of adjusting to life as her family and friends each have to come to grips with the change.

While the novel follows pretty familiar recovery territory (with plenty of grieving, anger, and acceptance to come down the pike), I liked it.  Maisie can be awfully stuck on herself and convinced she knows what everyone else is thinking, but she reasons things out and her insights are fascinating to read about.  Her friends and family are similarly multifacted and I enjoyed the growth in her relationship with her boyfriend Chirag and her best friend Serena, as well as her ongoing struggles with her mother. Sheinmel takes her time and devotes a lot of energy into these relationships, allowing us a number of different perspectives and, in the end, a fuller understanding of the ethical, moral, and emotional dilemmas of face transplants.

[Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  When I finish with it, I will donate the book to my local public library.  The book was released on September 29th.]

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Hidden, by Donna Jo Napoli

A companion to Napoli's Hush, this novel traces the adventures of Melkorka's sister Brighid from the time she escaped the slavers' ship (and managed to live amid the Norsemen of Jutland) until eight years later, as the head of a band of pirates, freeing slaves along the Baltic coast.  Along the way, this action-packed adventure provides copious historical details about life in 10th century Scandinavia, ranging from domestic arts and beekeeping to political structures and social mores.

Napoli always does great historical research to get her subjects right.  But what makes her stories work best is when she is able to weave a compelling story to place into all that researched setting. One could fault her for some wishful modern sensibilities about the role of women, but nothing which clashes with or detracts from the story.  The result is a beautifully-written tale about a strong and resourceful heroine with an ability to see far forward and change the lives of others.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Tell Me, by Joan Bauer

Anna's parents are separating and she is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother, who is herself embroiled in putting together their town's famous flower parade.  As with all Joan Bauer heroines, Anna has a particular talent -- hers is acting.  Whether it's being a gymnastic giant cranberry or a singing petunia, Anna knows how to find her motivation and move a crowd.  But when she encounters a scared young girl who may be a victim of human trafficking, she's in over her head and it's time to call Homeland Security.

And if you're confused by all this, you aren't alone!  Joan Bauer, who excels at creating driven single-minded characters with quirky tastes, has created one of her most unfocused books.  There are any number of plotlines here and most of them unravel before the book is done (most notably, the potential mean girl and nefarious entrepreneur subplots which fizzle away, but even the human trafficking story never really crystallizes).  The end result is a story which never materializes, in striking contrast to Bauer's other novels.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gone Too Far, by Natalie D. Richards

Running late for school one day, Piper comes across a mysterious notebook full of defaced photographs and coded accusations against people in school.  Initially creeped out, Piper eventually becomes obsessed by the book and the various petty crimes it documents.  Then a mystery person starts to send her text messages and asking her to finger people.  That's when things start to turn freaky as the people she fingers end up getting their just desserts.  While that is initially satisfying, Piper begins to get cold feet and the damage turns out to be much more serious than she had imagined.  What started as some leveling of the scales of justice has turned into blackmail, deceit, and far worse.

Borrowing a page quite liberally from Heathers, but without the black comedy, we have a classic story of revenge blown out of control.  Piper is a believable young woman whose passion for justice slips into vengeance, without regard for the consequences.  The fact that her adolescent mind then grossly overestimates her own importance is plausible and tragic.  Thankfully, the adults provide a similarly plausible reality check.  These are not terribly nice people, but they know their faults and the story has a very satisfying conclusion with a good last minute punch to the gut.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Frosted Kisses, by Heather Hepler

Since successfully acclimating to life in a small town in The Cupcake Queen, Penny's life has grown more complicated.  There's dealing with her father (now that her parents are divorced) who can't make time to see her.  Or the nasty bully Charity and the even nastier exchange student Esmeralda, who are both set on making Penny's life at school into hell.  Or Penny's attempt to matchmake between her grandmother and an old flame.  Or even Penny's struggles at getting her own romance off the ground.  Throw in a winter festival, a fundraiser for the local animal shelter, some zany adventures at work, and a best friend's family problems, and life is pretty crazy!

