Friday, April 29, 2016

Beyond Clueless, by Linas Alsenas

Marty is starting her freshman year at a Catholic girls' school, separated from her best friend Jimmy, who's staying on in public school.  Jimmy thrives at his school, coming out (to no one's surprise) and making lots of new friends.  Marty though feels lost and confused.  She's not exactly friendless, having met a sharp tongued girl named Xiang, but she still feels socially awkward.  Her love of theater leads her to try out for the school musical and it turns out to be the way to break through her issues.  Jimmy brings his new friends over to help out and Marty herself catches the eye of a gorgeous upperclassman.  But people are acting funny around her and she can't figure out what is going on.

A fast paced friendship drama -- full of the twists and turns one expects in ninth grade.  I enjoyed Marty and her honest emotions and her snarky friend Xiang is a highlight.  The boys did less for me.  There are numerous characters here and neither Felix (the love interest), Jimmy, or Oliver (or any of the other friends) left much of an impression.  I did start to wonder where the story was heading mid way through and, while the ending does a decent job of sorting out thing, I was as clueless as Marty about what was going on in the story.  That may have been due to my inattentive reading, but the clean wrap up in the end seemed a bit of a cheat.  So, I'd call this novel great for character development, but confusing and hard to follow.

No Shame, No Fear, by Ann Turnbull

In seventeenth century England, taking a political stand could be a life-endangering choice.  And choosing to follow a religious creed which challenged the social order could easily get you accused of sedition.  Susanna's father sits in jail for refusing to pay tithes or swear fealty to the Crown.  And Susanna herself must leave their small village seek her fortune in town.  There she encounters more persecution but also befriends an idealistic gentry lad who is sympathetic to her faith.  Love develops between them, but it coexists with cruel persecutions.

A stunning and gritty portrayal of the brutal persecution of the early Quakers.  The novel badly needed some historical notes to explain to readers what was depicted (it helped tremendously that I have just read George Fox's Journal a few months ago).  But aside from the fact that the novel will confuse people, I found it compelling.  The two lovers are endearing in their passionate youthful obsession with each other, but the commitment they make to their faith makes an even stronger impression.  It's a fascinating historical adventure with a sequel that I am looking forward to reading.

Rules for 50/50 Chances, by Kate McGovern

Ever since Rose's mother was diagnosed with Huntington's disease, Rose has lived in fear -- fear of what it would do to her mother and to their family, but also fear of whether she too would get sick some day.  While there is still plenty of time before she could start to show symptoms, the 50/50 chance that they will appear hangs over her and holds her back.

Then, as she is about to turn eighteen, she meets Caleb, a black boy with two family members suffering from sickle-cell.  He challenges her notions about race and her fear of getting sick and pushes her to overcome what is holding her back.  It couldn't come at a more opportune moment as her talent in dance blossoms into the chance of a lifetime to attend an elite ballet school.

It's a novel with a mix of big ideas.  There's the heavy subject of a family coping with chronic illness and a frank look at race and prejudice.  And then there is all this little stuff (falling in love, pursuing dreams, etc.).  Having all this stuff going on probably makes the book seem like a mess, but McGovern juggles it all flawlessly.  But again, the highlight for me turned out to be her treatment of Rose's notions of race.  Caleb insightfully probes Rose's racial privilege (one of my favorite scenes is when she protests that she is colorblind to race and he retorts that he wants the fact that he is black to be acknowledged and does not want her to ignore him).  It's sophisticated stuff and moves us beyond tired tropes of political correctness.  And while Rose frequently comes across badly as both naive and self-centered, there is an honesty and logic to the relationship that drew me in.  And yes, there was a dying mother too.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Heir and the Spare, by Emily Albright

Evie was only six years old when her Mom died, but through a series of letters that she left behind, Evie has been guided by her mother.  It's led her to her Mom's homeland of England and to enrolling at Oxford.  There, however, she has a totally unexpected turn, when she she falls for a classmate who turns out to be a prince.  This in turn makes her a target of jealous girls and the paparazzi, both of whom she finesses with a sharp tongue and stereotypical American brashness.

Her mother's letters keep coming and they lead Evie to the realization that she is herself from a noble background.  This is eminently convenient, as it removes the potential barrier of Evie the commoner trying to ingratiate herself with her prince.  But it raises another problem:  will the prince love her for who she is and not for her title?

