Saturday, February 28, 2015

Snow Apples, by Mary Razzell

In post-WWII British Columbia, Sheila doesn't have a lot of options.  Her mother has pretty much assumed that she'll get married and thus sees no use for the schooling at which Sheila excels.  And the odds certainly do seem stacked against her.  Opportunities do not abound on the islands and anyways women are pretty much second class citizens in this time and place.  Still, Sheila is determined to pursue nursing and make her own decisions about love and marriage, even when things don't quite turn out as she'd like.

Gritty and realistic, Razzell brilliantly captures the sense of time and place.  Rather than tell us about the injustices of the time, she lets them unfold naturally.  It's a tricky business:  to unleash circumstances that offend modern sensibilities without pulling back and editorializing, but Sheila is painted realistically.  She certainly objects to the sexism around her, but she recognizes it as something much bigger than herself.  It is left for the reader to become indignant.  I could have done without the graphic depiction of a miscarriage at the end of the book, but otherwise, I appreciated the realism and attention to detail that is present here.  The story, while modest in scope, opens a portal to another time and place which will fascinate the reader.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Starring Arabelle, by Hillary Hall De Baun

She hopes to make a strong initial impression as she starts ninth grade this year.  Arabelle wishes that she could make a big statement simply by gliding into a room, the way the heroine of her favorite romance novel does.  Unfortunately, her plan of achieving her aims through trying out for the school play get ruined by a jealous upperclassman and her guidance counselor's insistence that she volunteer at a local nursing home.

These set backs are temporary.  She still manages to get involved in the play and the residents of the home where she is volunteering prove to provide her with unanticipated opportunities and benefits.  Quirky characters and several heartwarming subplots explore the topic of romance, which forms the central obsession of Arabelle's life.

It's a book with lots of clever ideas, but stiff writing and wooden characters. For example, Arabelle's obsession with romance is early on established with her love of a particular romance novel, but the plot point never goes anywhere.  The obvious point of intersection would be with the real life romance in the story, but they never quite meet.  As another example, the quirky characters are all colorful and introduced fully, but none of their quirks really contribute to the story.  It's as if the author, by filling the scene with so much color, accepts that the job is done and so it's now back to the story (which really has nothing to do with any of these characters).  A creative work, but ultimately in need of more development and engineering.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How to Meet Boys, by Catherine Clark

Lucy and her friend Mikayla have an exciting summer planned.  In exchange for working for her grandparents, Lucy has been given her a cottage for the summer, which she and Mikayla are going to share.  The place is a bit run down, but the independence that it promises is intoxicating.

The excitement, however, is dampened by the news that Lucy's grandparents have also hired local boy Jackson to help out.  Jackson and Lucy have a history -- nearly three years ago, he completely broke her heart by spurning her advances and publicly humiliating her.  They have not spoken since and Lucy would like to keep it that way, which will be hard to do if they have to work together all summer.  Meanwhile, Mikayla has fallen hard for a guy, only to find out too late that it's the same infamous Jackson.  How will she ever tell Lucy the identity of her crush?  This and many other adventures await the girls in their memorable summer!

In other words, a light and fluffy beach book, full of awkward moments and girl bonding.  It's entertaining and fun, because the two girls (and their other friends) are sympathetic, but a bit on the lighter end of the spectrum for these types of books.

Half of My Facebook Friends Are Ferrets, by J. A. Buckle

In some ways, Josh is a pretty normal sixteen year-old.  He'd like to have a girlfriend, his Mom drives him nuts, and he has an annoying older sister.  But as a metal head with a pet ferret (named Ozzy), he is also a bit unusual and quirky.  As his seventeen birthday approaches, he's made a list of things he'd like to do, including being kissed, learning to play Metallica's "One," seeing Finnish death metal band Children of Bodom in concert, owning a real guitar, getting a piercing, or being as cool as his father was.  But with no luck with girls, a single mother with "financial difficulties," and a father who died when he was little, Josh doesn't hold out much hope for success with any of these goals.