What it isn't, however, is organized into any sort of theme.  There's plenty of activity and stuff to read about here, but nothing which gives this novel a purpose.  And no matter how likable Penny is or readable the writing, that gaping hole is a big deal.  Simply tying some of the various ideas together (for example, the importance of family or loyalty to friends) would have done a lot to improve the book.  But aside from the fact that parents (and fathers in particular) come across as pretty horrible in this story, there isn't much here.

[Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.  After finishing with it, I will be donating the book to my local public library.  The book is scheduled for release on October 27th.]

Monday, September 14, 2015

Upside-Down Magic, by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins

When Nory fails her entrance exam to the prestigious Sage Academy, she is sent to her Aunt Margo's to attend Upside Down Magic (UDM) class at Dunwiddle.  UDM is for kids whose magic is "wonky" (a not-so-PC word for the magic-challenged).  Nory is a "fluxer" (shape-shifter) with an unfortunate tendency to have her shapes shift in unexpected ways.  Her kittens grow beaver teeth and her skunks grow elephant trunks.  But in UDM class, she's joined by "flare" (fire-maker) who freezes things, a flyer (clairvoyants) who can't help but float away, and other kids with unusual and uncontrolled talents.  However, while Nory is finally among kids like herself, she longs to be normal and wants to find a way to cure herself.

The first of a series that merges a Harry Potter magic school theme with that very American sensibility for celebrating diversity, and aims it at a younger audience.  It's probably a winning formula and the trio of heavy hitters behind it is impressive.  Much more impressive for me was that for a team-written book it was surprisingly difficult to identify each writer's contribution. Jenkins in particular has a very notable dry humor which permeates the story, yet Mlynowski and Myracle are formidable presence as well.  I'm not a fan of middle grade series books, but I imagine this will be around for a while!

[Disclaimer:  I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  Once I finish with it, I'll be donating it to my local public library.  The book is scheduled for release on September 29th.]

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Sound of Letting Go, by Stasia Ward Kehoe

Life in Daisy's house can be challenging.  Her little brother Steven is autistic and he's not so little anymore.  The family is proving less and less able of handling his violent outbursts.  Daisy guiltily wishes that they had a "normal" family so that she could focus on her music and go out more often with her friends, instead of being forced to take care of his brother.  But when her parents decide to institutionalize Steven, she feels even worse.  What kind of horrible people are they to reject their own kin?  She channels her anger into self-destructive behaviors (skipping school, etc.) and an aimless sexual relationship.

I get the conflicted state of Daisy's mind over whether she wants Steven there or gone, but there really is no attempt to come to peace with the decision.  Instead, she waffles back and forth and mopes.  Nor does she ever really confront the other issues in her life (her relationship with boyfriend Dave, her applications to music schools, etc.).  That lack of closure left me feeling like the story just sort of stopped and never properly finished, and while I got a clear sense of how difficult it is to have an autistic member in the family, I got no sense of growth or revelation.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

All the Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven

Finch is fascinated with the many ways that people commit suicide.  Violet is living with guilt after the death of her older sister in a crash which Violet herself survived.  They meet on a ledge high above the ground when Finch saves Violet's life after she reconsiders her own attempt to end her life.  They bond.  He's the school freak, bullied by other kids and generally misunderstood.  She's the formerly popular girl who can't seem to get her life together.  But together, Finch is able to get Violet to come out of her shell and she loves him for it.  Unfortunately, her love is not enough to save him as his obsession with suicide becomes more engrossing and destructive.

