Sunday, July 26, 2015

One Death Nine Stories, ed by Marc Aronson and Charles R Smith Jr

Nine short stories loosely tied together around the funeral of a nineteen year-old named Kevin Nicholas.  Hearing the premise, I figured the stories would tend to the morbid and dark, which did not turn out to be the case.  The key is that for many of the stories, the death is peripheral at best.  Instead, as the editors explain in the afterward, the unifying theme is "initiation." This is interpreted in a variety of ways ranging from the obvious (Ellen Hopkins's and A. S. King's stories of sexual initiation or Torrey Maldonado's testosterone-poisoned tale of hazing) to the more subtle (Will Weaver's redemptive account of learning to shoot a gun).

I have my favorites of course -- A. S. King's piece is by far the most indelible of the set -- while some of them didn't speak as well to me.  However, what helps is that the writers and their styles are generally compatible, which makes the collection readable as a whole, rather than as disconnected stories.  The final result is surprisingly effective and demonstrates a lot of cooperation among the writers and editors and melding their stories together.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

All We Have Is Now, by Lisa Schroeder

A giant asteroid is hurtling towards Earth and expected to impact somewhere in Idaho in slightly more than twenty-four hours.  While no one know for certain how big the damage will be, the smart money is on the idea that North America will suffer the worst.  Anyone with the means has evacuated weeks ago to far away places.  The only people left are the poor, the homeless, or those who simply don't have the energy or will to run.

Emerson and Vince are two street kids in Portland, trying to figure out how to pass their last hours.  A chance encounter with a man who has given up entirely nets them a fat wallet, a BMW, and a final mission: to try to make as many people's dreams come true as possible before it all ends.  The story basically follows them as they attempt to find meaning (for themselves and for others) in the now, in a world that is rapidly coming to a close.

An interesting premise, but handled with a lethargic pacing and interrupted with interminable digressions.  Truth be told, I've started all and finished few of Schroeder's books (I have a general policy -- believe it or not -- to not actually finish and review books I hate).  Her style is very ethereal, with a strong focus on dialogue which largely is unrelated to the plot and on plots which are largely irrelevant to the book.  The fact that I've finished this one means it will earn at least a star...barely.  The story really isn't about the end of the world at all (which is fine!), but rather about trying to get at the deep meaningfulness of living in the moment (which, by definition, is not a very deep idea).  The dialog ranges from dull reminders that we only have so much time to whining about how it sucks that the world is ending.  It's the sort of book where the temptation to flip forward to the end of the book is strong simply because you want there to be a point in all this.  Don't do it!  Let's just say that the end of the world isn't really all it's cracked up to be!

[Disclosure:  I received an advanced release of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  After completing my review I will be donating the book to my local public library. The book is scheduled for release on July 28th.]

Friday, July 24, 2015

Princess of Thorns, by Stacey Jay

Two noble children at the center of curses:  Aurora (who lies at the center of a prophecy that the spilling of her blood will plunge the world into an age of darkness) and Niklaas (the younger of twelve brothers, all cursed to be turned into swans on their eighteenth birthdays).  Allied together by their own goals but not quite trusting each other enough to confess their agendas to each other, the duo make compelling partners.  In fairly standard genre form, they must face off against an array of ogres, wolves, witches, and other monsters, but alongside their heroic quest is a subtler probing of the heart.

The story is very much standard by-the-numbers fantasy, with the usual land mass broken up into several kingdoms with lawless borders and a variety of treacherous terrain (and yes, there's a map at the front!).  There's plenty of politics and treachery to spread around, and lots of great battle and action scenes.  The characters are compelling, with an especially fiesty heroine and some excellent girl power scenes, while still allowing her some pretty dresses along the way.  The myths and prophecies are a bit hard to plow through (especially since they are front loaded in the preface with little or no context), but they serve the purpose of setting the desperate mood of the rest of the story.  And, despite all the familiar stuff, the ending is not nearly as predictable as one might imagine.

But what really makes this book stand out is the fantastic romance between Aurora and Niklaas.  You could strip out all the monsters, action scenes, and the dozens of peripheral characters in this book and you would still have a compelling story of two young people struggling with their feelings for each other.  You'll have to wait all the way to page 299 for the first kiss, but it's so worthwhile that the description runs two full pages and becomes a major plot point.  Their story is hot, sweet, and incredibly sexy, and I'm giving this book a strong recommendation on that alone.

