Saturday, October 31, 2015

My Heart and Other Black Holes, by Jasmine Warga

Ever since her father was convicted of murdering a boy in her school. Aysel has lived as a social outcast.  She may not have been the killer but she bears guilt by association.  She also knows that her mother can't stand to be around her on account of the incident.  She'd frankly be better off dead.  But she can't find the courage to end her life. So she turns to a website called Smooth Passages which helps connect you with a "suicide buddy" with whom you can end it all.  And there she meets Roman.

Roman looks like a popular guy and seems to have lots of people who like him.  But since the day that his younger sister died while he was babysitting her, he hasn't been able to forgive himself.  When the two of them meet, ostensibly to plan their mutual suicide pact, they find that they have a lot in common.  And Aysel, who has never imagined that someone could ever like her, begins to doubt that she wants to go through with killing herself with him.

An interesting take on the subject of teen suicide and depression, but the story is terribly predictable.  While we are supposed to see these two as clinically depressed, the presentation of their condition makes them seem terribly self-absorbed, which makes them hard to sympathize with.  They are richly drawn, but come off as mopey and stuck on themselves.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Vanishing Girls, by Lauren Oliver

A few months ago, Dara and Nick were in a car accident.  Since then, the relationship between the two sisters just hasn't been the same.  Dara has become distant and trouble, while Nick tries to remain the good daughter and cover for her.  But it isn't just sibling rivalry, as Nick can tell that something has really happened to her sister.  And at a time when their parents are separating, Nick could really use a more supportive sibling.  Meanwhile, Nick is managing an exhausting summer job at a local amusement park and both of the girls get involved with a manhunt for a missing child.

Oliver has a good collection of best sellers under her belt now and that tends to encourage experimentation.  This novel is full of the stuff.  In addition to a complex narrative that switches back and forth between the girls' voices, the timeline also shifts between past and future, leaving the reader just slightly off-balance.  She's interspersed online news stories (complete with readers comments) and some random photographs.  The former works pretty well and speeds up some of the more tedious details in the plot, but the photographs really didn't work for me.  They are marginal to the story and mostly distract the reader.  Overall, I get why Oliver would be itchy to experiment with her storytelling, but the resulting novel becomes hard to read.  The plot twist at the end takes a while to digest and seems a bit of a stretch.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch

Sixteen years after her Kingdom of Winter was conquered by the Kingdom of Spring, Meira and a ragtag group of resistance fighters struggle to regain their homeland.  Their key goal is to recover the pieces of their last Queen's locket which hold the sole means of drawing on the "Royal Conduit" (a magical force) that gives rulers their strength.  Without it, there is no hope.

But as Meira's mission to recover a piece of the locket goes horribly wrong and the resistance fighters flee overland to the Kingdom of Cordell, the game grows more complex.  Ambitions and plots are unveiled, and Meira finds herself betrothed against her will (a situation she only frees herself from to fall into an even more precarious position).  And so on it goes.

It's a complicated story in a complex setting with a romantic triangle, lots of blood and mayhem, and some good old destiny fulfillment.  The action keeps moving but doesn't really amount to much in the end.  The romances lack warmth (aside from a short hot kissing scene oddly juxtaposed in the midst of a battle), some subplots about gaining respect get sidetracked, and the final climactic showdown is a fizzle out in the end.  And, throughout, a rather monotonous repetition of decapitations, endless blow by blow battle scenes, and exaggerated barriers (what's the point in telling us that doing something is impossible and then having the characters do it?).  If you like detailed descriptions of every sword swing, you'll enjoy this, but the story seems to always take second place to the combat.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Paper Things, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Ever since their mother died, Ari and her older brother Gage have stuck together.  So, when he moves out of the home of their guardian and wants her to come along, she does.  But life on the streets is hard for an eleven year-old girl and as brother and sister struggle to establish a foothold, Ari discovers just how tenuous her life is.  Her grades, friends, and even her self-respect begin to slip away.  Her dream of getting accepted to a special magnet school next year seems lost forever.  What keeps her together is her collection of cutouts (her "paper things") that she has collected -- images cut out of clothing catalogs that illustrate a happier world of smiling models who enjoy the one thing she wants more than anything else:  a home.