A rambling and somewhat disjointed look at teen mental illness.  It starts off as a quirky romance that is filled with marvelous facts about the State of Indiana -- the kind of cute novel where oddball kids make appealing partners.  But somewhere towards the end, Niven decides to take the story into darker territory and have Finch completely unravel.  She claims in the Afterword that that was her intent from the beginning, but the story could have gone in many directions and it felt like a detour to me.  And because of that shift, I felt like we lost a lot of Violet's story.  I get that Finch's illness makes for a more dramatic ending, but it is the less interesting story in the end.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Monkey Wars, by Richard Kurti

When Papina and her troop of rhesus macaques is driven out of their home in the old cemetery by marauding gray langurs, no one can really know that this is the start of huge insurgency.  But the success stirs the ambitions of a paranoid tyrant named Tyrell, who rallies his langurs into crushing their neighbors and sundering families and friends along the way.  As they run out of external enemies, they they turn on their own, and even start to plot against the humans.  It then falls on Mico, a langur initially enthralled under Tyrell's spell, to challenge the tyrant.

This nuanced allegory about the rise of totalitarianism set amid the feral primates of Kolkata is one of the more imaginative books of the year.  Superficially, it will call to mind the Planet of the Apes, but Kurti's writing is more informed by history.  He makes numerous sharp observations about the psychology of terror and propaganda, and the way that totalitarianism both rises and falls.  It's an extremely gory novel, but one with extraordinarily important observations to make about human behavior.

This is a "boy" book, in the sense that it focuses on action, at the expense of depicting most emotional growth (with the important exception of Mico's emergence as a liberal thinker).  Most of the characters die by the end, so it's best to not get invested (Kurti cruelly spends significant time developing characters who are doomed to be brutally murdered within a chapter or two).  And the story is stubbornly androcentric.  Females play bit (although sometimes crucial) parts in the story which is overwhelmingly about males posturing and jostling for authority and power.  One could blame that on the species depicted, but it is a shame in a story which otherwise uses the primate cover as a thin veil for the human souls expressed.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Lightning Queen, by Laura Resau

For modern day Marylander Mateo, visiting his grandfather Teo in rural Oaxaco, Mexico is an entirely different world, but one to which he looks forward every year.  On his most recent stay, Grandfather Teo tells him a story from long ago about how he met a young gypsy girl names Esma ("the lightning queen").  Their friendship, challenged by distrust between two different cultures, managed to survive.

Resau has a bit of niche writing rich stories about the indigenous people of Mexico that combine a Hispanic magical realism tradition with a modern kid-friendly sensibility.  The results are wonderful novels where the story itself is less important than the characters.  And thus a story synopsis cannot do justice to the immersive fun of the book which sends us to another world full of colorful characters and meaningful human relationships.  This book does it all one better, bringing two very unique cultures together:  the Mexteco people (of whom Resau has written before) and the less-known world of the Mexican Romani.  Truth be told, I hadn't even realized that the Romani had reached the Americas and loved the idea of bringing them to light.  While I might well have enjoyed even more about the gypsy caravan and its people, what is present is fascinating and interesting.

[Disclaimer:  I received a copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.  After finishing with the book, I will be donating it to my local public library.  The book is scheduled for release on October 27th.]

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Royally Lost, by Angie Stanton

Crown Prince Nikolai of Mondovia is itching to be free of the confines of his existence as the heir to powerless throne of a stagnant European monarchy.  Angry that he is being forced to enlist in the military instead of following his desire to improve the world, he runs away from home, seeking freedom in central Europe.  Becca from Madison, Wisconsin is enduring a forced family river cruise through the ancient cities of Europe, sure that she will perish from boredom and moping about the boy who dumped her back home.  Obviously, they meet and sparks fly.

There are all sorts of reasons to hate this book.  You can despise the whiny Becca who gives a black mark to teen cheeseheads by constantly complaining about her horrible privileged existence.  Or you can despise the paper tiger of Nikolai's parents who effortlessly are convinced of the virtue of Nikolai's plans to reform their country simply by listening to him speak.  Or you can hate the overly simple fourth-grade vocabulary that the book is written in.  Or, while your at it, you can hate the superficial tour-guide narrative of Europe (courtesy, undoubtedly of notes from the author's own trip).