Top Ten Clues You're Clueless, by Liz Czukas

In a story that can best be described as a cross between Cashback and The Breakfast Club, six young adults get detained on Christmas Eve in the break room of the grocery store at which they work.  The money from a charity drive has gone missing and the manager suspects it was one of them who took it.  Waylaid for several hours, the kids share stories and get to know each other, having a variety of adventures including a race through the store and even a little romance.  Our narrator, who has an obsession with making up lists and poor control over her diabetes, makes things more interesting.

It's a cute idea.  Occurring in a fairly tight space and being dialogue-heavy, the story has the feeling of a play.  As such, it relies hard on the strength of the characters who are a predictable mix of types (good girl, dyke, home-schooled geek, etc.).  Thankfully, they are deeper than that and the fun in the book is getting to see them break through the stereotypes.

It is a brisk fast read, yet still ran a bit long for my taste, simply because it doesn't have much to say.  And I never quite figured out the connection between the title and the story.  It did, however, put me in the mood to watch those two aforementioned films again (   and I assume you know how to find the other one!).

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ticker, by Lisa Mantchev

Penny Farthing is the girl with the clockwork heart. "Augmented" through an artificial organ, she is the first girl child in her family to survive a genetic defect.  But the surgeon responsible has fallen out of favor as public opinion has turned against augmentation.  Worse still, evidence has piled up that he kidnapped and used involuntary subjects for the development.  Now facing the gallows, all hell breaks loose when he escapes and plunges the Empire into chaos in his quest to augment mankind.  It takes Penny and a collection of friends, including the dashing young general Marcus Kingsley, to come to the rescue and stop the madman.

A delirious and breath-taking steampunk adventure set in the usual mash-up of Victoriana and technology that defines the genre.  It's a genre which has always mystified me.  I personally love Victorian and Edwardian style and I will salivate over the look of polished brass and oak as well as anyone, but once you get beyond the beauty of the whole thing, what is left?  Nothing, really, except for endless silly titles and faux manners.  And this is where the story falls down for me.  It's all very stylish and pretty, but once we've established these facts, there is no where to go with this information except to race off to the next opportunity to dress up and show off another wacky techno-gadget.  This makes for a fast paced and breathtaking story but keeping up with it is exhausting and ultimately not rewarding.  And so, after a while, I simply let it take me wherever it wanted to go.  There's plenty of witty repartee, but not a lot of emotional investment here and certainly no soul in this mechanical heart.  But if what you crave is a fashionable and shiny adventure, this will do the trick.

Best Friend Next Door, by Carolyn Mackler

Hannah hates the fact that her best friend next door has moved away and that a new girl named Emme has moved in to the very same house.  She is initially determined to hate the new girl, but it is hard when they share an amazing list of things in common (same birth date, taste in clothes and food, favorite sports, and even a shared love of palindromes!).  Ultimately, it is Hannah's cat that brings them together.  Once they get over that initial hurdle, there are yet more challenges to come as so much is changing around them.

Mackler has written a number of great MG and YA books over the years and she always does a great job of exploring the friendships and anxieties of tweens and teens.  This book captures life as a ten year-old pretty convincingly, but beyond that, the story meanders and doesn't really have a purpose.  There are plenty of challenges -- a lost cat, bullying at school, a new sibling, changing tastes, evolving relationships with family and friends, a birthday trip, and so on -- but not really any overriding story.  For the young reader who simply wants to enjoy following two sympathetic fifth-graders as they navigate their pre-adolescent world, this will be an enjoyable read, but it lacked the substance to create a really great work.

[Disclaimer:  I solicited and received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  I am donating the book to my local public library when I am finished.]

Friday, July 17, 2015

No Place to Fall, by Jaye Robin Brown

In the mountains of western North Carolina, there isn't a lot to do besides partying with hikers and abusing prescription meds, and the young people have neither a lot of ambition nor a lot of hope.  But Amber has a talent for singing and, with some encouragement from friends and teachers, a dream of getting an art scholarship.  But as in a classic tragedy, there is a complicated web of desires and jealousies amid her friends and families which will cost her her dreams.  And, in the end, force her to choose how much she is willing to sacrifice to make things right.

