Friday, September 30, 2016

Love & Gelato, by Jenna Evans Welch

After her mother dies, Lina discovers that she has a father in Italy whom she’s never met.  With her only other living relative (grandmother) too old to care for her, she’s sent to him.  Upon arriving, she is greeted by another surprise:  her mother’s journal, covering the period of time that Mom spent in Italy and the story of how she met Lina's father.  But the more Lina learns, the more complicated she finds that history is.  With the help of a boy next door, her search takes her across Florence and all the way to Rome, stopping at a number of beautiful and romantic sites.

Meanwhile, Lina’s own love life is taking off.  Torn between the neighbor and a super hot guy she met at a party, she finds herself making all the wrong choices.  In the end, it will take a major intervention (in the form of The Dress) to make all things right.

In other words, it is silly romantic stuff.  Dead mother, hot but clueless guy, sensitive guy who conveniently makes himself available, lots of unsupervised time, food and clothes without financial worries, and of course a heroine who is shy and bashful yet sexier than she knows (obviously, since she can score any guy she wants!).  Of course, the book was fun to read, but not terribly good for you – the literary equivalent of gelato.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, by Kelly Jones (ill. Katie Kath)

Sophia, her Mom, and her Dad have moved to her late great uncle's farm in Gravenstein.  Her Mom is busy writing free-lance articles all day and her Dad is trying (without success) to find a job and (halfheartedly) working out how to run the place.  Soph doesn't know what to do herself until the day she comes across one very angry chicken, that is, a very angry chicken that has telekinetic powers and lays glass eggs!  Then another chicken shows up that can disappear and another that moves super fast.  She doesn't know much about taking care of chickens, but even without the help of her local librarian she can tell these are unusual chickens.  Some guidance from the local Redwood Farm Supply company gives her the basics, but there are some tricky challenges in the form of a sinister neighbor and her own special poultry.  Soph will have to become a truly exceptional carer of chickens if this is going to work out!

A lovely middle reader that combines entertaining facts about raising poultry with some fantasy and magic (and lots of amusing illustrations).  Mostly told through letters that Sophia writes to her late grandmother and to the owner of the Supply complany, Soph is revealed to be resourceful and insightful.  In an age appropriate way, she is not always strong enough for her challenges but still determined, brave, and well-grounded.  CCBC called this book out for the fact that she's also Latina, but not a lot is made of that (which is precisely what makes the book special).  I found the book a lovely break from the darkness of teen reading and also enjoyed its Sonoma county setting as well as the chickens themselves.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Fall of Butterflies, by Andrea Portes

When Willa says goodbye to her misfit friends at the "freak table" and that she will see them soon, she knows she is lying.  It's not because she is getting out of What Cheer IA and getting to attend a snooty rich person's school in the East and hopes to never return. It's because she knows that she intends to soon end her life out there.

But those intentions get quickly sidetracked.  The new school takes her by surprise.  There's a brief encounter with the supernatural which brings her into the orbit of a golden girl named Remy.  Remy lives a privileged life and she and her friends introduce Willa to how the 1% live and party.  It's a completely alien lifestyle and Willa is in over her head. Initially star struck, she comes to understand the ugly underbelly of Remy's life.

Combining the usual tropes of the boarding school genre (drugs, lack of supervision, and very little studying) and the stereotypes of simple honest Midwesterners and jaded jetset Easterners, you're not going to find much originality here.  Willa's voice is entirely too mature for her age, but it fits the story which is mostly about driving home the message that nice girls end up first in the end (and drugs and sex don't really solve anything).  The plot meanders a bit and a number of subplots just fizzle away (including Willa's suicidal intentions).  Still, it's a brisk read and enough of a decent fantasy to make it enjoyable.  If you like these sort of stories, I'd suggest e Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks as an alternative.

100 Days of Cake, by Shari Goldhagen

A year ago, Molly had a breakdown at a swim meet and subsequently was diagnosed with depression.  And since then, Molly has wallowed and tread water.  Her mother and sister don't know how to deal with her and respond and dramatically different ways.  Mom keeps baking her cakes in the mistaken hope that they will pick her up (unfortunately, she's a bad cook!).  But her sister, instead, is perpetually angry at her and acts out.  As for Molly, she can't seem to pull herself out of her funk.  The sole bright spot is her job at a fish store.  But when the owner announces that he's shutting down, she doesn't know how she'll keep things together.

A slow and frustrating story that is sort of about depression, but meanders into lots of other territory -- inappropriate relationships, Golden Girls episodes, eighties and nineties music (is there any other?), and sisters.  There are some girl-loses-boy action, but this isn't a romance, but more about self-help.  There are a few bright spots, but ultimately this just treads water, much like its heroine.

Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo

After her father leaves her mother for a dental hygienist, Raymie hatches a plan to get him back by winning the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition.  To pull this off however, she needs to learn how to twirl a baton.  And so she finds herself in Ida Nee’s class.  She never manages to learn much about baton twirling, but she does befriend two other girls, Louisiana and Beverley.  The "Three Rancheros" (as they call themselves) set out to do good deeds and end up rescuing library books and abandoned dogs along the way.