But the one thing you can give the author credit for is getting the details of Dane County Airport (MSN) down correctly.  I'd have never forgiven her for screwing that up!  And you can give the book credit for at least being an interesting story (albeit written for little children or teens in remedial English classes).  I get that it's a fluffy beach read, that intends to exploit young women's fantasies about meeting a real-life prince.  I didn't expect great literature, but at least give your readers credit for being literate!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Dangerous, by Shannon Hale

Maisie wins a sweepstakes opportunity to attend a space camp.  This is a dream come true for a one-armed girl with desire to reach for the stars.  And when her team at the camp wins another contest that allows them to go out into the stratosphere, she really has reached her greatest ambition.  That's the point when alien technology takes over her team's bodies and things start getting very serious.  Soon, there's violence and mayhem, zombifying viruses, and a secret war between a space pioneer and a scheming megalomaniac.  Meanwhile, Maisie is struggling with what to do about her boyfriend who keeps alternating between trying to kiss her and trying to slaughter her family.

I love Shannon Hale's fantasy books -- the Bayern series and the Princess Academy books are great -- but she really doesn't know what to do with science fiction.  She's not a science geek and whenever this book tries to get into the hard science it falls into absurdity.  And meanwhile, while trying to provide a plausible scientific background for the story, Hale lets the plot slip away.  Most of the story makes little or no sense.

No where is the story less incomprehensible than in the "love story" between Maisie and Wilder -- a coupling that is at best like the more obnoxious elements of Rory and Logan's relationship in Gilmour Girls (sorry, if you were a fan!).  How can we possibly believe that she is lusting after the guy who tried to kill her family twenty pages ago?  And, if that's really how she feels, how can we feign interest in someone so shallow?  Yes, it's silly (and Hale is trying to go for silly), but it's also an ungodly mess!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Zac & Mia, by A. J. Betts

Zac and Mia meet in the cancer ward, where Zac is a worldly veteran of bone marrow transfusions and a calm and reflective expert on the ups and downs of leukemia.  Mia, in comparison, is the lucky one with a relatively simple tumor that should respond nicely to chemo.  But she is angry and resists both friendship and treatment.  In the end, Zac comes out okay and leaves and Mia, while still in the ward, has a good prognosis despite here gloomy and angry outlook.

But things don't end up quite the way the two of them expect.  And in the ensuing months, these two young people go on a trip across the country and across their hearts that has them exploring what it means to be alive and asking what second chances are really worth.

The story bears a superficial resemblance to John Green's The Fault In Our Stars, but eschews much of the humor and irony of that more famous work.  Obviously, both books dwell a lot on death, but Betts isn't trying to answer the Big Questions that Green went after.  And the tone of this book is much lower key.  For that reason, Zac & Mia is a much harder book to digest.  I found it a bit jumpy, with awkward transitions between major plot developments and an annoying obsession with the turning of tables and plot twists.  But it is also harder reading because Betts's book lacks the Hollywood ending that made TFIOS so filmable.

I liked Zac & Mia's humble scrappiness and the story line's interests roam in interesting ways.  Betts, for example, develops the characters of Zac's and Mia's families and friends (in a way that John Green never would have done) and much is made of history and roots.  The relationship of the two young people is central but it exists within a social network that sees healthy development in this novel.  And even the relationship between Zac and Mia has nuances and complex layers of doubt and hope that felt more realistic.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Untwine, by Edwidge Danticat

After her twin sister is killed in a car accident, Giselle goes through an extended period of healing from her own accident-related injuries and recovering from the loss of her sister.  Memories of their lives together and pointed observations about her family make up Giselle's account of how the accident has changed them.