Gut wrenching and touching, this is a great novel in search of an audience. Who is the target audience for this book? The age of the protagonist would normally slot this book for middle schoolers, but the subject matter is far more mature for that.  Outside of those of us who are "not acting our age," I fear there isn't much of a readership for this moving story of a brave young girl.  More problematic is Ari, herself.  She has a voice that is wise and mature far beyond her years.  And so it is often quite jarring when she grows foolish and forgetful in a way that is entirely appropriate for a fifth grader but so out of character for her wise narration.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale

In this third (and last) installment of the Princess Academy series, Miri still has not managed to get home to Mount Eskel.  Their kingdom is under threat from an aggressive neighbor and a plot is hatched to propose marriage between the foreign king and a princess.  However, where to find a princess?  The answer is an obscure set of royal cousins in a backwater swamp called Lesser Alva, and Miri is sent there to tutor them and prepare them to become suitable material for a royal marriage.  But when Miri arrives, she finds that her charges are wild abandoned children and that things are very much not as they should be.

A wildly convulsive story that combines material from the first two books, while introducing new and interesting characters to the adventure.  We move through life in the swamp to dealing with exploitative adults to invasion and war -- the pace is unrelenting!  It also felt very rushed at the end and failed to gel as we are pushed into a series of crazy coincidences and convenient resolutions.

This last book in the series is notably more political than its predecessor (which is saying something!).  The Disneyfication of the covers of the books in the series (now featuring wide-eyed princesses) seems symptomatic of a storyline which has become far too self-conscious in its message-making.  If this is truly the last book in the series, then I will be happy that it wrapped before becoming too precious in its social commentary.

But let me wrap on a positive note.  From the beginning, I've enjoyed the strength of the female characters.  Even in the face of men with weapons and greater physical strength, the girls always manage to come up with plausible counter-strategies that rely on intelligence, cunning, and bravery (although admittedly more violence in this book than the predecessors).  And even in a story that accepts that girls are subjected to training in poise and demeanor that boys are spared, Hale finds empowerment instead of shame in such feminine curricula.  Yes, you can have your cake and eat it daintily too!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Better Than Perfect, by Melissa Kantor

Juliet has a pretty good life.  She's smart, she's got a handsome and intelligent boyfriend, her family is affluent, and she has plenty of friends.  But when her parents separate and her Mom overdoses, Juliet discovers that her perfect life really isn't all it's cracked up to be.  And realizing that causes her to examine the rest of her life as well.  And that, in turn, leads her to explore some alternatives.

A number of other readers seem to focus in on Juliet's decision (twice) to cheat on her boyfriend, but that particular bad choice worked for me from a dramatic standpoint.  What I found harder to stomach was Juliet's privileged and coddled existence, and the lack of consequences for any of her decisions.  Yes, I was a bit relieved (plot spoiler!) that we are saved from the predictable boyfriend-finding-out scene, but the fact that she can blow off her school and her scholarship and basically accepts no responsibility for flipping off all of these fantastic opportunities she gets handed was what bothered me.  And I never could quite figure out what was so wonderful about her perfect boyfriend.

All that said, the plot is the classic learning-to-understand-yourself trope that fulfills all of the basic dramatic requirements of a YA novel.  You start with the clueless slave to parental and peer expectations, you throw your little sheep for a loop with a few traumas, mix stuff up for a hundred+ pages, and end up with a cathartic Moment of Truth where the young person throws away their perfect life and decides to become a llama herder in Peru.  It's beautiful and touching, and utterly unrealistic.

But hey, it's well written and a good read!  Kantor does human interaction beautifully, capturing the imperfections of child and adult fairly and evenly.  This makes Juliet's scenes with her parents particularly memorable and authentic.  And they work so well, because these characters are anything but perfect, which is probably what makes them better....

