Saturday, May 30, 2015

Graceful, by Wendy Mass

At the end of The Last Present, little Grace had awoken from a coma with powers inherited from the local eccentric (and enigmatic Angelina).  The full scope of those supernatural powers is not known to anyone (most especially Grace) although she does seem to have the ability to create pizza!  But mysteries don't remain such for long, and as a series of cryptic postcards start arriving from Angelina and things start changing, the kids of Willow Falls know something is afoot!

In this fifth installment in Mass's Willow Falls series, all is (more or less) revealed and loose ends are (more or less) tied up.  One could argue that that was the intention of the previous book (The Last Present) as well, but this novel does a more solid job of finishing the series.  It is not, unfortunately, nearly as compelling as its predecessors.  Unlike the quirky 11 Birthdays or the more poignant Finally or 13 Gifts, there really isn't a theme here. With the prior books, there was always some sort of unifying theme and the magic was simply window dressing for something deeper and more meaningful (usually growing up, discovering friendships and love, etc.).  Also, as Mass warns in the forward, if you haven't read the other books, you will have trouble following this one.  But moreover, you might not care.  Unlike the preceding books, there simply isn't much of a story here and the magic exists in and for itself. So, we have a combination of a confusing storyline and not much of a purpose.  This simply extends the story, but with a focus on the magic rather than what made these magical.

While the story (or lack thereof) left me cold, I still enjoy the author.  Mass gets the middle reader audience.  I continue to love the pitch perfect way she depicts the age (with the characters neither ignorant nor worldly) and the utterly comfortable way she depicts friendships without all the hangups of writers who want to make a big deal anytime a boy and a girl are in the same room.

[Disclosure:  I received a solicited review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  Having completed that review, I will be donating the book to my local public library.]

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Boy I Love, by Nina de Gramont

This year, Wren and her best friend Allie are starting at a new high school.  It's bigger than their old school and full of lots of opportunities.  But Allie is quickly disappointed when she fails to make the cheerleading squad and the cute upperclassman Tim isn't interested in her.  Meanwhile, Wren (who was never sure she'd be comfortable at the new school) not only lands a part in the Fall musical, but has gained Tim's attentions.  Allie is jealous and Wren wishes she could tell her friend not to worry about it.  However, she's been sworn to secrecy:  the truth is that Tim is gay (a fact that Wren wishes wasn't true as she'd like to date him, but which she accepts with much more grace than her peers would).

But helping Tim keep his secret is only one of Wren's trials.  Her family is facing bankruptcy and it is likely that they will be selling their home.  Not a moment too soon for Wren's older sister and her Dad, who both associate their old plantation with the shameful past of slave-owning ancestors.  But for Wren's Mom and her, the looming changes are scary.

It's a busy little story and one wonders if it needed to have so much going on.  The themes of homophobia and racism have a moderate amount of tie-in, but the financial woes really seemed like an entirely separate story.  Still, I liked the attempt to tell a story about a young woman in love with the wrong man -- it just isn't much of the story.  And unfortunately that's the thread that the publicists have taken too.  The novel is anything but the "romance" it is billed as.  Rather, it's a story about how various people deal with prejudice.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Story of Tracy Beaker, by Jacqueline Wilson

(And now for a palate cleanser!)

Tracy Beaker lives in a foster home because her mother is a famous beautiful person who is off in Paris or in Rome, or probably starring in a movie (cause she's so beautiful and all!) in Hollywood.  And while Tracy wishes she would come round for a visit, she knows that that probably isn't going to happen.  And she also knows that she may tell a fib or two, but it's completely justified, considering how everyone abuses her and tells stories about her.  Now, if she could just convince a nice writer lady named Cam to foster her and get her out of this Home (or at least take her to McDonalds and get her some presents) that would make up for everything!

And so it goes.  A breezy middle reader about a ten year old girl in a British foster home.  Wilson tells us her story precisely by avoiding it altogether, having Tracy talk about everything except the truth.  Rather than admit how much she misses her mother, she's allegedly perfectly content to be a rabble rouser and carry on.  The misbehavior and acting out that fills the pages are on their surface annoying and grating, but ultimately sad as we realize the pain and rejection which Tracy herself cannot quite accept.  As such, the book has a subtle nature to it that I don't imagine quite sinks in to younger reader's heads.  I wonder what they do think of Tracy?

The Cellar, by Natasha Preston

One night, while Summer is outside on the street searching for a friend, she is abducted.  Her kidnapper is a psychotic man who throws her into her cellar.  Down there, he has installed a "home" for Summer and three other young women, whom he collectively refers to as his "flowers" -- Lily (Summer), Rose, Poppy, and Violet.  Forcing them to keep the place and themselves spotless and clean at all times, he reenacts bizarre "family" rituals with them and rapes them repeatedly.  There's also the occasional murder thrown in.

