Friday, June 24, 2016

A Step Toward Falling, by Cammie McGovern

When Emily and a football player named Lucas confess to failing to report a rape they witness, their school assigns 40 hours of community service at a center for people with disabilities (the victim Belinda is herself developmentally disabled).  But the service doesn't bring either of the teens closer to terms with what happened or with a desire to achieve closure with the victim.

Belinda meanwhile struggles with understanding what happened to her and, after some time at home, becomes anxious to return to public life, where she sees Emily and Lucas again.  This sets off some awkwardness, but the teens find common ground and develop friendship and mutual understanding.  Told in turns by Emily and Belinda, the story explores relationship building through the surprisingly similar views of the two girls.

The most powerful part of the novel for me was the way that McGovern showed how alike the two girls are.  While Belinda obviously has more trouble expressing herself and was not always so developmentally mature, there was still much that the girls shared in common, with their same anxieties and desires.  The story achieves a sensitive portrayal of developmental disability that is honest and insightful.  Emily's and Belinda's strengths and flaws are critically (yet sympathetically) treated and revealed a lot.

I did have trouble accepting that the guilt of the Emily and Lucas was as big of a deal as the story wanted it to be.  Part of the problem is that they are such sympathetic protagonists that the story sets them up to be forgivable (McGovern hedges their culpability with a lot of mitigating circumstances).  But is also just seemed a stretch to claim that what Emily and Lucas did (or did not) do was such a heinous offense.  I wonder if the story might have been stronger without that element which, while central, seemed forced and unnatural.

The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig

Nix and her father travel between times and places. But they are far from rootless.  Dad is obsessed with getting back to Honolulu in 1868, when Nix's mother was still alive.  He could get there if he could find a map of Oahu made in that year.  With their ship and her father's talents, all it takes is a map to sail to any place or time, real or imaginary.  But getting the right map is tricky.

What seems like a solution at last leaves them tantalizingly close:  in Hawai’i, but two decades too late.  And instead of finding what they want, and become embroiled in a fantastical plot to destroy the monarchy and force the islands into America’s grasp.

A stunning and novel fantasy that combines motley characters, a small dash of real history, and a great psychological conflict between father and daughter.  It doesn’t always make sense and there is little emotional depth, but it is a thrilling adventure with lots of fun moments.  A dash of Indiana Jones with a TARDIS thrown in for good measure!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Roses, by G. R. Mannering

She is a foundling and her mother and father a mystery.  But when she is brought to Ma Dane's home she is taken in without a word.  Her silvery skin and amethyst eyes scare everyone in town.  They fear her and they hate her, and yet call her "Beauty." Raised cruelly, she lives in loneliness broken only by her discovery of her talent with and love for horses.  Yet even those early days are idyllic compared to what awaits her when she must flee for her life.  Mortals and magic beings break out in war.  Though she claims no magic of her own, her appearance is enough to make her suspect and threatens her existence.

Life in exile has additional challenges and Beauty and the stable hand of her old home who helped her escape struggle to integrate her into life in the hills with superstitious mountain people.  Despite the challenges, they manage and flourish until a day when he is delayed returning home.  When he does return, in poor health and bearing a curse, Beauty must ride into an enchanted forest where a terrible and ghastly creature awaits her.

It's a very dark and languorous retelling of  Beauty and the Beast (but one where the Beast doesn't even appear until 200 pages in!).  Instead, the focus is on Beauty's life before the two encounter each other.  Mannering's attempt to subvert the Disneyfication of the story is brilliant, from the early destruction of the candelabra (poor Lumiere!) to the fact that Beauty arrives illiterate.  In this world, the enchanted furnishing are sinister and threatening, not inviting us to dance.  And themes of jealousy and vengeance predominate.

Mannering's style is fast-paced but also quite busy.  Many characters and subplots are introduced, but not all are resolved (lending to future twists in the sequels, one supposes).  The writing itself is full of cliches and prone to overstatement.  The snow did not merely fall in this world, but instead it "fluttered from the gaping sky like pearly droplets." A character does not walk into a room, but enters "with a sweep of her bejeweled dressing gown." And so on.  The words are very pretty, but largely chosen without regard for furthering the meaning of the story.  It grows tiresome as we go and one just starts skipping adjectives, adverbs, and empty metaphors.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Dumplin', by Julie Murphy

Go big or go home.  Willowdean (or "Dumplin'" as her Mom calls her) has always been a husky girl.  And while she's generally comfortable with her body, it has not escaped her notice that her mother isn't.  Mom is a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet queen and the obsessed organizer of the pageant.  She'd wish her daughter were one of the thin wisps worthy of a crown, or at least try to become one.  Will naturally resents this and hatches a plot to settle the matter for all by competing in the pageant.  Much to Willowdean's delight, her mother is horrified by the thought.  Far from a victory, though, even Will recognizes that she faces not simply defeat, but also humiliation and ridicule on the walkway.  And in spite of her confidence, Will's relationship with her body is complicated.  When a handsome and athletic boy named Bo shows an interest in her, she can't accept that she is worthy of his affection.