A complicated and dark depiction of rural North Carolina and a sharp contrast to the book I just reviewed before this (Heart of a Shepherd).  This too rings of authenticity, but with a more pessimistic worldview.  There's a biting honesty to how Brown  depicts the human condition, as no one is immune from the petty longings and wrath that ultimately destroy their dreams. It may be dispiriting to never experience a truly virtuous character, but it feels more authentic and ultimately uplifting to have done so.  Brown gets a particular loud shout out for creating characters that initially appear to be caricatures but ultimately are fleshed out into complex people.

Heart of a Shepherd, by Rosanne Parry

Brother is the youngest in the family, but with his brothers away at school and his father deployed in Iraq, he alone has to share responsibility for the family ranch with his aging grandparents.  Brother has no idea of how he'll manage, but with help from a hired farmhand, the pastor, and friends, they get through a fair share of adventures.  Along the way, Brother comes to understand the importance of those social links and determines his own calling in life.

Filled with heart and grit, and a whole cadre of decent folks, Parry tackles the emotion-laden world of hard-working military families and ranchers in this tear-jerking juggernaut.  It's an accepted fact that you will bawl by the end of the story as Parry pulls all the usual heartstrings.  However, there are unexpected touches, like Brother's devout Quaker grandfather that will surprise you.  The result is a classic coming-of-age story that stands out for its respectful portrayal of a rural life that is so often maligned or simplified by suburban writers.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Fine Dessert, by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

I love a great picture book, and while I don't normally review them here, I wanted to call this one out.  A Fine Dessert is the story of one dessert (blackberry fool) and its preparation over four centuries, highlighting changes in technology and social mores over the period.  From an English manor in Lyme 1710, to a southern plantation in Charleston 1810, to an urban home in Boston 1910, to the modern family in San Diego 2010, we see the exact some events played out in a dramatically different fashion.

As she so effortlessly does, Emily Jenkins subtly introduces critical ideas about the role of slavery and sexism in the face of a delightful story about the eternal joy of family and food.  The book is not preachy, but rather opens the door for whatever level of discussion a parent and child wish to have about these subjects.  And the wonderful circularity of the story and its illustrations will appeal to young readers.

I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest

When May and Libby were younger, they devised a fairy tale about a sword-wielding Princess X, which Libby would illustrate.  But then, Libby and her mother died in a car accident.  All of the artwork disappeared when Libby's grieving father emptied the house and moved away.

Three years later, May is shocked to find a sticker on a lamppost with Princess X on it.  Either someone has rediscovered the lost artwork or Libby is still somehow alive.  May starts to research the mystery but the further she goes, the more incredible the story becomes.  Princess X is apparently a wildly popular web comic now and tells the story of a girl who everyone thought had been killed in a car accident, but is now fleeing for her life.  And, as May gets closer to solving the mystery, she finds her own life in danger as well.

An interesting stylistic cross between traditional YA action story and graphic novel.  Particularly in the beginning, there is a wonderful interplay between the comic and the real world story.  Unfortunately, the comic parts wind down and are sorely missed by the end. This is mostly because the text itself is written in style of a graphic novel -- jumpy narrative that is intended merely to illustrate the panel of a page.  That gives the entire book a cohesive style, but it's awkward without illustrations.

Priest makes two fairly risky artistic moves in this book:  the first is the decision to write it in the third person (an extension of the comic book style she's shooting for), which allows her to get inside of the heads of each of her colorful characters, but at the same time distances us from the action.  Given the strength of her characters, that's probably a good decision and the trade-off is ultimately worth it.  The second decision is to moor the story solidly in Seattle (I assumed that she was a native, in fact, but she actually lives in Tennessee).  She pulls that part off surprisingly well, getting her streets, public transit, and even her knowledge of local businesses pretty much spot on.  She raised my hackles a bit when she spouted some nonsense about how Seattle Children's Hospital archives their patient records (but hey, how many YA readers happen to work professionally with Seattle-based hospitals' computer systems?), but here her risk pays off as well.

In sum, this is an artistically interesting book:  a graphic novel without all of the illustrations, a tribute to the genre, and a challenging design with an engaging story.