Danticat writes beautifully and the novel is full of gorgeous flowing prose, which speaks elegantly of Giselle's Haitian roots.  However,  the subject matter is well-trod and this book adds little new to the subject of grief.  There are extensive observations about the process of healing, more than a few attempts to bring up the duality and psychic connection between twins, and a rather bizarre subplot about the investigation of the cause of the accident.  But none of this really gels and we're left with a beautiful story and no place to go with it.

[Disclaimer:  I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  After I finish with it, I'll be donating the book to my local public library.  The book is scheduled for release on September 29th.]

Monday, August 17, 2015

First Kiss (Then Tell), edited by Cylin Busby

Twenty five major YA writers responded to the question "Tell us about your first kiss" and the results, of course, are fantastic!  There's almost certainly a bit of artistic license in the stories and a fair share of creativity (Scott Westerfield's haiku is by far the briefest submission!).  But overall, these are wonderful stories about the vulnerable, yet life changing, experience of locking lips with someone really special (or far too often not so special).

It's a lightning fast read, as each of the stories are very short (you'll spend almost as much time reading the bios as you do reading the stories), but each is lovely in their own way.  There is, however, a sense that we've heard the story a bit too often by the time we reach the end.  Twenty-five kisses and most of them pretty much tell the same story of fear, awkwardness, and self-realization.  You'll come to understand that most first kisses are disappointments, but also reference points for the later ones that really matter.  That's a great lesson to tell young readers, but the kids may get tired of hearing it the tenth or twentieth time they read it.  And finally, one could fault Busby for having so few recollections from boys (who apparently don't remember their kisses) or for not attempting to explore a world outside of upper middle class suburbia (are there no kisses of color?).  Still, I couldn't imagine a better focus for a collection of YA short stories.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fan Art, by Sarah Tregay

Jamie knows that falling in love with your best friend is never a good idea, but especially when he doesn't know that you're gay (and you don't know if he is).  But when one of Jamie's other friends makes him publish her gay-themed fan art in the school literary magazine (with two characters that look suspiciously like Jamie and his friend), the cat is about to be let out of the bag.  Time is running out for Jamie to come clean and come out to his friend.  Now, Jamie just needs to find the inner strength to do so.

This is a strange novel and I'm not quite sure how to read it.  Tregay avoids the usual stereotypes of gay YA.  Jamie's parents are accepting.  There's a small amount of static from his peers, but for the most part, Jamie's reluctance to fully come out is just a fear of losing his friend's affection.  But the whole thing seems blown out of proportion.  Why does the publication of the fan art have to be such a big deal?  How is Jamie even vaguely forced to publish it?  Why do so if it threatens his ability to keep his orientation under wraps?  And, why, if he is so afraid to come out, does he make so little attempt to hide it?  And, as for the boys, given the constant mixed signals they keep sending each other, we're all pretty certain how this is all going to end up by the 100th page.  So, what exactly was the point of it?

Still, as an example of a more liberal contemporary view of being a gay teen (in a world where prejudice does not in fact play a defining role), this could be read as a rom-com.  In that mindset, the set ups would seem funny and we could just enjoy the fun of two people finding each other.  But then, Tregay throws in a hint of menace that suggests that it isn't that simple and that she wants to make a statement about how hard it is to be a gay teen.  And so I get confused again about what we're doing here.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Sanctuary, by Jennifer McKissack

When her uncle stops paying for school, seventeen year-old Cecilia is forced to return to her family's ancestral manor Sanctuary on a remote island off the coast of Maine.  Haunted by ghosts of an angry ship captain and the many Acadians he helped to forcibly deport to Virginia, the place is racked by misfortune and madness.  But with the help of a young doctor and some other people from her family's past, Cecilia aims to undo the curse and bring peace to the place.

A classic ghost story set in the 1940s with a barely adolescent protagonist, the story has a languorous pace and a classy tone.  However, it is not YA and it is not even a children's book.  There's a fairly low key and mature romance but none of the elements of YA (coming of age, finding one's place, evolving relationships with family or friends, etc.) that one would expect in the genre are present.  It's a fine enough read, but not really the type of book that interests me, nor in fact the usual fare carried by Scholastic Press!