I enjoyed Murphy's sophisticated take on body self-image.  I also liked the complexity of the relationships in Willowdean's life (whether with Bo, her BFF El, friend Mitch, or her mother).  But the story was cluttered with characters and subplots, and it suffered from its ambition.  Concepts like Will's love of Dolly Parton or the rather crucial loss of Will's beloved aunt seemed buried amidst so many less-important threads.  Thus, this was a near miss -- many wonderful ideas, but imperfectly realized.

Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead

When Georges and his family move in to the building, and he's urged by his father to meet some new kids, he’s not sure he wants to make any new friends.  But a sign in the basement announcing a “Spy Club” sounds like fun.  It turns out to be run by a boy his age named Safer.  Safer’s a little strange, spending the day watching the building’s other tenants and spying on them.  He convinces Georges that one of the tenants is actually a murderer and recruits Georges to help him uncover the crime.

Meanwhile, Georges struggles at school with bullies, with missing his Mom who’s stuck at the hospital where she works, and the whole relocation.  But Safer’s adventures provide him with distraction and escape until Georges learns that things aren't exactly the way safer has presented them.

Liar & Spy is a compact story with a lot of twists (perhaps a few more than were actually necessary).  It's a fun read that explores what I'll call the purpose of truth and the value of lies.  If that seems an unfairly cryptic summary, it's still the best I can do without providing spoilers.  I found it original and fascinating, in a way that Stead's books often are.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ava and Pip, by Carol Weston

Taking a brief break from traumatized teens to pick up a light and thoroughly enjoyable middle reader....

Ava is a whiz with words.  She's a perfect speller (acing every test in fifth grade) and fascinated with palindromes, homonyms, metaphors, similes, and everything else word-related.  She's also quite a writer.  But most of all, she's a loyal sibling.  Seeing her older sister Pip struggling to navigate the social minefields of seventh grade, mobilizes Ava to take action.  When a new girl in school Bea lures all of Pip's friends away, Ava pens a story that attacks the girl.  It seems harmless and cathartic, but when the story gets published, Ava discovers that being nasty to others has a way of coming back to you.

I grew a bit weary of the wordplay, but younger readers will probably find much of it to be giggle-worthy.  What I did like was the close relationship of Ava and Pip, and the honest and open communication between the maligned Bea and Ava.  In fact, pretty much all of the human interactions in the book felt honest and real. After reading so many books for teens where the drama usually centers around people not communicating, it's nice to see children and adults being intelligent and responsible, even when they are also flawed.  It would have been so easy to blow up the conflicts in this book, but Weston lets everyone just work things out.  The overall result is a gentle story about kids learning communication and social navigation skills.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Summer I Found You, by Jolene Perry

Kate and Aidan are both battling their private demons and more alike than they (or anyone else) realizes.  She's struggling with a recent diagnosis as a diabetic, mostly in denial and failing to manage her condition.  He's an injured vet, missing an arm, and unable to come to terms with his change in fortune or what his options for the future are.  At first, the two of them find solace in living in denial of their situations together.  But as the real world makes that less and less feasible, they come to understand that, if they value their relationship together, they need to take some time out and fix up their lives.

Two interesting protagonists with a painfully obvious solution in front of them.  I'll agree it isn't easy to make the right decisions even when they are blatantly obvious.  However, it is a strain on the reader to maintain interest in a story line that relies upon keeping the characters stubborn as long as is feasibly possible.  That can feel a bit artificial.  Especially so, when resolving the drama is achieved by simply having the characters change their minds. And while I get how events pushed Kate into cleaning up her life, I'm less convinced by Aidan's eventual coming round.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Kissing Ted Callahan (and Other Guys), by Amy Spalding

When the other two members of their band start dating each other, Riley and Reid decide they need to start doing serious research and catch up.  They decide to start a journal, taking turns making notes about their attempts to win over their crushes and also offer each other advice about the opposite sex.  Reid, nervous and insecure, struggles to accept that anyone could love him, but Riley dives in headfirst with three separate guys.  There's Garrick (the boy with a famous TV star ex-), Milo (older and capable of scoring fake IDs for getting into over-21 shows), and most importantly Ted Callahan -- Riley's #1 crush.  But shuffling all these guys soon becomes too complicated to manage, let alone document.

Witty and humorous, this is a fluffy book.  I didn't really find Riley's tales of conquest all that interesting and Reid's ethically-suspect romantic pursuit strategies (involving pretending to adopt a pet) didn't click for me.  More than usual, this is a book for a different demographic that takes the story in the casual way for which it was intended.  At least it's a fast read!

The Summer I Wasn't Me, by Jessica Verdi

When Lexi’s mother finds her secret portfolio of drawings, Mom freaks out at their homoerotic content.  Mom’s been unstable since Dad passed away and Lexi is terrified that this incident will push her over the edge.  So, when her mother demands that Lexi enroll at a treatment facility to get cured of her “disease,” Lexi feels powerless to resist.  Even though she knows that her sexual attraction to girls is unlikely to change.

