Friday, February 26, 2016

Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead

Bridge, Tab, and Emily are best friends who never fight, but when Em starts trading photographs of herself with a boy, her friends become worried about her.  Meanwhile, Sherm is struggling with dealing with his grandfather, who has moved out on grandma.  And Sherm and Bridge are toying with starting a relationship of their own.  And Bridge still occasionally has trouble coping with the aftermath of a horrible accident she was in when she was eight.  And through it all, a mysterious older girl is hiding out at a coffee shop, afraid to be seen now that she's been completely humiliated.

This mash-up is basically the story that Stead is telling in her latest novel Goodbye Stranger, which explores concepts of friendship.  It's a difficult story to track and I'm never a fan of that sort of thing.  Individual characters are compelling, but jumping around so often when the relationships between them are less than clear is frustrating.  By the end, I had to sit back and just let the story take me where it wanted to go, but I didn't really follow it and that left me feeling distant from the novel.  In sum, it's pretty, but hard to invest in.  I'm reminded of Lynne Rae Perkins' Criss Cross, a similarly hyped YA novel that I found nearly unreadable (Goodbye Stranger, however, is better written!).

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Love, Lucas, by Chantele Sedgwick

After Oakley's brother dies from bone cancer, she and her Mom go to live with her Aunt Jo on the California beach for a few months.  Oakley grieves for her brother and spends her days reading a journal that he left for her.  But she also starts to rebuild her life and meets Carson, a local surfer.  Carson helps her to escape from her grief and naturally enough she falls hard for him.  But is it too soon to be entering a romantic relationship?  And what happens when Oakley and her mother return home?

Decent, but not terribly surprising, romance (with the exception of a big plot twist towards the end that provides the dramatic climax that Sedgwick seemed to be struggling with creating).  The ending is not a complete cheat, but I would have been happier with something less abrupt and more organic to the overall story.  And that pretty much sums up my take on the novel overall: nothing terrible, but nothing really outstanding either.  I didn't find myself sucked into any of the characters or their traumas (and the dead brother's journal is surprisingly ineffective!), but I was content to keep reading and following their travails.

Complete non-sequitur:  I loved the gratuitous mention of both barnacles and (twice!) Phase Ten.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Cut Both Ways, by Carrie Mesrobian

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Dark Shimmer, by Donna Jo Napoli

In this retelling of Snow White, set in medieval Venice, tortured Dolce flees her home after her mother dies and is befriended by little Bianca and Bianca's father Marin.  Dolce, raised by dwarfs, has always seen herself as some sort of giant monster and is astonished to discover that she is actually normal-sized!  For his part, Marin adores Dolce and brings her home.  Living with him and Bianca, Dolce is no longer treated as an oddity.  Marin marries her and Dolce settles.  But she is not at peace. Instead, she becomes obsessed with freeing the dwarfs of Venice, who are kept in servitude for the amusement of the nobility.  To buy their freedom, Dolce creates little mirrors, made of the clearest glass and backed with tin and quicksilver.  That the quicksilver is toxic, she knows, but her obsession to free more people makes her reckless in handling it and leads her into madness.

Another beautifully researched historical novels from Napoli, who does them so well and also does some of the most sophisticated retellings of myths and fables.  That's a potent combination in this novel.  There's all sorts of lovely detail here (from the science of mirror making and glass blowing to the social mores of the Venetians).  And Napoli's re-imagining of the fairy tale and her refusal to fall on to magic in any way (she adeptly provides plausible explanations for everything from the poison apple to the glass coffin to the Prince's rescue) is enchanting.

However, I found this storytelling itself hard going.  The beginning was fairly slow and it's only half-way through that the story of Snow White became recognizable.  This is also the point in the story where our heroine becomes the villain -- a twist which is awkward in its unexpectedness.  Having invested rather heavily in Dolce, it is asking a lot of the reader to accept her transformation.  It makes her more sympathetic, to be certain, but should fairy tales really have sympathetic villains?

Monday, February 15, 2016

Infinite In Between, by Carolyn Mackler

On their first day of high school, five freshmen are put together in the same orientation group.  As an icebreaker activity, they write letters to themselves with a plan to read them together when they graduate in four years.  They then embark on their lives and this novel traces the paths of these kids (and their friends) through high school.