This period piece, set in the mid-70s, is the usual mix of DiCamillo’s folksy absurdity and dry humor, making the book a brisk and enjoyable read.  It will remind readers of her (much better) debut Because of Winn Dixie for the humor and the memorable characters.  And while this is not her best book, it is hard not to like her gentle storytelling.  For drama, there are some dicey moments with animals in peril, but everything ends up well in the end.  And a short wrap up with her father at the end avoids sentimentality while providing satisfaction.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Elements of Evil, by Brooke Arnold

Bernice is searching for a hero and what better way to unearth a hero but to have an evil villain on the loose?  She's ready to fit the bill of the evil genius through a series of scientific pranks.  It's been hard to be the little sister to the popular and respected Edith, but Bernice is certain that her plots will both make her mark on the world and let her nemesis sister prove her heroic qualities.

An energetic and irrepressible middle reader for the scientifically-minded.  Perfectly tuned to encourage girls into STEM fields, Bernice's enthusiasm for chemistry and science in general will interest young readers.  There's not much drama or story, but the story is packed with interesting fun scientific facts.  And what young budding scientist doesn't fantasize about flirting with evil?  Personally, I found the structure (basically, just journal entries and a few pieces of ephemera) too jumpy and impersonal, but it works and I think that younger readers will get caught up in the action.  It will play less well with readers who enjoy character development over action.

Another feature that readers will like is a wonderful secret code used throughout the book which, once you figure it out, provides hours of additional fun decoding.  (Full disclosure:  I figured out the basic principles of the code, but was too lazy to actually do the work!)

My one complaint is the design of the book.  There are lovely illustrations and a nice balance between text and ephemera, but the font used was horrible.  Cramped and weighted a too light, the type used in the book was uncomfortable and unpleasant to read.  It would be a shame for a lovely original story like this to be rejected by its potential readers because it just looked bad!

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.  I will be donating the book to my local public library and have received no other compensation]

Friday, September 16, 2016

Suffer Love, by Ashley Herring Blake

Hadley and Sam are both experiencing families that are coming apart (or already have broken up) because of infidelity.  And this shared suffering and alienation from their parents, despite expectations to the contrary, draws them to each other.

But it is all based on a secret (one which Sam knows but Hadley does not) -- that their similar situation is no coincidence.  Against the odds, the woman that Hadley's father cheated with is Sam's mother.  Should Sam tell her?  He worries that the revelation will poison the trust that they have developed.  But what sort of trust is based upon a secret?

The result is a surprisingly effective meditation on infidelity, betrayal, trust, and forgiveness.  This is taken on in a variety of forms.  Beyond their parent's indiscretion, there are the breaks between parents and child and the break between Sam and his sister.  And, just to drive the point home, the relationships that Hadley has with another boy, his relationship with his girlfriend, and a relationship and breakup between Hadley and Sam's BFFs add more complexity.  As I started reading it, it all seemed quite random, but Blake stitched it all together nicely.  I enjoyed the way that she was about to universalize the story.

The Unexpected Everything, by Morgan Matson

Andie likes to have things planned out and to avoid surprises.  She’s got her summer all figured out, but then her father is accused of public corruption and her summer scholarship is cancelled.  Suddenly, she’s in free-fall and finds herself working as a dog walker…and she doesn’t know the first thing about taking care of pets!

But for a summer where nothing happens as expected, wonderful things are occurring:  her Dad is spending time at home and the two of them are finally getting close.  She’s falling in love.  But a life without plans is a life where everything is unexpected and that will challenge her in all sorts of ways.

It’s a very long (500+ pages) rom-com with a lot of rambling.  Obviously, some editing would have helped.  While there are no real plot surprises, the story also came with a few character surprises of note.  I usually don’t like YA parents and I’m leery of going with the middle aged guy (since I resemble him and he usually is a dweeb or an idiot or both) but Andie's father is a hilarious character and gets to have all the good scenes (Mom is, of course, dead – as so often happens in YA!).  But a few good characters does change the fact that the story is basically the typical jealousies, insecurities, parties, texting sessions (with some emojis to keep this hip), and some pretty over-the-top romantic comedy tropes (the ending is literally stolen from Notting Hill).  It’s lovely beach read stuff.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dream Things True, by Marie Marquardt

Evan is the nephew of a US senator: a rich white kid with well-honed soccer skills and a sports scholarship waiting for him.  Alma is a smart and poised young woman who dreams of attending college and escaping her family's life of hard manual work and poor wages.  But nothing is that simple when you're undocumented.  And what Evan takes for granted in his life -- safety and security -- are the things that Alma most longs for.  It's a love story of two kids from very different backgrounds who find themselves in the middle of the immigration debate. 

Marquandt, who is herself well ensconced in the issues, has a lot to tell the reader.  Authors on a crusade tend to write pedantic and preachy books.  This novel, to its credit, more often than not avoids that curse, but it is lying there just under the surface.  And through the voices of Alma's guidance counselor and an immigration lawyer, we are treated to a earful of facts and figures.