[Disclosure:  I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  Once I finish with it, I'll be donating the book  to my local public library.  The book is scheduled for release on September 29, 2015.]

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

After experiencing a mental breakdown triggered by the traumatic loss of her first love, Jam is sent to a special boarding school for "fragile" youth in Vermont.  There, she finds herself enrolled in a class innocuously entitled "Special Topics in English" taught by a enigmatic but effective elderly woman.  The class is apparently exclusive and only five students are allowed to enroll, but none of the five students in the class applied for the honor.  Instead, they were chosen.  And, while ostensibly a seminar devoted to reading the works of Sylvia Plath, something much more profound is going on.  Each time the students sit down to fulfill their mandatory journaling  assignments, they find themselves temporarily transported to a world where everything in their world has been set aright...or has it?

For lack of a better way to describe this novel, I'll call it a cross between Dead Poets Society and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  It's an entrancing riff on the boarding school/psych ward genre with an incredibly melancholy whiff of the supernatural thrown in.  The story is well managed -- the narrative stays focused and the characters are kept to a minimum, each experiencing nice development and character growth.  My only disappointment was with how Jam's own story gets resolved, but that may be more my frustration with the character than the author and you can't win them all!  It's not a strikingly original work, but it is a good story, beautifully told.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Panic, by Lauren Oliver

Up in Carp NY, where the adults are zombiefied by meth and the kids see no future, the key pastime of the seniors after graduating is playing a deadly game of chicken called Panic.  Competing for a jackpot worth $50K, these young adults take part in dangerous challenges that test their bravery and skirt death.  As the field narrows down, the game becomes more brutal and the players begin to question their motivations and the sanity of their competitors.  But the game must go on.

I like to think of this as a dystopian novel set in the real world.  If you've ever been to Columbia county in upstate New York, you know the bitter nature of the poverty there, and it's easy to visualize how that landscape that could create a real-world hunger games.  The novelty of that idea captured my interest and kept me plowing through this novel.  But it became a drudge, mostly because the story is so slow moving and the characters so uninteresting.  This isn't a story about heroes or rising above your circumstances, but rather about the soul crushing nature of rural poverty.  And without redemption, we're stuck with characters who yell, swear, and cry, but never really grow up.  And with the action spread out over 400 pages, that's a lot of yelling, swearing, and crying to get through.

Friday, August 07, 2015

George, by Alex Gino

Fourth-grader George has a secret stash of magazines at home.  Her older brother assumes that it's a porn collection, but in reality they are fashion and girls' magazines.  George may be only ten years old, but she considers herself a girl, even if every one else thinks she's biologically a boy.  No one except George knows the secret.  But when George's attempt to try out for the part of Charlotte in the school production of Charlotte's Web is thwarted by her teacher, George's best friend hatches a plan to get George the part anyway and allow George to show her classmates, teachers, and mother that she is really a girl.

If the story sounds familiar, there's an unfortunate reason for that.  According to the author, they spent twelve years gestating this story.  Gino probably should have worked faster as it is hard to not compare this book with Gracefully Grayson and unfortunately, in comparison, George comes up short.  The two books tell basically the same story about a pre-adolescent girl in a boy's body trying out for a female role in the school play.  But Gracefully Grayson explores not just the physical elements of being transgender (surreptitious dress up, etc.) but also goes into great depth about the protagonist's feelings about gender and being respected.  George is a colder, more rational, fourth grader -- noting web articles he's read about psychological studies and hormonal treatments.  The discussions between George and her best friend are largely fact-driven.  The overall approach is clinical and less engaging, and the characters are flat as a result.  If George was the only book on the market, it would be an important pioneering book, but arriving late on the scene it just feels timid.

[Disclaimer:  I received a solicited copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.  After finishing my review, I will be donating the book to my local public library.  George will be released on August 25.]