Ambitious and, unfortunately, too much so!  With five characters and their supporting players, there isn't much time to spend on any one of them.  Covering four years, there's quite a lot to keep track of.  The result is a story where each chapter (averaged 3-4 pages!) just starts to get interesting before we're jumping to the next character or month and moving on.  It's thin, superficial, and ultimately not very interesting.  I like Mackler as a YA writer, but this is too much and, even at nearly 500 pages, she can't really deliver a story that gels with so much going on.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Your Voice Is All I Hear, by Leah Scheier

April was obsessed with Jonah before they had even met (she scoped him out before he showed up for his first day at their school).  And, much to her surprise, he's just as taken by her.  Their romance kicks off beautifully, but something isn't quite right.  At first, it's just little quirks that she easily ignores and explains away, but his behavior becomes more and more erratic until he has to be committed to an inpatient psych facility.

He is diagnosed with schizophrenia and, as he struggles with the sickness, April is urged by her parents, friends, and even Jonah himself to let him go.  They are too young and she shouldn't be wasting her life on him, April is told.  But Jonah is the first great thing that has happened to her and she simply cannot abandon him.

Heart wrenching stuff, as one would expect.  I loved April and the way we really got in her head.  She's brutally honest with herself, which wasn't terribly realistic but more fulfilling from a dramatic perspective.  She always knew when she was screwing up, even as she did so.  And I loved Scheier's sensitive and authentic description of Jonah's suffering.  The resulting dynamic between the two of them was captivating and hard to watch at the same time.  As a result, this is a difficult book to get through because you really feel for these kids and the nearly impossible situation they are in.

I was less taken with the narrative, which kept jumping about.  Scheier focused on particular dramatic moments, often without sufficient transition or foreshadowing and I felt like I was being dragged through the story.  It felt like April was telling the story in retrospect years later and just glossing over details -- a realistic approach, perhaps, but not very good storytelling.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Don't Fail Me Now, by Una LaMarche

With their mom in jail again, it falls on Michelle to take care of her younger sister and brother.  But the kids are running out of places to stay and the means to take care of themselves.  Her younger sister is being bullied at school and her younger brother is about to be expelled.  Michelle's job won't pay their bills and she's too young to gain custody anyway.

In the midst of her despair, Leah and her stepbrother show up.  They couldn't be any more different from Michelle and her siblings (wealthy, white, and privileged), but Leah and Michelle share one thing in a common:  they have the same father.  And now their dad is dying and has asked the girls to leave Baltimore and come out to California so he can see them.  This unlikely pair, with their siblings, set off on an illicit cross-country road trip full of widened horizons and adventures.

Ostensibly, a typical road trip-and-getting to know you adventure, Don't Fail Me Now is an outstanding example of the subgenre.  Strong characters who are fun and interesting move this story along.  I'm not a fan of YA that put kids in danger, but LaMarche is gentle with these kids and they mostly muddle through on their limited resources (one might even accuse her of soft-pedaling their hardships!).  A lot more could probably have been done with the underplayed class and racial differences, but that was not the story the author wanted to tell.  In general, it was pretty enjoyable.

Monday, February 08, 2016

All the Rage, by Courtney Summers

Everyone in town knows the Turners.  Power neatly resides with whoever is allied with them.  So, when Romy and her family falls out with the Turners, it's pretty much open season.  The older Turner boy rapes Romy, but rather than elicit sympathy, Romy is accused of fabricating the story and she is subjected to another sexual assault a few weeks later.  The second attack is not so easily written off by the town, because another girl has disappeared at the same time.

None of which matters to Romy.  She has no will to fight the town and she seeks refuge in a job out of town and a boy she meets there.  All she wants is to keep that world separate from the one back home.  But doing so is getting more and more difficult.

A gruesome and unpleasant story that combines a suffering and sympathetic protagonist against some heavy baddies.  It also has a lot of ambitions, building a story on the important subject of rape culture, but it stretches credulity along the way and relies on thinly drawn villains and poorly explained motives.

The blurb for the book claims that the author is trying to show how silence is "inflicted upon young women" but it is not that simple (even in this story where Summers has stacked the deck against Romy).  I have no problems believing that a rape victim would be reluctant to go public and that she would not want to deal with a law enforcement force that is this blatantly corrupt.  But when she is unwilling to talk to anyone at all (including a mother with whom she apparently has a good relationship), one has to acknowledge that some of this silence is self-imposed.  And rather than explore that idea, the story leaves a huge void that leaves us wondering why Romy doesn't speak (and not why others try to silence her).