Ick!  The subject matter itself is pretty repulsive, but what really sent me over the edge was the portrayal of just about every female character in the book.  I get the victimization concept and how repetitive torture (particularly in the ritualistic manner that Preston describes here) can really disempower and weaken a person, but what is so shocking is how ineffectual the women in this story are.  No one ever makes a legitimate attempt to fight back (and what attempts there are are quickly defeated -- more often than not by the women's own reluctance to carry through).  While the characters frequently describe how angry and upset they are, they seem only able to turn this anger inward.  The female characters not incarcerated in the cellar are no better -- helplessly sitting around and weapily waiting for the menfolk to do something. What a terrible message to send to send young (presumably female) readers!  So, take it from a guy old enough to the target demographic's father:  if a man attacks you, it doesn't matter how strong he is, immobilize the SOB with a well-placed knee shot.  Yes, you'll hurt him but it will feel good (for you).

All of which may beg the question of why I finished reading this book?  I think I just kept hoping that the young women would eventually rise to the occasion and reign down some righteous vengeance on the psycho.  I was hoping for some catharsis and a little emotional growth in the victims.  Let me save you the trouble of reading this book in hopes it will be there: While Summer does try to fight back, it's the (male) cops who save her in the end.

The book was terribly repetitive as well, but we don't need to go into its other flaws....

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Porcupine of Truth, by Bill Konigsberg

Carson hasn't seen his father since he and Mom left when Carson was four.  So ending up back in Billings, Montana to help his mother take care of Dad (even if he is dying -- from complications of years of alcohol abuse) isn't exactly Carson's idea of a great way to spend the summer.  But on a visit to the woefully underpopulated Billings Zoo, he meets Aisha -- a young woman who has just been thrown out of her home for being a lesbian by her homophobic parents.

A friendship between Carson and Aisha develops and takes on new meaning when they uncover evidence that his grandfather (also estranged and long absent from the rest of the family) may in fact still be alive.  Following a few leads, Carson and Aisha set out on a road trip that will take them all the way to California, along the way exploring spirituality (through the eponymous Porcupine of Truth) and learning about the true meaning of family.

It's a decent road trip story, with some colorful characters and a fair share of tumbles and turns.  However, it really takes off towards the end when Carson learns about his grandfather.  The two weakest parts of the book for me were the spirituality discussions (which I found either trite or overly simplistic) and the ending (which suffers from overly convenient resolution in the form of a wealthy benefactor).  But those blemishes are countered by Konigsberg's excellent exploration of the family loyalty and acceptance, and by the characters.  I liked Carson's wit, his ability to bullshit ad hoc, and his predilection for bad puns.  Aisha is a sympathetic young woman struggling for acceptance (not always successfully) from Carson and others around her.  Both of them were winning personalities and made the read enjoyable.

[Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  After I am finished with the book, I will donate it to my local public library.]

Bright Before Sunrise, by Tiffany Schmidt

Jonah can't stand living amidst the snobby kids in Cross Pointe.  He's give anything to be back in Hamilton with his friends and his girl Carly.  And of all the people in Cross Pointe, the most annoying of all has to be Brighton -- the ever-chipper do-gooder who keeps nagging him to join in one of her volunteer projects.  Why can't she leave him alone?  For Brighton though, Jonah is a big mystery -- why is he so rude and mean to everyone, even when she is being so nice to him?

And then one night, fate brings them together on an adventure where the angry young man and the self-centered young woman will discover there's a lot more beneath the surface.  And they will discover that they are simply perfect for each other.

It's a classic no-surprises romance, but I like those and (assuming you like a fun romantic book) you will too.  The set-up is a bit too obvious and the starting points are a bit too convenient, but there's the growth in the relationship felt organic and perfectly natural.  Both Jonah and Brighton are interesting young people and it's easy to see how they could hit it off once we get through the initial  posturing and misunderstandings.  And that's basically what one wants from a romantic story.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

100 Sideways Miles, by Andrew Smith

The Earth moves twenty miles every second and fact that endlessly fascinates Finn.  As a result, he's sees time as distance.  So, every second, every minute is measured in miles.  He's also trapped with the same name as a character in his father's famous science fiction classic (which causes people to assume that the boy character is inspired by Finn), has eyes of two different colors, suffers from epilepsy, has a best friend who is endlessly talking about his boners, and experiences unfortunately-timed epileptic blackouts.  As well, there's an amazing girl named Julia in his life, a potentially Nazi-sympathetic history teacher, and a German exchange student who pays boys to let her give them hand jobs.