An entertaining read, but ultimately silly and frivolous.  While ostensibly about college-aged young people (and featuring some steamy -- but largely non-explicit -- romance), the mindset of the book is adolescent.  From the fantasy of the cute unattached boy who is always available and obsequious in all ways, to the friends who always have Evie's back without any needs of their own, to the easily vanquished baddies, Evie and her world are a simple place.  There's no need to study, no worries about money, and complete self-centricity.  The only thing that matters in this book is whether the prince will kiss her or not.

A Hundred Hours of Night, by Anna Woltz

After Emilia's father loses his job due to a scandal involving one of the students at her school, Emilia runs away from their Amsterdam home, all the way to the Big Apple.  She arrives to discover that her lodging arrangements have fallen through and she is homeless.  But with some resourcefulness and good luck, she finds a place to stay with a boy her age and his little sister.

There are a number of other issues, including her obsessions about infections and lingering anger at her family.  But when she learns that Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on New York, she discovers that some problems can easily outshine others.  When the hurricane makes landfall and knocks out the power for over four days, she and her new friends come together in a way that Emilia never imagined possible.

The end result is a survival story with a big heart.  I enjoyed they many fascinating details about what it was like to be trapped in Manhattan during and after the storm (the author based the story on her own experience) but the the real point of the story is Emilia moving beyond her shame and anger.  We don't get to see enough of Emilia's earlier self to truly appreciate the transformation, but there is a satisfying growth in her character.

[Disclaimer:  I received an advance reviewer's copy of this book for the purpose of creating an unbiased review.  The book is slated for publication on April 26, 2016]

Friday, April 15, 2016

What's Broken Between Us, by Alexis Bass

Ever since Amanda's brother went to jail for the DUI killing of a girl at her school, Amanda has lived in shame.  She'd like things to return to normal, if she could figure out how.  It doesn't help that her brother is seemingly unrepentant for his behavior or that Amanda is cheating on her boyfriend (with the brother of another girl who was injured in the same accident).  The truth is that over a year after the tragedy no one has healed.  Forgiveness and coming to terms escapes everyone, and Amanda remains crippled by guilt.

The story is a bit slow to start and it ends in a maddeningly inconclusive way.  In between, it suffers from an overabundance of characters and storylines.  But it is nonetheless outstanding for its subtlety and complexity.  That the conclusion leaves much unsolved is an acknowledgement of the complicated emotions portrayed within.  The overall effect is dreary and not particularly affirming, but I found it realistic.  Amanda's character, despite her infidelity, is sympathetic and believable as she lies trapped in her attempts to "fix" the people around her to no avail.

The Pretty App, by Katie Sise

Every year, the Public Company has released a must-have app.  This year it's the Pretty App, which will help choose the most physically attractive girl in the United States.  Blake wants to win so bad!  She figures that, given her ability to alienate friends and her lack of academic achievement, her looks are basically all she has left.  But as she rises through the ranks of the contest, she discovers that there's a lot more resting on the results than her own self-esteem.

Ostensibly a sequel to The Boyfriend App, this story reunites some of the characters from that novel and sends them on a new adventure.  The message is largely the same:  building faith in yourself and rejecting exploitative technology.  It's a message with a sledgehammer (even teens won't need it laid on this heavy).

The story is entertaining enough, although the romance didn't really take off (and perhaps that was for the best?).  Blake seems a bit uneven -- starting overly shallow and discovering her virtuous side too quickly.  Not an appealing character in the first book, she is not much of a hook for the second.  So, not much of a character study, but the pace is brisk and there isn't a dull moment.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Forget Tomorrow, by Pintip Dunn

In this innovative dystopian novel (part one of a presumed trilogy), seventeen year olds receive a "future memory" that tells them who they will become.  This then determines the education and opportunities that they will receive for the rest of their lives.  But when Callie receives her memory, it spells out that she will kill her sister.  To prevent her from doing so, she is detained as an "aggressive" and a predicted criminal.  But with the help of a sympathetic guard and a resistance underground, she escapes.  Fate, however, is a tricky thing and the farther she tries to get away from her future, the more she finds herself drawn back to it.

There are lots of fascinating ideas like the "future memories" and some lovely mixing of realistic and science fiction settings, but I found the novel hard to track (and wildly implausible at several points).  Much of the reason for this is because Dunn doesn't make much of an effort to tie all of her ideas together.  There's plenty of action but it doesn't really lead to anything.  And novel concepts - while often fascinating -- aren't actually explored or developed.  One potential explanation is that this installment is merely intended as exposition (with the ideas returned to and developed later). But I still would have preferred a more organic connection of characters and milieus.