Furthermore, it all seems terribly exploitative.  Rather than give Romy a chance to gain a voice or to heal, we're just shown again and again how helpless and ineffectual she is.  There is enough injustice in the world and sexual violence is cruel enough in itself to provide ample drama for a decent story.  Inventing a character who does everything she can to hurt herself just seems cruel and mean.  To me, it seemed like Summers just wanted to amp the trauma and drag out the story.  What I learned is that when you're hurting and need help, you should spurn every offer you receive (that is, if you want to make the story "shocking").

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The Accident Season, by Moira Fowley-Doyle

Cara is searching for a girl in her class named Elsie that no one seems to remember.  Elsie, however, seems to show up in every photograph that Cara owns and Cara wants to know why.  It is also the beginning of the "accident season" when Cara and the members of her family are subject to an unusual rash of accidents that always seem to strike them in October.  Undeterred by falling bridges and collapsing bookshelves, Cara goes ahead with her plans for a Halloween party at an abandoned house, which somehow seems to evoke the spirit of Elsie.

A really strange paranormal story.  I liked the way it was heading (even if I didn't understand every scene) but it got steadily weirder and weirder.  By the end, it simply ceased to make sense and lost me entirely.  Perhaps I didn't give it the attention it deserved, but once lost in the plot, I lost interest in the story.  Nice writing but a story that went from poetic and lyrical to ridiculous and illogical.  Skip it.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Fair Coin, by E. C. Myers

Crazy things are happening to Ephraim.  His mother has ended up in the hospital from an overdose, after trying to kill herself because she believes that he's just been killed by a bus!  In the belongings of the dead person (who does look a lot like Ephraim) is a strange coin. With a little trial and error, Ephraim discovers that the coin appears to grant wishes, sending Ephraim into alternate realities where his dreams come true.  But with each wish granted, unexpected side effects start occurring and Ephraim (along with his best friend Nathan) find themselves in deeper and deeper trouble.

What starts off like a series of Sliders episodes, morphs about half-way through into darker territory when the guns appear and people start dying.  It also gets bogged down around that point by long explanations of what is going on.  A little exposition is a good thing, but my attention and patience lagged as the adventure became a physics lesson.  So, an uneven story.  Ephraim and his love interest make an unlikely (but eventually pleasing) pair but, by the end, I had really lost interest in their fate.  Like Mary Shelley (one of the characters) kept begging, just shoot the bad guy and get this over with!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Where People Like Us Live, by Patricia Cumbie

Libby and her family have moved a lot.  Whenever her Dad's job has dried up, the family pulls stakes and they relocate.  Now, they've come to "Rubberville" (a.k.a. Racine WI).  But during this final summer before High School, things are different.  Her father's pulled into a strike and the family has to scrimp to get by.  Her brother and sister are striking out into new territory.  And Libby has made her first real friend, Angie -- a girl with a troubled past and a dangerous secret.  And when Libby figures out with is going on with Angie, she realizes she is going to have to decide between saving her friend or protecting the friendship.

A well-written novel aimed really at an adult audience (full as it is with life-changing secrets and the frustrations of adults).  This is classic character-centric work -- the people are vivid and the action quite languid.  That slow pacing allows us to savor each person we meet but there isn't much to take away from the story.  And not really much effort to tie it together.

Monday, February 01, 2016

A Year Without Mom, by Dasha Tolstikova

In 1991, Russian middle schooler Dasha is struggling with typical middle school problems:  friends who are drifting away, passing exams, and a boy she has a crush on.  Her greatest desire is to get accepted to a prestigious high school.  The world is changing in other ways, as the Soviet Union comes to an end and the Russian Federation emerges as an independent state.   But the greatest trauma of all is that Dasha has to deal with these problems without her mother, who has gone away to a graduate school in the United States to study advertising.

Told in a graphic novel drawn in a style that betrays Tolstikova's love of the Russian absurdists, A Year Without Mom tells a simple but genuine story of growing up in a time of change.

And now for the full disclosure....

I met Dasha's mother Natasha when she came to the University of Illinois to study advertising during the "year without mom" and met Dasha herself the following summer when I visited the family in Moscow in 1992 (somewhere around page 152 in this novel).  I, of course, knew nothing of the dramas of her life (for me, she was a schoolgirl with an impressive knowledge of The Beatles), but I grew to know her mother and grandparents quite well in the years that followed.  And I took this picture of Dasha in her family's kitchen that summer: