Sunday, January 31, 2016

What You Left Behind, by Jessica Verdi

After his girlfriend dies of cancer, Ryden can't stop blaming himself for her death.  After all, he got her pregnant and it was the pregnancy that killed her (she had been receiving treatment for cancer and had to stop chemo during the pregnancy).  Now he a single Dad and sucking at the job. And his old dreams of getting an athletic scholarship seem to be slipping away.  But somehow, he's going to figure this whole thing out (fatherhood, the scholarship, and school), keep his old friends, and make a few new ones.  And then he starts discovering his late girlfriend's journals and finds out the horrible truth about why she really died.

I liked the premise and I (mostly) liked Ryden -- he's got a lot of facets and he's generally quite sympathetic. But the whole blaming himself thing fell flat, as did the really harsh criticism he takes from his friends.  The story was melodramatic enough without all the whining from Ryden.  There were also a number of throwaway subplots (the girlfriends' parents, Ryden's ex-girlfriend Shoshanna) that did nothing at all.  In sum, the novel needed a red pen and a focus.  It also needed to be shortened and given a lot more punch -- the secret truth that is supposed to devastate our hero is painfully obvious to the reader long in advance.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Longbow Girl, by Linda Davies

Brave and resourceful fifteen year-old Merry Owen discovers an ancient book on their property in Wales.  The book is valuable and the sale of it could save her family's ancestral home from the clutches of the bank and their greedy neighbors, the de Courcy's.  But the book is far more than a valuable artifact, as Merry and her friend James discovers, as it leads them on a time traveling adventure to the sixteenth century and the fulfillment of Merry's destiny.

Wales, longbows, and ponies!  What's not to like?  The story dragged in the beginning while stuck in modern day, but as soon as we find our way back to Renaissance Wales, I was hooked in to the adventure!  Fast paced and the total page turner, I needed to know how it would turn out.  It helps to be an archery fan, but after Hunger Games, who isn't a sucker for an adolescent girl with a bow?  Merry was intelligent, extremely resourceful and just plain kick ass.  (It didn't hurt that the author knows her archery and the descriptions were technically accurate)

I was less taken with the love interest, which fell flat.  There was supposed to be the traditional star-crossed lovers thing going on (poor girl, rich boy), but it never really clicked.  In fact, James seemed like a wimp compared to Merry! But English writers don't tend to write very convincing teen romances, so no surprise there! 

Overall, I enjoyed this lively adventure, which reminded me of Michael Crichton's Timeline or a good Stargate episode.  It mixed some decent history, a compelling heroine, and an addictive story.  There's more installments in the works so if you like reading intelligent stories about female Welsh archers who kick butt, you're in luck!

[Disclosure;  I received an Advanced Reviewer's Copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book is slated for release on February 23, 2016]

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Forever for a Year, by B. T. Gottfred

Told in train of consciousness and alternating viewpoints, Forever for a Year traces Carolina and Trevor falling in love and the various dramas of this first romance of ninth-graders.  From the initial ecstasy of finding out that their feelings are reciprocated to experimentation with alcohol and sex to the betrayals and fallings out, every emotion is tracked in painstaking (and painful) detail.

Neither character is particularly deep and Gottfred does a particularly astute job of portraying the contradictions and randomness of the characters' thoughts -- this is both a strength and a weakness.  Far too often, I've criticized YA books for creating artificially mature-sounding narrators.  But one can take this too far in the other direction and there's a limit to how much waffling and melodrama one can take.  Worse, both of them have a tendency to become repetitive, which makes the 420-odd pages of this novel excruciating at times.  The lack of depth in their thoughts also does not endear them to the reader.  Carolina in particular can be grating (although Trevor's whining got on my nerves as well).  It's an interesting experiment, but I think I'll return to my overly erudite protagonists.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Cost of All Things, by Maggie Lehrman

What if the hardships of adolescence could be assuaged by magic?  In this alternate reality tale, four teenagers struggle with the normal traumas of youth but hire "hekamists" to cast spells to relieve them of the consequences.  Kay gets a "hook" to keep her two best friends close to her forever.  Ari gets her memories of her dead boyfriend erased so she doesn't have to deal with the grief.  With the only immediate cost a matter of paying for the spells, solving problems with magic seems easy. 

