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.]

The Gospel of Winter, by Brendan Kiely

After Aidan's father left him and his mother, Aidan searched for peace and comfort through the abuse of drugs and the consolation of Father Greg.  But when Father Greg abandons him as well, it opens Aidan's eyes to the way he's allowed the priest to abuse his trust and been dragged into a destructive relationship.  Worse, Aidan discovers that there are no limits to how far Father Greg and the adults around him will go to cover up what has happened.  Like the bully at school who threatens Aidan if he complains to the administration about petty harassment, Aidan is similarly threatened by other priests and even his caregiver.  In the end, Aidan finds solace (and gains the confidence to stand up for himself) from his friends, including an older boy who also may have suffered from Father Greg.

A very cerebral look at the emotional ravages of child sexual abuse, placed loosely in the real sex scandals of the Roman Catholic Church in 2002.  Kiely's debut is powerful and really gets deep into the psychology of denial that feeds child sexual abuse.  And it's very very creepy to hear the grownups justify their actions.

That said, I would protest that this isn't YA, even through Simon and Schuster have tossed it there and promoted it as such.  It's a lazy assumption that any book about teens is a children's book.  Rather than being about the experience of being a young person per se, this is a story about lost innocence and the weakness of adults to protect children -- it's a book for adults to wallow in guilt.

Friends for Life, by Andrew Norriss

Francis's interest in fashion and his skill at sewing hasn't made him very popular at school, and left him feeling alone.  But when a mysterious girl named Jessica befriends him, he finds a willing partner for her creative impulses.  His social circle expands further as Jessica introduces him to other outcasts (an angry girl named Andi and a coach potato named Roland).  Together, these kids bond and find happiness in no longer being isolated.

The mystery, though, is Jessica.  She's a ghost, a lost soul wandering the Earth until she can fulfill a particular mission that is unknown to her.  The fact that Francis, Andi, and Roland are the only three people who can see her lead them to think that her mission somehow involves them.  They want to help her figure this out, but are also reluctant to do so because they realize that solving Jessica's mystery will mean that she will leave them.

A cute story about friendship and using it to fight feelings of isolation.  Jessica's supernatural presence is an interesting twist -- giving the book a Ghost flavor -- but the story doesn't dwell on it very much.  Being a British middle grade book, though, there's not even a kiss in the story and no one's parents seem to mind that the kids spend a lot of unchaperoned time together.  This gives the book an innocent feel, even as it addresses the grim topics of bullying and teen suicides.

[Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of the book for the purpose of making an unbiased review.  After I am finished, I will donate this copy to my local public library. The book is scheduled for release on August 25.]

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Isla and the Happily Ever After, by Stephanie Perkins

Introverted Isla has had a crush on enigmatic graphic artist Josh for years, so when he shows an interest in her during their senior year it is a dream come true.  Now add to the mix that they both come from wealthy families and they are attending high school in Paris, and things start getting exotic.  And to that, add that they have relatively little adult supervision and you get great material for a hot boarding school romance.

In general, this story follows the basic romance formula (there will be moments of discovery, misunderstandings and fights, and well-meaning but clueless adult intervention), but what makes it enjoyable are the flaws of our heroine.  Isla is smart and insightful with a good mix of impulsive thrown in, and she makes some really big mistakes.  However, with her intelligence and decent head on her shoulders, she owns her errors pretty well. The rather unrealistic nature of their situation (unsupervised and unrestricted access to Europe not least of all) and a disappointing (but not unpredictable) overly happy ending aside, this is an enjoyable couple to follow.  Their anxieties and concerns felt real and legitimate, and you'll love to read about them.

Blind, by Rachel DeWoskin

After a freak accident causes Emma to lose sight in both of her eyes, she has to go through the rehabilitation process of learning to function as a blind person.  Told partially through flashbacks, Emma describes her second year as a blind person as she returns to her old high school to be mainstreamed after spending a year convalescing and attending a school for the blind.  The year of her return is complicated by the suicide of one of her classmates.  Trying to make sense of that tragedy becomes part of Emma coming to terms with her own misfortune.

A long and ultimately fascinating look at the process of a formerly-sighted person learning to survive without vision.  DeWoskin obviously did an amazing amount of research and she confidently describes the various challenges of recovery and the process of developing strategies to compensate.  She also works in a fair amount of sympathy for how normal adolescent anxieties interact with those processes.  I felt like I really understood how a recently-blinded teen would act and Emma had a very authentic feeling to her.

What I liked less was the clutter of this story.  My attempt above to explain the role of the suicide storyline in the novel is far more coherent than it is ever made in the book.  Instead, this secondary story never really gelled with the rest and was full of many largely unanswered questions and plot points.  I'm sure it initially seemed like a fantastic idea, but in the end the death of a peer simply hangs limply alongside the far more fascinating rebirth of Emma.  Some brutal excising of that part of the story would have trimmed out a hundred or so pages but given this novel a better focus.