Saturday, January 31, 2015

Trouble, by Non Pratt

Fifteen year-old Hannah discovers she is pregnant.  She already has a reputation as a party girl, so this just solidifies people's preconceptions.  But in an atmosphere of shaming and hushed secrets, a surprising ally appears in the form of a new kid named Aaron.  The two of them really don't know each other at all, but he volunteers to step forward and pretend to be the baby's father.  Why?  No one really knows and Aaron is keeping his secrets pretty close.  Not that Hannah should talk, since she isn't telling anyone who really is the father!

What emerges is a touching story of two young people thrust into a difficult situation and showing tremendous fortitude in the face of peers and family who sometimes help and other times let them down.  There are some definite meanies (e.g., Hannah's brother and her ex-BFF Katie) and one could fault Pratt for creating Aaron a bit too benevolent, but mostly this is story of people who do both good and evil.  I always appreciate balance and nuance in my characters and Pratt does a great job here.

Pratt is also remarkably restrained in her storytelling.  In the beginning, as the challenges and plot twists get introduced, I felt like we were swinging from one melodrama to the next, but once we got stuff out there, the story walked us through everything at a pace that was believable.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Egg & Spoon, by Gregory Maguire

Elena lives a difficult life in an impoverished village in Tsarist Russia.  The men have all been taken away by the Tsar's men and the land has grown unproductive.  Elena has no food and is forced to watch her mother slowly dying.  They are at wits end and there is little to hope for.  Then fate brings a visit from a retinue -- a train laden with more wealth and food than Elena can imagine -- and a young woman Elena's age named Ekaterina.

Ekaterina is on her way to the capital in Saint Petersburg to be presented in Court as a potential consort for the Tsar's godson.  A fateful confluence of accidental events forces the two girls to swap places.  The disorder this unleashes will, in the end, involve the Firebird, the Snow Dragon, Baba Yaga, and the Tsar of All Russia himself.

It's a playful novel that riffs on Russian mythology in the way that his popular series Wicked played on the Grimm's fairy tales.  I liked the story best in the beginning where it is less fantastical and relied on the popular idea of a simple good peasant petitioning the Tsar (i.e., the first 150 pages or so).  But as the story progresses, it grows odder and loses the spirit of the originals.  Certain elements like Baba Yaga's snarky and anachronistic humor is downright grating and mood-killing (think Miracle Max but without Billy Crystal's charm).  The idea of the formidable domovoi transformed into a puppy-dog like creature with duck feet is downright bizarre!  However, the weirdest image is of an army of giant matryoshka dolls attacking in formation.  Still, the book is an amazing accomplishment, pulling all of these elements together, being witty about it, and still formulating a coherent story.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Black Butterfly, by Shirley Reva Vernick

Penny's Mom is obsessed with ghosts and, after sixteen years, Penny has grown accustomed to her Mom rushing off at a moment's notice and leaving her with friends so she can pursue the latest sighting.  But it's something of a new low when Mom informs Penny that she's being sent to a remote island off the coast of Maine to stay with an old friend at the Black Butterfly Inn for Christmas.  Penny has never heard of this friend and isn't sure what to expect.  The initial reception is frosty -- her hostess is AWOL and her son is less than friendly.  But with some prodding and help from the Inn's cook, Penny and the boy break the ice.  At the same time, strange things are afoot at the Inn.  Secrets from the past play a large part and, much to Penny's surprise, even supernatural elements appear.

A bit of a messy story that starts off sensibly enough as a story of reconciliation as Penny learns about her mother's past through some old family friends.  The cook is a nice light touch and the story could have easily focused on healing and growth, and even thrown in some nice romance as well.  But Vernick wants to tell a ghost story, so we shift to the supernatural.  It's here that the story largely becomes unhinged.  There's several stories and none of them make much sense, but they work up to a climax that works OK within its bounds.  However, the end seems largely detached from the rest of the story.  It seemed forced and didn't gel.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Blind Spot for Boys, by Justina Chen

Shana's decided to swear off dating after an unfortunate experience with a much older guy.  So, she is less than thrilled to have her heart set racing from a chance encounter with a handsome guy named Quattro.  Before she has much time to worry about it though, her world is turned upside down when her father is diagnosed with retinal neuropathy and given a prognosis of complete blindness within six months.  With those dark clouds on the horizon, the family decides to launch a series of trips to check off destinations on Dad's bucket list.  She's off to Machu Piccu with her parents!

When she gets there, she finds that Quattro is also there (this is actually foreshadowed in the beginning of the book and not entirely a coincidence).  Her anti-dating resolution is in serious danger (although Quattro for his part also seems to have issues).  The tension that develops could have been the story, but rather than allow that to happen, Chen points things in an entirely different direction.  Their hike to the ancient ruins takes a dangerous turn and the story becomes a survival adventure!

There may be something realistic about a story that doesn't stick to a path.  Perhaps, going from family tragedy to romance to adventure story has some appeal for keeping us on our toes, but it doesn't make for a particularly readable story.  At some point, you just sit back and decide to enjoy the ride.  And unfortunately, the romance and in fact the family's struggle with Dad's impending blindness are largely lost in the noise of the environmental disaster and sheer survival.  Chen is a great writer (I loved her North of Beautiful) and her characters have depth and emotional weight, but this story is wildly out of control!  A book with a title like this should really be about the romance and Chen tries hard, but it's just not a compelling part of the story.

Kiss of Broken Glass, by Madeleine Kuderick

When Kenna gets caught in the girls' bathroom at school trying to cut herself, she runs afoul of Florida's Baker Act and gets involuntarily committed to a "stabilization facility" for 72 hours of treatment and observation.  Those three days of institutionalization give her an opportunity to reflect on her compulsion, how she developed it, and how others around her who also inflict self-harm behave.

Telling the story in verse is a bit dangerous as it tends to invite poignant but ultimately shallow platitudes with implied ellipses.  However, some people (including Kuderick's mentor Sonya Sones) can pull it off.  I give Kuderick a passing grade for being both moderate and inventive.  She avoids some of the easy cheap tricks and at the same time shows some creativity in her verses.  When individual verses stand up on their own (as they sometimes do here), you know you have something.

I'll also admit that Kuderick's admission that this novel was inspired (although not entirely based) on her real daughter's struggle with self-harm gives this effort a pathos and bravery that would paint me a heartless person for criticizing.  However, I thankfully don't have to hide a frank review of what is ultimately an effective work. Books about cutting are pretty easy to find.  This is one of the more interesting ones.

Friday, January 16, 2015

After the End, by Amy Plum

For all of her life until now, Juneau has believed that a great war wiped out civilization thirty years ago.  She and her clan, living in a remote part of Alaska, are nearly the only survivors of an apocalypse.  Aside from occasional unwanted run-ins with brigands and raiders, there is no one else left.  Then, a surprise attack destroys her village and her people are abducted and taken away.  She alone must find them and she sets off in a search, using clairvoyance and other magic she has learned to locate them.

As she sets out, she immediately makes a shocking discovery:  the world was not in fact destroyed.  Civilization is very much still there.  Why would the adults on her tribe lie to her?  There's no one to ask, but it seems tied up to their recent abduction.  Meanwhile, she is definitely being hunted.  In fact, as she quickly learns, there are two separate groups looking for her.  With the help of a spoiled young man named Miles (with a secret agenda of his own), she seeks to find her people in this strange (and very alive) world, while evading the hunters.

An odd adventure, with both realistic and supernatural elements mixed in.  In general, the story worked.  I was less taken by Plum's research - it is fairly obvious that the author has spent little if any time in the settings of the story as her descriptions sound like they were cribbed off of websites and she makes some pretty big geographical errors.  Somewhat more frustrating is the cliffhanger ending which basically lets us know that this the first of an unannounced series.  Don't expect any sort of wrap up as the book stops abruptly without an ending.

Being Sloane Jacobs, by Lauren Morrill

Two girls with identical first and last names decide to swap places while attending summer camp in Montreal.  Sloane Emily Jacobs is the daughter of a US senator, who has just betrayed her.  Her helicopter mother meanwhile is forcing her back into a career in figure skating that Sloane no longer wants to pursue.  Sloane Devon Jacobs is from the other side of the tracks.  Her goal is to score a hockey scholarship to get into college and escape her alcoholic mother and distant father, but she's choking on the rink and afraid that she doesn't have what it takes.  When the two girls cross paths, they bond over their envy of the other's life.

On a dare, they decide to switch roles -- with Sloane Emily ending up at a summer hockey camp and Sloane Devon at an elite figure skating training program.  While they both can skate, they are essentially fish out of water and a great deal of the first part of the book traces their struggle to survive in their new environments.  There's the expected set-backs, but ultimately the overcoming of this adversity to succeed (and to learn something about themselves to take back with them).  Romance, as expected, also pops up and complicates things.