But there are always consequences.  The magic itself comes with side effects that have complicated ramifications.  As spells fly around, a solution for one person becomes a problem for others.  And then there is the unknown of the human mind and heart -- the unpredictability of life itself, which even the strongest magic cannot make safe.

A nuanced novel that works on many layers.  Obviously, the magic makes this a fantasy, but I would decline to classify this in YA Fantasy since it is really about the nature of human interaction and the inherent impossibility of protecting hearts from pain and uncertainty.  It is also about the way that well-meaning efforts to protect others will tragically hurt them far more.  In the end, it is about accepting that living and loving is risky and that there is no magic potion to help with that.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Every Last Word, by Tamara Ireland Stone

Samantha struggles to hide her obsessive compulsive disorder from her friends (a fiercely competitive group of popular girls).  But when a shy girl at school introduces Sam to a secret poetry society, the association (along with her friend's encouragement) cause Sam to transcend her condition and consider alternatives to the way she's been living her life.  But she still lives in fear of what will happen when people discover she isn't normal.

A touching story about struggling with mental illness that takes a surprising turn towards the end that amps up the stakes of the story dramatically.  The poetry (and the secret poetry society) seemed a bit gratuitous to me, but the story overall was moving.  Samantha is an intriguing and sympathetic protagonist.  The romance with AJ was a bit forced, but is ultimately touching on its own.  In general, the characters in this personality-driven story are effective and memorable (and even the "mean girls" elicit some sympathy!).

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I, Emma Freke, by Elizabeth Atkinson

At nearly six feet tall, Emma literally stands out from the others at the age of twelve.  Combined with her awkward name, she's had terrible trouble fitting in.  And when her Mom tells her she doesn't have to go to school anymore, she's overjoyed.  But Emma's mother has a habit of messing things up and Emma soon finds herself in a ton of trouble.  This is the way things usually go for her!

When the summer arrives, Emma receives an invitation to attend a Freke family reunion.  She's stunned.  She's never met her father and knows nothing about his family.  And from what she can tell, the Frekes are totally organized and responsible people (the complete opposite of her mother!).  So, with a bit of adventure, she heads to Wisconsin for a weekend with her father's folks -- seeking to find out more about the rest of her family.

A sweet tween read with some predictable messages about family and finding oneself.  Along the way, Emma has some pretty fun adventures.  But up until the end, she also experiences a lot of neglect.  I realize that adult absentmindedness is a popular trope in tween reads, but it always seems a bit mean to leave small children in a lurch and fending for themselves.  That Emma is able to persevere shows her fierce independence, but seems unnecessary to telling a good story.  That twitch aside, the book is full of many lively characters and made for a brisk read.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Like It Never Happened, by Emily Adrian

Rebecca and her four friends make up the "Essential Five" -- a group of high school juniors who get all the best parts in their school's plays.  They work hard and bond over their talents and dedication. Together, they decide to form a pact to stand together and never date each other.  But it's a promise made to be broken and, once broken, petty jealousies and ancient rumors resurface with devastating impact.  Meanwhile, back home, Rebecca must deal with her estranged older sister's reappearance after many years.

I have a strong mixed reaction to this novel.  There's a lot going on here and the subplot about the sister never quite gelled with the rest of the story.  Other subplots (like Rebecca's reputation and even her romance with Charlie) hung loosely.  The story seemed cluttered and busy.  On the other hand, I really like Adrian's ability to create a story without a clean resolution.  As well as can be imagined, the good guys carry the day, but the real truth remains buried in the end (all pointing to the protagonists' reluctance in the end to let it all out).  That complexity and nuance leaves this story with a novel tension that seemed brilliant in the end.