Silence, by Deborah Lytton

Stella is focused on pursuing her dream of a professional musical theater career.  Only a sophomore, she's landed the lead in her school's production of West Side Story.  She's also attracted the attention of the male lead.  Stella and her BFF Lily are well on their way to popularity.  But despite it all, she can't help but notice the gentle beauty of shy, stammering Hayden.  He's mocked for his speech impediment (and even she cringes when listening to him), but there's something about him that nonetheless catches her eye.

Then, a tragic accident leaves Stella deaf and unable to sing in the musical.  And in her new found state, everything has changed.  She hopes to eventually regain her hearing with an implant, but in the mean time, her loss gives her time to refocus her priorities, which she does with Hayden's help.  She discovers that, in silence, everything becomes clear.

A sweet romance, which is surprisingly understated for the material it covers.  From the tragedy of Stella's injury to Hayden's dark history, there is plenty of heavy potential here, but Lytton doesn't explore it very thoroughly.  Stella tells us that she's upset, but we don't dwell on it for long.  Hayden has ghosts in his closet but even a potentially charged reunion with his estranged mother is oddly flat. This approach saps much of the dramatic potential of the story and the novel largely runs out of steam, ending with a hundred pages or more of flowery prose as Lytton has less and less to say.  The result sounds like Stella's diary (in an embarrassingly melodramatic adolescent way) and not really in a way that adolescents actually think.  They looooooove each other, but there is not much honest emotion here.  By the end, rather than feeling close, this over-the-top angsting just left me bored.  A great start

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Not If I See You First, by Eric Lindstrom

"Not if I see you first!" was what Parker always said to her best friend Scott with when they said goodbye.  Since Parker had been blind for years (the result of a car accident that also took the life of her mother), it was more of a joke between them than a threat.  But after Scott betrayed her, she shut him out of her life, determined to not ever have anything to do with him again.

Parker is a fighter with a fierce set of principles.  It got her through learning to cope with her vision loss.  It gets her through the challenges of practicing long-distance running.  And it's getting her through the more recent loss of her father to an apparent suicide.  But some struggles are impossible to overcome and some forms of blindness affect even the sighted.  When Scott reappears in her life, Parker's attempts to keep everything ordered and together falls apart.

Despite what sounds formulaic, this book surprises.  Just when you think you know the story, Lindstrom takes it someplace else.  I liked being kept on my toes, but there were other things that bothered me.  There is a lot going on in the story.  In addition to her blindness, recent loss of her father, and the reappearance of Scott, there is an aborted relationship with another runner, squabbles with her cousin, and various drams with her friends.  I found that a bit annoying as the story grew hard to track and there were a lot of characters in it. But it was also nice when things happened that seemed more real for avoiding stereotypes.  There's no real resolution in the story either, which will drive some folks batty!

Friday, April 01, 2016

Unidentified Suburban Object, by Mike Jung

Being the only Asian-American in her school draws Chloe Cho a lot of unwanted attention.  And it annoys her to no end that people think she's Chinese or Japanese, or think nothing of spouting cultural stereotypes ("oh, you must be so smart!" etc.) about her.  But more maddening is the way that her parents keep dodging her questions about life back in Korea.  Why won't they answer her questions?

In seventh grade, Chloe's new social studies teacher turns out to actually be Korean as well.  Chloe finally has a way to get answers to her questions!  But what she finds out isn't exactly what she was expecting.  And the revelation about her origins shifts everything that Chloe thought she knew about herself.

An unusual book that, for its first half, plays as a typical celebration-of-diversity/self-discovery story, full of sharp observations of the way that well-meaning people can say terribly thoughtless racist things.  The book could very well have stayed that way and been a darling of librarians seeking to flesh out their middle reader diversity offerings.  Chloe's struggles are quite enlightening and her strong personality makes her appealing in dealing with them. 

But then, at almost exactly the half-way point, the books takes a very abrupt turn.  I don't want to give away any spoilers so I won't reveal what sort of shift takes place, but it pulls the story out of realism and into science fiction.  In doing so, the book stands out as a really unique offering.  But I'm less keen on the result.  Unexpected plot twists need good follow-up and it really seemed like Jung didn't know where to take it.  The result is that the book coasts to the end.  Overall, it's clever but didn't really develop its gimmick.

[I received an Advanced Reviewer's Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  The book is scheduled for release on April 26th.]