If you haven't figured out that this is boy book (complete with scatological references, beer guzzling, and endless discussion of sexual arousal) then the proposition is pretty well laid out by the book's cover:  a depiction of a horse's corpse about to land on a much younger Finn and his biological mother (crushing Mom to death and leaving Finn with neurological damage that causes his episodes).  All of this random stuff means it's a funny book but not a particularly tasteful one.  If you enjoy novels like John Green's Abundance of Katherines, this one is right down your alley.  But for fans of books with pink covers and strong stories about interpersonal relationships, this one won't be quite as appealing.

Anything Could Happen, by Will Walton

Everyone thinks Matt Gooby is gay, simply because he has two Dads.  But that's stupid, thinks his best friend Tretch, there's no one that Matt is gay!  How does Tretch know this with such certainty?  Well, because Tretch is gay and he has an unrequited crush on Matt.  As much as Tretch likes Matt, he's just as terrified to tell him so.  Instead, he suffers through helping Matt find a girlfriend and even going on a double date with a girl of his own to maintain the illusion of just being friends.

There's a lot more to the story (a dying grandfather, a bully, finding the journals of a dead great uncle, and the whole process of Tretch coming out) but it's in such a non-linear fashion that you spend much of the book trying to figure out how it's all going to come together.  That it actually does come together is testimony to Walton's skill as a writer in this strong debut.

As a LGBT book, this novel cleaves an interesting middle ground.  Some books (and I have in mind David Levithan's in particular) make a big deal of showing just how gay they can be to prove that they are not a "straight" book.  Other authors tend to bury the sexuality altogether in a literary attempt to say "see, we're just like you!"  But this one falls between these positions, telling us not only a coming-out story that is unequivocal about Tretch's sexuality and the complicated nature of his feeling for his best friend (the getting-caught-in-the-laundryroom scene is particularly memorable!) but also a coming-of-age story that is universal to all young people.  Thus showing that, for Walton, sexual identity is important but not all-defining.

[Disclaimer:  I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my unbiased review.  After I complete this review, I am donating the book to my local public library.  This book is scheduled for release on May 25th.]

Friday, May 15, 2015

Alienated, by Melissa Landers

Earth has been contacted by an alien race called the L'eihr.  The aliens propose an exchange between the two worlds:  three outstanding young people from each planet will visit the other world for a year.  Cara has been chosen as one of the three representatives and is looking forward to the opportunity.  But first, her family will serve as hosts to a young man from the other world named Aelyx.

As you can probably predict, initial distrust and cultural misunderstandings will dissolve into friedship and more.  But will the distrust between the two cultures and violent xenophobia being fomented by human extremists destroy any chance of an  alliance?

When I picked this up, I initially thought it would give us a glimpse of an alien high school as we got to experience Cara's year abroad.  Instead, this story tells of Aelyx's stay on Earth (a place we already know pretty well) at a stereotypical American high school.  Thus, what we end up with is just the sexy-foreign-exchange-student story.  The social dynamics among these aliens are also so human-like that the science fiction stuff seemed unnecessary in the end (perhaps it will be more pronounced in the sequel?).  I'd have probably cut it all out and made this a story about a sexy Arab exchange student coming to stay with Cara's family.

The weakest part is the ending.  It's a rushed affair as lots of loose ends are tied together and the settings are placed for the next installment.  Basically, once we're off Earth, Landers is pretty much out of her comfort zone.  The strength was actually the relationship between Cara and Aelyx and the book works pretty well as a romance, even if Aelyx just seemed like a typical YA boy and not a clone from an alien planet.

In sum, a pretty typical YA romance, but only mediocre Sci Fi and action.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Edda: A Little Valkyrie's First Day of School, by Adam Auerbach

Edda is bored and lonely.  Sure, life in Asgard is pretty cool with dragons and giants, and she has lots of older sisters.  But she would like to have a friend her own age.  Her one-eyed Dad is very wise and suggests that she should attend school on Earth.  Edda isn't sure how she feels about leaving Asgard, but her father assures her that Valkyries (even little Valkyries) are very brave, so she goes forth.

School is very scary. There are lots of new faces and she has to learn to take turns on the slide and to do things she doesn't want to do.  But in the end, she makes friends and even invites her friends to come visit her in Asgard and see the dragons.

I don't really review many picture books, but occasionally something just jumps out at me like this.  Little kids won't get the jokes (in fact, most adults probably won't either!), but I loved the humor and sly references to Norse mythology.  The story itself is very sweet and addresses children's fears and apprehensions about leaving home and attending school for the first time.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Signed, Skye Harper, by Carol Lynch Williams

It's the summer of 1972 and fifteen-year-old Winston is fantasizing about one day being a great Olympian swimmer, just like Mark Spitz.  She's also got a thing for the son of her grandmother's business partner (a man with whom grandmother herself had a relationship with - giving birth to Winston's mother).  Speaking of which, at the time the story kicks off, said mother has suddenly written home begging her mother to come and bring her home.  Lacking a reliable vehicle for a cross-country road trip, grandma "borrows" her business partner's RV for the trip.  The owner's son is found on board as a stowaway and we have the makings of a quirky road story about Winston,  her grandmother, her half-uncle (and potential boyfriend - ew!), a dog, and a rooster on their way from Florida to Las Vegas.