In a similar way, there were so many characters in this story and little time to effectively develop them all, but here Adrian's ability to distill the important contribution that each one is to make to this story creates a pleasing tapestry.  I might be able to forgo an extraneous teacher or the older sister's girlfriend, but no one really seemed superfluous.  And in the amazing web of conspiracy and denial that the story tells, everyone has their particular critical part to play.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Summer of Chasing Mermaids, by Sarah Ockler

After a boating accident, Elyse flees her native island of Tobago for the cold north of coastal Oregon.  She's lost her ability to speak, which is a tragedy for a lively Caribbean girl who had a bright singing future in front of her.  In Oregon, she befriends Christian, a boy with a dream of winning a boat race (and saving his town) and his younger brother Sebastian, who dreams of mermaids -- both boys suffer in the silence imposed by their tyrannical father.  Collectively, of course, they find their voices during a summer of healing and rebirth.

Ockler has crafted a complex story that worked best for me when it was its most down-to-Earth, dealing with the boy, the race, and the conflict with the father.  But there's a lot more to the novel -- memories of Tobago, mermaid lore, mysticism tied to the ocean, as well as a lot of character back story.  Some of this was hard to follow and I found the book really hard to get into at first.

What I really did like was Elyse's strong character.  While she wasn't always good at expressing herself (especially with the men in her life), she was great at standing up for herself and what she wanted.  The romance that develops between her and Christian was particularly hot, in no small part thanks to that agency she exhibits.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Night We Said Yes, by Lauren Gibaldi

Falling in love is often a story of regrets.  This story traces that well-worn path with a novel approach.  It tells the story of two evenings in parallel.  The earlier one where Ella and Matt first met and the second one when they were reunited a year later.  We learn along the ways that, halfway through the year, Matt mysteriously disappeared.  Learning why he did so is an interesting part of the present-day track.  The novel, however, shifts us back and forth between past and present to do something far more interesting:  show how the two of them have remained the same and how they have changed as a result of their relationship and the separation.

I liked the literary device, which while slightly gimmicky, became a beautiful way of telling a story that is a lot about fond memories and nostalgia.  It was a very effective way to provide backstory to a romantic story with a lot of regret packed in.  It works best in the beginning, but wears out as the relationship matures in both timeframes.  By the point that we know what is going to happen to them (in the present, in particular), the flashbacks lose their urgency and I tired of them.  But I still think it was an effective approach.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Emmy & Oliver, by Robin Benway

Ten years ago, Emmy and Oliver were next door neighbors and good friends.  But then Oliver was abducted by his estranged father and he disappeared.  In the aftermath, Oliver's mother remarried and raised two new children.  Emmy's parents, traumatized by their neighbor's loss, grew protective of their only child.  And Emmy was left wondering what had happened to her friend and, as she grew older, also wondering how she was ever going to spread her wings within her parents' tight confines.  Then, one day, during Emmy's senior year, Oliver comes home....

The set up is a bit melodramatic and the ending exploits some of that potential, but overall the book is a lot more thoughtful than one would expect.  The strength of Benway's storytelling is in realizing that both Emmy and Oliver have compelling stories to tell, which are interrelated but different enough to make the reading interesting.    I enjoyed the process that the kids went through, though, growing an understanding of what the ten year gap meant to them.  But the book didn't really seem to me to reach its potential.  Having recognized the potential of the material, Benway doesn't seem to know where to take it.  Lots of great ideas are introduced, but simply lie there.  And, as often is the case in YA, the parents, who fill the usual antagonist roles here, are underutilized and perfunctory.

Friday, January 08, 2016

45 Pounds (More or Less), by K. A. Barson

Ann has tried plenty of diets, but they never seem to stick.  Whatever weight she loses, she manages to put back on.  But this time will be different.  Her aunt is getting married and Ann is committed to the idea of losing 45 pounds before the wedding, so she can fit in a decent dress.

What emerges is a story about Ann's relationship with food, how it serves as a surrogate for love, how it defines not only her health but her self-image, and all of the ways that popular culture both shames the overweight while also encouraging people to over indulge.  Along the way, Barson shoehorns in messages about anorexia and other eating disorders, and examines how even young children are susceptible to unhealthy messages about eating.  It's a lot to fit into a book and the results can at times become preachy.  That's a bit of a shame since Ann makes a very appealing protagonist and her struggles are easy to relate to.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

I'll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios

Out in the California dessert, there isn't much to keep a kid in town, unless they have no way out.  Skyler's got a full ride at an art school in San Francisco, so she's definitely getting out.  But when her Mom takes a nosedive, loses her job, and crawls inside a bottle, Skyler realizes that she's getting sucked in herself and wonders if she's about to lose her dream.