No major surprises here, albeit a unique setting (Montreal).  Morrill tries to add some weight to the story with the family troubles, but neither the alcoholic mother nor the philandering father really get pursued.  Most of the adversity, for that matter, is played through pretty fast.  The pacing is a bit too glib to get hung up on character growth or literary pretension.  Classify this as a summer read.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Like No Other, by Una LaMarche

Devorah and Jaxon both live in Crown Heights, but they couldn't be more different.  Devorah is a young Lubavitch Hasid while Jaxon is West Indian.  Their worlds are completely separated.  But one night, during a hurricane, they end up stuck together in an elevator.  This chance encounter changes their lives, opening up a view of each others' worlds that draws them together.  And thus, they fall in love despite the insurmountable barriers to them even seeing each other.

On one side, this can be seen as a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet.  LaMarche has carved out a splendid look at what happens when two strong-minded young people resist their community's notions of what the future is supposed to bring.  However, there is more going on here.  For Devorah, there is an important question of her ability to choose a future that may not involve marriage at all (and not just with whom she socializes).  And while Jaxon is pleasant enough, the glue of this story is really Devorah, as she explores the danger of rejecting traditional boundaries while still embracing her faith. 

The novel, in the end, becomes a cross between the meeting-of-two-worlds of The Geography of You and Me and a far more serious dash of Eishes Chayil's Hush (it certainly seems to offend the same audience!).  Where it differs from both is that it is far more thoughtful and less sensationalist.  Anyone expecting to find a bad guy here will be quite surprised by the ending!

Friday, January 09, 2015

Let's Get Lost, by Adi Alsaid

Leila, while on an immense road trip north to see the Aurora Borealis, chances upon four different young people.  There's Hudson, about to start his studies in medicine.  Then, there's an angry and lost Bree, who's running away from the only home she has left.  While fleeing, she is still desperate to find a way to stop running.  Elliott, obsessed with romantic comedies, presents a different challenge.  He has just ruined his prom by attempting to generate a picture-perfect moment with his best friend by (unsuccessfully) confessing his love to her.  Leila helps him make the night right.  And then there's Sonia, afraid to acknowledge in public that she's dating again less than a year after the untimely demise of her first love.  And finally, of course, there's Leila's own story (about why she's making this trip in the first place).

The ultimate result is five peripherally related short stories.  Most of them are about loss and finding love again, and this is the theme that ties everything together.  While that is a decent theme and these are good stories, they are a bit repetitive, and the message too heavily hit.  That said, I liked the overall structure, which seemed different and a bit unique for YA.

The Half Life of Molly Pierce, by Katrina Leno

For most of her life, Molly has experienced episodes which she has blacked out and afterwards cannot remember what has occurred for a period of time.  As far as she knows, no one else has noticed because she's always managed to care for herself.  This changes after Molly is involved in a terrifying auto accident, where a victim (whom she has never met before) recognizes her but calls her by an entirely different name. 

It quickly becomes apparent that there is an entire group of people who know her, but under a different name, and solely from the time periods when she has blacked out.  Stranger still, no one seems to be surprised from this finding.  But no one will explain to her why this is so.

A complicated and, at times, tricky plot to follow.  The pace is perfect for the story and the mystery unravels at a satisfying pace.  The characters are a bit hard to engage with, but this is a plot-driven story.  Leno makes some effort to round out the character of Molly, but to be blunt no one really cares if she is a bad friend or a kind older sister.  We simply want to know what the heck is going on!  And that need to figure out this story is what will keep you flipping pages.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, by Amelie Sarn

Two teenage girls of Algerian descent, growing up in France.  The younger one Djelila is brave and fearless.  She wears tight jeans and makeup to school, plays basketball, smokes with her friends, and bristles at the patriarchal restrictions of her family's culture.  The older one Sohane takes a different path.  In her last year of high school, Sohane decides that she'll start wearing a headscarf as a statement of freedom and self-respect.  Her decision to wear a head covering in school violates French law and causes her to be expelled from school.  Djelila is outraged at the treatment of her sister, but far worse awaits her when she is murdered for her apostasy a week later by a neighbor.

Translated from French, this short novel packs quite a punch of political issues, showing how religious freedom is ultimately more complicated than civil society understands.  It's easy as an American to see the hypocrisy in the French approach to secularization, but even that outrage oversimplifies the complexity of the issue.  Instead, Sarn brilliantly shows the yearning for self and agency through these two sisters.  Along the way, she also tackles the complex feelings of love and jealousy that the two girls experience towards each other.