Quirky and choppy best describe this story (183 chapters over 292 pages - many of them mostly blank).  It doesn't take a long time to read, but it can be hard to follow.  Winston is supposed to be some sort of trailer trash from the way she talks and the way she misspells certain words, but at the same point we are expected to admire her strong will and her self-determination (mostly to avoid becoming a pregnant teen like her mother and grandmother).  She wasn't badly portrayed, but I never warmed to her.  I did appreciate that the period details are kept low key and non-distracting (sharp-eyed youngsters may notice that Led Zeppelin is not playing on an oldies station but out of an eight-track player or that the Big Mac is served in a Styrofoam container).  However, the novel seemed mostly just functional.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

#scandal, by Sarah Ockler

Lucy's best friend Ellie is sick and home with the flu, so she begs Lucy to be her boyfriend Cole's date for the Prom.  They are all good friends, so it will be doing Ellie a favor and she trusts Lucy.  Lucy however has been harboring a crush on Cole for some time and, at an after-Prom party, she makes the fatal mistake to act on her impulse.

The next morning, Lucy learns of a much bigger scandal:  someone has stolen her phone and uploaded all of the pictures she took at the party (including a number of highly compromising ones) on Facebook using Lucy's own account (apparently, she doesn't password-protect her phone or have auto-wipe enabled on it either).  Now, everyone hates Lucy for getting them in trouble and publicizing their secrets (amongst which is a picture of Lucy and Cole kissing). What then unfolds is a crazy ride through the politics and gossip of high school, as Lucy joins forces with zombie fighters, her famous movie star sister, a stoner named 420, a foreign exchange student, and an anti-technology student club called (e)VIL to figure out who set Lucy up and why.

The story itself is absurd (in an artistic sense).  Ockler is making some critical observations about technology and the evils of social media, but mostly she is trying to depict how hyper-kinetic adolescent life is in a high tech world.  It's not intended to be a realistic portrayal, but rather exaggerates aspects that will otherwise feel real to young readers.  For me, I found the whole thing as grating as fingernails on a chalkboard (remember those?).  Unlike a book like Libba Bray's Beauty Queens, which was just full-out satire, this one can't really decide if it's going for crazy fun or making a serious point.  Falling somewhere in between it just seemed silly. 

This is particularly illustrated by the characters.  Except for Lucy, none of them felt real.  Many, like 420, Jayla, or the principal were just there for satirical value.  Their contribution is to serve as a foil for the story, but not really to advance it.  And the romance?  Forgetaboutit!  Cole switches between hot and cold as often as my shower while the washing machine is going.  By the end, no one really cares if Lucy and Cole ever manage to get their romance going.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Tape, by Steven Camden

One day, Ameliya finds her late mother's old boom box and tape collection.  Intrigued by them, she decides to listen to all of the tapes.  She finds that one of them contains voices.  For a brief period of time, she feels like she is actually holding a conversation with the voice on the tape.   Later, a stranger coming to the home seems to share the same voice and he has answers for Ameliya.

Thirty years before, Nathan and Ryan have an uneasy relationship as stepbrothers.  They don't like each other but are forced to get along.  What they share is a love for the same girl -- a girl who Ryan hopes to win over with the ultimate mix tape.

It's a confusing story and full of so many non-sequiturs that I won't pretend to understand it.  It took a while to figure out what was going on, but that's fine because the real story doesn't begin until after the first hundred pages.  There's a small bit of a pay-off at the end, but it wasn't nearly enough to make the slog through the rest of it worthwhile.  Allegedly, you can get more out of a re-reading, but I don't want to work that hard to "enjoy" a story.  An interesting experiment, but I simply didn't get it.

Friday, May 01, 2015

The Year of the Rat, by Clare Furniss

After Pearl's mother dies while giving birth to her sister, Pearl tries to cope with her grief and anger.  She blames her stepfather for selfishly demanding that Mom go through with a risky pregnancy (presumably so he could have his "own" child).  She blames the baby (whom she nicknames "the rat").  Mostly, however, she is angry with herself.  Her schoolwork and her friendships are suffering.  And the constant appearance of her mother's ghost provides little comfort.

It's a slow and deliberate story, tracing a year of grieving and recovery (and it doesn't even completely resolve).  The scenes with the dead mother have the potential to drift into supernatural territory but they are played straight and the story, for the most part, leans towards realism.  It is, however, more of reflective tone poem than a story.  Not much happens and the story simply jumps forward from time to time and seemingly random points.