Josh has just returned from Afghanistan with a little less swagger and missing half a leg.  Before he left, he was someone that Skyler would have avoided, but he's changed and there's something that draws her to him.  It's a volatile combination:  a girl and a boy both angry at what fate has dealt to them.  But together, they just might be able to forge a relationship that could save them both.

A well-written story of damaged humans finding each other and using their love to rebuild.  I have no qualms with the writing or the character building.  These are complex people who felt very real.  The novel is, however, an incredibly dreary story and a bit of a slog to get through.  Bluntly, their lives suck and that's sort of the point.  And the little victories they attain won't lift you very much.  So, be prepared to be very depressed!  That doesn't make this a bad book, but it should make you pause before you decide to read this for fun.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Immaculate, by Katelyn Detweiler

When Mina starts experiencing all of the symptoms of pregnancy, she rules out that possibility without a second thought and assumes that she's developed some sort of rare sickness.  While her perfect boyfriend Nate would certainly have liked it if they had done it, she's definitely still a virgin.  But as it turns out, she is pregnant.

Coming to terms with her new situation is challenging, but nothing compared to the humiliation and frustration of trying to explain what happened (or rather, what didn't happen) to her friends and family.  Nate and even her father reject her and she becomes a target for mockery and derision from her peers.  And then things start escalating as her story goes viral and spins out of control.  Complete strangers both attack and embrace her as either a liar or a living saint.  Through it all, Mina herself struggles with trying to atone for something she did not do and at the same time accept her new role as a mother-to-be.

The book has both strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately fails to deliver on its promise.  In particular, Detweiler struggles with the dramatic element of her story.  She never quite explains the motive of the antagonists and it is obvious that the entire thread seems uncomfortable to her.  Another weakness is much exploration of philosophical implications of the premise.  What does it mean to be the carrier of a spontaneous pregnancy?  Detweiler brings this stuff up, but doesn't explore it and doesn't appear to have much to say about faith or accepting Divine Grace.  Detweiler skirts the religious element, which seems odd given the story and the book's title.

The strong parts of the novel (and the places I really enjoyed) were in Mina's growth as an impending mother.  And while a story about maternity can easily grow saccharine, it is handled well here.  In the end, it seems that this novel might have just worked better as a simple teen pregnancy story without all the baggage and promise that the idea of a contemporary immaculate conception raises.  Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of where that more complex story can lead us, but it will take a more complex book than the author has created here.

Even When You Lie To Me, by Jessica Alcott

Charlie hasn't had much experience with boys and has limited herself to superficial crushes on her teachers.  But in her senior year, she develops strong feelings for her young English teacher.  And, as far as she (and almost everyone else around them) can see, he shares at least some of those feelings.  What develops between them is a very awkward dance of passion and denial, painstakingly dissected over the school year.

Like most student-teacher romances, this is a tragedy and can only end badly.  But, even if the book fulfills some expectations, Alcott takes this story of passion and restraint in some very new directions.  First of all, there is an intense focus on Charlie's maturing sexual desire, not in a pornographic sense that we are more used to in popular culture, but in a way that is more authentic and grown-up.  There's some pretty explicit fantasizing and masturbation scenes in this book that will titillate younger readers and open some eyes.  But the purpose and focus of all this is to describe the full breadth of desire and take the story beyond some schoolgirl crush.  Secondly, there's a lot of depth to the adult characters as well.  Some readers may not be able to relate to how frank and open the discussions between teachers and students are in this novel, but I can remember moments of unguarded conversation like this in my own school.  And, in the way I always like, adults are portrayed with the same faults and anxieties as the kids.  Finally, the novel ends on a really special note that surprised and delighted me.  This is a story which you know is going to end wistfully, but the conclusion (which could easily have become a strung-out epilogue) packs a major punch and stayed true to the overall sense of the story.

This is an insightful novel but also a very mature book and many readers (adults included) will be uncomfortable with both the subject matter and the writing itself.  I'd actually place it in the New Adult (NA) genre, not so much because of the explicit sexual nature of the book but because of the serious and honest treatment of those sex scenes.