Monday, October 12, 2015

Flashes, by Tim O'Rourke

Since her mother died ten years ago, Charley has experienced seizure-like visions (which she calls "flashes") of the lives/deaths of victims of violent crimes.  Always the victims.  And never anyone she recognized, until suddenly she does:  a young woman who died on the train tracks in suspicious circumstances.  No one believes that she actually sees things, of course, especially her concerned father.  That is, until a young idealistic police officer named Tom becomes aware of her talents and realizes how useful and important they could be for the investigation.  But as she gains a clearer picture of the truth, Charley finds herself getting closer to danger.

Based on a popular self-published series of crime stories, this novel suffers from much of the hubris (and dearth of editorial intervention) that I tend to associate with the self-published.  The author is a former police officer and he shows great comfort with writing about the profession, but his characters are stuff and lack much depth.  The cops and the killer are stereotypes, and Charley herself lacks much of interest as a YA character.  So, instead, the novel relies on its plot, which moves briskly (if somewhat improbably) towards a conclusion that some may find unsatisfactory but which is probably the best possible solution for its set-up.

[Disclosure: I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on October 27th.]

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Distance Between Lost and Found, by Kathryn Holmes

Hallie dreads attending youth group functions ever since a humiliating incident between her and the preacher's son Luke.  But her parents think it's time to move on and force her to go on a church-sponsored camping trip.  It starts off every bit as dreadful as she is expecting, in spite of an offer of friendship from a new girl named Rachel and some unexpected kindness from Jonah, one of her ex-friends.  But the stakes change when Hallie, Rachel, and Jonah find themselves lost in the woods and struggling for survival.  And the struggle becomes an opportunity for Hallie to redeem herself and fix her broken life.

With a plot not-so-full of surprises, the quality of this novel turns upon Holmes's strong writing and strong characters.  In the beginning, I found Hallie's whining pretty annoying (and I could easily see why she didn't have any friends anymore!) but that made her blossoming into a strong-willed protagonist that much more compelling.  The romance with Jonah never quite reaches its full potential, but you've got a lot of action to plot out here and some things had to give.  I also wanted a more cathartic ending, but Holmes got everyone to where they needed to be (physically and emotionally) by the end, so the story did its job.  I found it bracing, but realistic and thoughtful.  A great combination of emotional growth drama and survival story.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

I Was Here, by Gayle Forman

After friend Meg kills herself, Cody goes in search of an explanation.  And when she discovers that her friend's death may have been helped along by a suicide "support" group that provided both the encouragement and the knowledge for how to end her life, Meg becomes obsessed with trying to track down Meg's "killer." But along the way, Cody finds out just how unclear intentions are, and comes to question the values she holds herself.

An interesting riff on both the themes of suicide and of finding the strength to live your life.  Cody has a lot of strikes against her ranging from rural poverty to a broken family.  And she makes a fair share of poor choices along the way.  But she's got strength and perseverance and that makes her interesting.  Less so the supporting cast and the love interest (I could have given all of them a pass!).  But the story hits the good points and moves along at a crisp pace.  Nothing spectacular, but a decent read.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle

Vivian never paid any mind to her parents' conviction that Rapture was coming and that they would soon be taken to heaven, until the day she came home to find two holes in her roof and her parents gone.  Right on schedule, five thousand people have disappeared and, for the thousand more Believers who were not taken and for the people who were simply left behind, there is the question of why it happened?  With the world itself seemingly coming to an end and anarchy taking over, Vivian and her friends embark on a desperate road trip across the United States to try to find some answers.

This novel is a rough story -- entertaining, but ultimately flawed.  It works best as an apocalyptic thriller and less well as a polemical diatribe against religion and consumer culture.  Unfortunately, it's the latter that really interests Coyle.  We've seen paper tiger depictions of the evils of Evangelical Christianity before, and her particular take would be offensive if it were not so ludicrous.  Even if you aren't distracted by her silly religion-bashing, the plot has an annoying habit of relying on belated reveals of plot points essential to the story (when the story makes less sense in the re-reading, you know you're having trouble!).

But hey, there's a sequel, so people found it entertaining enough to buy it!