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

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Love Spell, by Mia Kerick

Chance Cesar is totes fab, whether he's flipping off the resident Neanderthals or werking the runway and his tiara at the Harvest Moon festival.  He's got confidence and he's got style, but what he wants in luuvvvvvv!  Chance may have not yet figured out if he is a girl or a gay boy, but he knows what he wants.  And what he wants is shy Jazz.  But how to snag him?  With help from his BFF Emmy, he's going down the list of "Ten Scientifically Proven Ways to Make A Man Fall in Love With You" and pulling out all the stops to land his man.  But even with the advice and all his talents, Chance has a lot to learn about the battle for love!

A lovely off-the-mainstream-radar novel about a gender fluid protagonist with one of the most distinctive personalities in YA lit.  Chance is a bit too narcissistic for my tastes and his constant abuse of the English language can get wearisome, but he's a bright and engaging character and it's hard not to get hooked.  Plus, since he is so stuck on himself, he's fairly non-threatening.  And Kerick does a great job of making this a funny book, even while tackling serious subjects like gender identity and homophobia.

[Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for the purpose of producing an unbiased review.  I will be donating my copy to my local library]

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Everything Leads to You, by Nina LaCour

Emi and her friend Charlotte have been entrusted with her brother's apartment for their first summer after graduation.  In exchange, she has promised him to do something "epic" with it.  But what?  Emi is just a struggling intern in a film art department, a mere beginner in the field and hopelessly in the shadow of her boss (on whom she has a crush).  But two things change her life:  her would-be love gets her a job as the art designer on an exciting independent film, and Emi and Charlotte stumble across a letter written by golden movie idol Clyde Jones.  The letter is addressed to an unknown lover and Emi and Charlotte become obsessed with tracking her down.  In doing so, they unloose a series of unforeseen events which truly turn the summer into something incredible.

It's a busy story with at minimum three major storylines (Emi's film, a romance between her and another girl (as well as her unrequited crush), and the whole search to understand Clyde).  None of these plot lines gel very well (with the possible exception of the romance which gets a very late resolution).  Jumping around with so many stories and characters leaves the story itself unsettled.  I liked most of it, but I found it distracting to have so much going on.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling, by Lucy Frank

In verse, we get to meet two girls with Crohn’s Disease who share the same semi-private room at the hospital.  For Chess, this stay is her initial diagnosis, with all the trauma of being introduced to the reality of having a chronic disease.  For Shannon, who’s been dealing with Crohn’s for years and is suffering a serious set-back, there is the rage that comes from high doses of prednisone, the frustration of losing the battle with the disease, and the weariness from multiple hospital stays.

The novel has a cute gimmick:  the sides of the page are used to indicate on which side of the room the action is taking place.  And when the two girls are lying down, their words are printed on the appropriate side in parallel.  A line (or the lack thereof) down the middle serves to indicate if the curtain between their beds is closed or open.  It sounds confusing, but it works pretty well.  

As for the story itself, it didn’t really go very far.  The girls have stories which they share with each other, but not much development takes place.  This is partially the classic problem of verse (it is thin) but also that Frank doesn’t have very ambitious goals for this story.  In sum, not much of a point to this book (beyond the clever page layouts, of course!).

Love Letters to the Dead, by Ava Dellaira

At the start of the year, Laurel's English teacher gives her class an assignment to write a letter to a dead person.  Laurel chooses to write to Kurt Cobain, because his life (and death) remind her of her own older sister May, who killed herself a few months ago.  Rather than turn her assignment in, however, Laurel decides to write letters to Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Amelia Earhart, and so on, describing what is going on in her life and in her mind.  Her mother has abandoned her, her dad mopes, Laurel herself is struggling to make friends and start her life again in a new school.  And all around her, it seems like people are suffering.  Two of her new girlfriends are struggling with coming out of the closet.  A quiet boy who is interested in Laurel is also troubled by a history that crosses too closely with her own.

With allusions everywhere to famous lives lost to depression, misadventure, and bad luck, the tone of this novel is dark and downbeat.  It's also literate and sophisticated, as well as beautifully written and poignant.  It's precisely the type of book I tend to love.  However, it felt too deliberate to me.  The poignancy seemed manipulative (like the literary equivalent of heavy strings).  Basically, the author wanted me to feel sad, and the rebellious reader in me wanted to resist.  That doesn't make it a bad book, but I think it could have been better (maybe tighter and less obvious in its direction?).  That said, from the fully-rounded characters to the realistic portrayal of their flaws to the story itself, this is a good read.