It's a funny and fast paced romp through Junior year for a group of boys in what is a surprisingly sensitive approach for a boy book (obviously, trying to appeal to young female readers as well).  There is the requisite gross-out/fart joke/girl-ogling/penis references, but Josh is a good kid and tends to do the right thing, even as he and his friends also do a large amount of putting their feet in their mouths.  I'm not a huge fan of the sub-genre, but this book was a fast read and enjoyable.  In fact, I was a little surprised that the author (a woman from England) was so effective at writing about life as a boy from New York.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Book of Love, by Lynn Weingarten

In this sequel to The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers, Lucy is now a full-fledged sister.  Her three friends and her from a "family" and set off on more conquests, including a ruthless heartbreaking of a famous rock star.  However, breaking hearts isn't all it's cracked up to be, and Lucy learns that there is a price to pay.  Realizing she's made a mistake and nostalgic for the simplicity of her pre-sisterhood life, she yearns to undo what has been done.

The result is an even stranger novel that the first one.  This was a hard book for me to track, first off because the plot is so twisted and the book keeps changing directions.  And secondly, because the characters simply are not memorable.  I was glad to see a moral compass introduced towards to end of the story, because the mindless hedonism that predominates this story is really a turn off.  But I think the message that emotional authenticity is more powerful than any magic could have been made a bit more forcefully in the end.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Some Boys, by Patty Blount

After Grace accuses Zac (the star lacrosse player at school) of raping her, she finds the entire community turn against her.  From the boys and girls (including her former BFFs) at school who taunt her with slurs, to the teachers who tolerate the abuse, to even her own father who holds the belief that she brought this on herself, no one will give her a break.  But when she is sentenced alongside Ian (another lacrosse player) to a week of scrubbing out lockers during spring break, she discovers an unlikely ally.  Told in alternating chapters between Grace and Ian, we get to observe an amazing and organic character development, most notable of which is Ian's conversion from being Zac's friend to recognizing that Grace is telling the truth.

Heart wrenching as the topic of rape is, Blount dwells less on Grace's recovery than she does on the terrible treatment of victims by society, and furthermore never allows Grace to be the victim.  By far, Grace is one of the stronger teen heroines we have seen in YA in a long time (I have no doubt she could deck Katniss!).  While publicity for this novel interprets the story as being about a poor girl needing to be rescued by a man, it really isn't.  Grace falters and doesn't always survive the onslaught of hatred and cruelty which is unleashed on her, but she has amazing fortitude throughout.  And Blount does a pretty good job of pointing out that, while friends are helpful, in the end you really only have yourself to rely on, so that's where you need to find your strength.  A solid winner of a book and very very hard to put down!

It's a great cover, too!

Pretty Sly, by Elisa Ludwig

Willa should be trying reform herself and lay low since being released on probation after the larceny streak she engineered (see previous novel, Pretty Crooked). However, when her house is ransacked and her Mom disappears, things change.  Rather than obey her mother's clear indication that Willa should hang tight, she sets off in search of Mom.  This involves reeling in the old gang and even hooking up with her nemesis Aidan Murphy.  But can they find Mom before the cops find them?  Or the FBI?  Or the two thugs on their trail?

The book wants to be an adventure and, while it has its moments and a couple great chase scenes, there's too much weirdness, implausible/impossible twists, and just plain silliness.  The most egregious moment for me was when the two kids jumped out of a third-floor balcony and "somehow" survive (Ludwig never bothers to explain how, she just jumps forward).  The technical feats (car hotwiring, computer hacking, house alarm disarming, etc.) are pipe dreams that would never work in real life as described here, but again Ludwig doesn't let details get in the way.  And then there is the truly horrendous romance with Aidan.  This not only lacks sparks, but has a silly subplot involving Willa discovering Aidan is "sexting" with an unknown girl (although the "Where R U?" texts hardly qualify as sexting), to which I say, who cares?  The whole on-the-run thing is a bit too silly to believe either.  In sum, too much weirdness sucking away the interesting potential.

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone, by Adele Griffin

Through interviews with a full cast of characters who knew her, Griffin unravels the sad details of genius artist Addison Stone.  With tireless sleuthing, she gets at the truth behind Stone's life and the causes of her death, dispelling several rumors that have persisted.  Copiously illustrated with Stone's key works and featuring numerous photographs from friends and family, we get an intimate insider's view of her life, blemishes and all.

Stone, in Griffin's hands, is a delicate and finely developed personality, even though we rarely hear from the artist directly.  The book gives us great perspective on what drove her.  And yet, what makes this a truly amazing work is that it is complete fiction.  With creativity and tremendous effort providing the illustrations, Addison Stone's character really comes to life in this faux biography.  Griffin thus achieves two impressive feats:  writing a smooth flowing biography, and doing so with a totally fictitious personality.  Truly a remarkable and unique novel.