Lexi is sent to the New Horizons program, a residential program of brainwashing and indoctrination to learn how to “de-gay” herself.  Much of the process seems to involve being coerced into traditional gender roles as well as adopting heterosexual behavior.  With her mother’s sanity on the line, Lexi is desperate to somehow straighten her life out.  But the program and her new friends there have the opposite effect.

It’s hard to ignore the offensiveness of the religious stereotyping that goes on in the novel.  At the very least, there are a lot of cheap shots as the obviously hypocritical adults spout off soundbites culled from an urban liberal's idea of what conservative Christians believe. At best, Verdi is just being a lazy writer (and not a bigot!), but it soured me on the book.  And by the time that the “exorcist” showed up, Verdi basically flew into absurdity, dragging out every stupid and offensive stereotype about organized religion she could find.

Moving beyond the offensive stuff, Lexi's journey is enjoyable to follow.  From starry-eyed romantic to a young woman willing to commit her life to another person, Lexi’s growth as a person (and maturing of her sexual orientation) is dramatic and stunning.  She’s helped along the way by strong and complex characters like Matthew (who talks tough yet carries secret fears), the beautiful Caroline (who submits to brainwashing and painful interrogations because she can’t come to terms with herself), and Daniel’s fear-driven Judas act.

So, I liked the characters and much of the story, but for a much more compelling and nuanced story about reparative therapy, see Emily Danforth's The Miseducation of Cameron Post (reviewed on May 19, 2012). It contains much of what I liked here and skips the unnecessary digs against religion.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Five Summers, by Una LaMarche

Four girls spent five summers together at a camp in New England.  Three years after their last summer together, they've come back for a camp reunion.  They approach their gathering with mixed emotions, but they all underestimate how much they had changed since those summers.  Coming back together highlights not just those changes, but also exposes secrets that they never revealed to each other in the past, despite their closeness.  Doing so now threatens to destroy friendships that they expected would last forever.

This is the novel I thought Proof of Forever (reviewed a month ago) was going to be (and it would have been albeit for it's weird fantasy twist) -- a story of childhood friendships revisited and infantile relationships matured.  There's a tremendous potential emotional punch here as the girls strip each other bare through sheer familiarity.  However, LaMarche has trouble delivering that punch.  The first 250 pages of this novel dragged for me as we traveled through rising tensions and unrevealing flashbacks.  In the last 100 pages, the book starts to pay off and the actual climactic blow up is gripping, but it deflated fast afterwards.

I liked the girls and their quirks and differences were well-portrayed.  The setting felt authentic and sent me back on a nostalgic trip through my own experiences with sleep-over camp in New England.  But the story just dragged and then, just as it was getting interesting, came to a screeching halt.  Unlike her more compelling sophomore effort (Like No Other), this first novel doesn't stand out.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Kissing in America, by Margo Rabb

Eva is obsessed with romance novels, and in the two years since her father died she's read over a hundred of them (slacker!).  But now she's had a taste of the real thing with Will -- a boy who seems to really get her.  That is, until he moves away to California, leaving her bereft (much to the chagrin of her feminist academic mother).  All seems lost to Eva until her best friend Annie wins a slot on a game show taping in Los Angeles.  This provides a pretext for Eva and Annie to set off on an unlikely road trip across the continent, finding out a great deal about their families and the nature of love along the way.

An entertaining story of high improbability that explores some of the more irrational elements of romantic obsession.  I found Eva herself to be grating and melodramatic.  Ironically, this makes her funny at times, but there's no getting away from how self-absorbed she is.  Most of the rest of the characters are stereotypes (some of them -- like the cowboys in Texas -- are lazy and borderline offensive).  But I don't think that depicting great characters was the point!   Somewhat more crucial is the dearth of actual romance in this tribute to love.  Despite the book's title, there doesn't really seem to be that much kissing going on across the country!

My Life After Now, by Jessica Verdi

Lucy has a slew of problems (absent mother, straying boyfriend, failure to get the lead in the school's production of Romeo and Juliet, etc.), but all of these pale compared to the consequences of one irresponsible evening.  Finding herself HIV-positive changes everything and puts the rest in perspective  The bulk of the novel then depicts how she struggles with the diagnosis and with how to relate to her family and friends in this new light.

I found the storytelling pedantic at times, like Verdi was lecturing us, and Lucy's character was uneven and inconsistent.  But overall, there are so many wonderful scenes in this novel that I can forgive the rough spots along the way.  The story's crowded and cluttered plot became surprisingly organic and the author seemed quite comfortable with complicated and fitting together initially unrelated characters.  I liked the story's overall message that life truly does go on, even if you're struggling with a terminal illness.  Finally, there's something to be said for bringing out an HIV story in this day and age.  I haven't seen one in a long time and it isn't a bad thing to dust it off and remind younger readers that AIDS still kills even if it's not in the headlines much anymore.