My other complaint is the way the story ended, but that's more personal preference than an issue in the writing.  There is little happiness in the end and even less closure, as Marquardt has chosen a realistic (but not very dramatically satisfying) finale.   I accepted it, but it was frustrating nonetheless.  But perhaps that is a good thing?  This is a good story that introduces a lot of issues that sheltered readers (such as myself) will have given little thought to.  At a time when it is easy to speak of walls and simplistic solutions to complex problems, it is good to have a reminder that life is complicated and doesn't always have closure.  A related criticism is the huge swath of issues covered in the novel.  In addition to immigration itself, Marquardt also tackles sexual violence, teen pregnancy, racism and prejudice, privilege, and marital discord.  At times, these seemed distracting, but it is to the author's credit that the story has room for so much else going on (just as in real life!).

It would also be a mistake to see this as only an issues story, as the characters are multifaceted and memorable.  Alma and Evan are interesting characters, full of strong feelings and the integrity to carry through on them, but at the same time idealistic and naive enough to be plausibly adolescent.  The supporting characters (Evan's cousin, Alma's friends, and the guidance counselor in particular) play surprising roles that break free of typical YA tropes.  Finally, antagonists in this world have an uncanny ability to become heroes here.

Dream Things True then is a busy book with characters that have a lot on their minds and a story that allows them the leeway to explore most of it.  The freedom to pursue dreams is key among the themes, but the reality that the world does not always grant wishes, that so much else is going on at the same time, and that people are neither good nor evil are the means for Marquardt to create a truly multidimensional story of life.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Queen of Hearts, by Colleen Oakes

In Wonderland, Princess Dinah is counting the days until her coronation, when she will share power with her bloodthirsty father, the King of Hearts.  But Dinah has never been popular and when her father introduces his bastard daughter to the court, Dinah knows her position is threatened by her greater popularity.

Yet Dinah has friends she doesn't even know and people looking out for her.  An anonymous tip leads her to explore the dungeons for a woman driven insane by the king's torture.  And before she can even come to grips with what it all means, the stakes get raised.  As her nervous aide constantly hectors her, she is late and time is running out.  She must figure out what her father and his evil advisor Cheshire are up to, before she falls afoul of their plots.

This is part one of a series that twists the Wonderland of Alice into something entirely (and unbelievably) weirder.  It's a very dark tale and only loosely related to Lewis Carroll's world, but will amuse people who enjoy alt universes.  It's colorful and Dinah makes a pretty interesting heroine -- a bit rough and intense, but full of plotting and intrigue.  In this first part, there's a lot of exposition and things aren't yet moving along, but future installments look promising.

Forged in the Fire, by Ann Turnbull

In this sequel to No Shame, No Fear, seventeenth century Quakers Will and Susanna have now been apart for the past three years.  Will has completed his apprenticeship in London and is ready to return to Hemsbury to claim Susanna’s hand.  But plague has struck in London and separates the young lovers a bit longer.  And no sooner  do they overcome that challenge, but are set upon by the Great Fire.  Throughout it all, they and their fellow Quakers are subject to cruel persecution that threatens their existence, but not their love or faith.

I love the details and the meticulous research.  And I also love the way that Turnbull's writings mirror those of the early Quakers in tone and tenor.  Still, I wish Turnbull had offered historical notes at some point as so much of this story covers a pretty obscure era in history.    I would definitely suggest reading a well-annotated copy of George Fox’s Journal as background for this novel.
But any of my reservations are overruled by the sheer pleasure of reading a story that combines YA historical literature and well-researched Quaker history.  Beyond the educational angle, the romance remains hot, the characters interesting, and the story briskly paced.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Last Boy and Girl in the World, by Siobhan Vivian

Keeley's hometown of Aberdeen has never had much going for it and most anyone with a chance of success is heading far away.  Still, when flooding threatens the town and the government moves in with plans to demolish the entire place, build a dam, and flood it, Keeley gets caught up in an effort (led by her Dad) to save the town.  But everyone has their own motivations and Keeley isn't always sure of what hers are (much less those of others).  And her friendships and alliances quickly come under strain as people start to show their true colors.

There is a tension between the tragic story of a town being literally consumed by greed and the elements and Keeley's seemingly vain search for love.  At first I (like many other readers apparently) really wanted to read the seemingly more important story of a town's survival.  The counter story about Keeley and her romantic feelings for a special guy seemed distracting and irrelevant.  But about halfway through the story, the heavy rain showers, abandoned buildings, and relocation traumas truly become less significant when compared to the human drama which is playing out.  Based on the other reviews I have read, this is the point when many readers turn to hating the novel, but I was surprised to find that it actually became far more interesting to me.  After all, what could be more interesting than the massive destruction of property?  Maybe the way that hearts can be betrayed by those we love and by our own best-intentioned acts.

The novel ends a tragedy, but one from which the characters will rebuild themselves.  And it is the seeds of hope at the ending which make this moving story worth the read.  Everything else is just window dressing.  After all, if you want to experience the trauma of a town being flooded to make a lake, look at Dorothea Lange's Death of a Valley.  But if you want to read a story about a young woman who fights with all of her heart for what she feels is right, makes terrible misjudgements and pays steeply for them (and yet comes back stronger and wiser), read this book!