Saturday, December 30, 2017

Bluff, by Julie Dill

The bills never get paid, no matter how many times Chelsea's Dad promises that he'll get a better job and start making money.  Simply being a teenager in Chelsea's affluent high school is expensive.  Things like cheer squad costs serious money, but when the electricity is getting cut off, Chelsea has to make choices. 

That is, until Chelsea stumbles over the idea of gambling as a means to earn cash.  Sneaking into a casino as an underage player is scary, but Chelsea is driven and determined.  She's also talented and discovers that poker is an easy way for her to make serious money.  But what she is doing is illegal and dangerous, and affecting the rest of her life.  As gambling consumes her, she has more and more trouble sorting her life so that no one at school or at home figures out where she spends her nights.

Through fast-paced storytelling, Dill does a good job of showing how Chelsea's skills at the table develop, as well as the growing appeal of the gambling addiction.  In a brief story like this, Chelsea gets most of the attention while the other characters are largely neglected.  The romantic interest never gels and thus seems a bit of a waste.  An interesting subplot about a fellow gambler held similar lost promise. All that said, I really enjoyed the story.  However, I think it is fair to say that the ending is a bit cruel.

A Short History of the Girl Next Door, by Jared Reck

Matt and Tabby have been neighbors and inseparable friends since childhood.  Tabby has basically lived over at Matt's house and been like a member of the family.  Somewhere along the line, Matt has fallen in love with Tabby (although he's never had the guts to admit it to her).  And so he watches hopelessly as she has fallen in love with a star player on the basketball team.  The jealousy he experiences drives him crazy and threatens to tear their friendship apart, until tragic events overtake their relationship altogether.

I'm never a fan of the random plot twist and this one delivers quite a punch half way through the book.  Perhaps, the love triangle is an overdone story, but Reck really does a nice job with it.  The strength of Reck's storytelling is Matt, who he's fleshed out with authentic sensitivities and anxieties (transcending the obligatory bro-nonsense that permeates depictions of adolescence masculinity).  So, why not let the story be about what it started being about:  boy learns to simply love his friend and be friends with his love?  The plot twist seemed more an invention for Reck to extend the story, as if he had run out of things to say and wanted a higher page count.  And it ruined a good story.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Lonely Ones, by Kelsey Sutton

Told in verse for the expected added level of poignancy, The Lonely Ones tells of Fain's struggle to form connections in a world where she feels ignored and neglected.  Unable to form friendships she can rely on and feeling cut off from even her own family, she retreats into a nightly fantasy world of "monsters" who take her up into the stars on grand adventures.  Still, opportunities for friendships do exist and, despite the dangers of the real world, Fain tentatively reaches out.  Doing so, she finds that (no matter how fractured her family) shared tragedy will bring them back together.

It's not a story that breaks any new ground, but it works as a pleasant exploration of the bonds of family and friendship, a meditation upon risking one's heart, and thoughts on taking risks in general.  The format is not a great style with which to develop characters and the temptation to produce anodyne "poetry" is always strong.  But good examples are effective mood pieces and I found this one pleasant and enjoyable.

Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

When Aza and her best friend Daisy hear about a reward for locating the missing billionaire Russell Picket, they decide to haul out their sleuthing skills.  Aza and Pickett's son Davis go way back but they haven't seen each other in years. The search for the Dad brings them back together and sparks a romance.  However, there is a complication:  Aza suffers from an obsessive form of hypochondria that manifests as an intense fear of infection.  The idea of kissing (with its exchange of fluids and germs) is a pretty formidable concept, let alone dating a guy. A number of subplots (pondering impending graduation, Daisy's exciting career in Star Wars fan fic, lost and deceased parents, and underground art) also play a role.

John Green can be very good, but when he misses, he misses big time.  I found this particular book to be aimless, aiming for deep meaning but mostly ending in navel gazing.  The title itself is a reference to a pretty meaningless analogy about the meaning of life.  The whole book is like that.  And the characters are pretty flat.  Daisy and Aza have some interesting sparks and their friendship is the best part of the book, but nothing really develops from their arguments.  The romances just peter out (let's say that Green's strength is not in the romantic literature department).  And the key strength of a Green novel -- humor -- is strangely absent in this largely earnest novel.

Fragile Like Us, by Sara Barnard

Caddie and Rosie are inseparable best friends until the day that Suzanne shows up.  Initially, Suzanne is clearly Roz’s friend, but Caddie wishes she could know the dangerous and carefree Suzanne better.  And, as if to answer her wish, Suzanne opens up and confides to Caddie, but it is a bit more than Caddie expects.

Suzanne comes from an abusive home and as Caddie learns more, she wants to help the girl and be a good friend.  But Caddie is definitely out of her depth and her parents, Roz, and even Suzanne herself try to warn her away.  Caddie however is in too deep, unable to reject her new friend and unable to judge that things have gone too far.

While slow starting, I was taken in by the familiarity of the story.  Of how urgent everything seemed in adolescence and how hard it was to tell just how far friendship should go.  Like Caddie, I often flattered myself imagining that I had the knowledge and skills to take care of any problem I came across.  And I didn’t know when to get help and when to pull back.  So, to say I related to Caddie’s anxiety about doing the right thing and being a good friend is a bit of an understatement.

As the story progressed, I ended up really caring for these three girls and the bond they have.  The signs of destruction are everywhere, and Barnard so realistically depicts the development of these friendships that it all seemed quite believable.  Suzanne can be disgustingly manipulative, but it is easy to see how Caddie and Rosie exploit the situation as well.  And those tangled threads were very seductive to read.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Words on Bathroom Walls, by Julia Walton

Adam suffers from schizophrenia, seeing and hearing people who are not there.  He knows that there is no cure and it is a condition that he will always have to live with, but a new drug trial gives him hope for a means of coping with his hallucinations.  And, if he can cope, he might be able to live a normal life.  That’s important to him for fitting in at school, and also for winning over his new girlfriend Maya.  But what if Maya learns of his condition?

Tracing the difficulties of managing adolescence and a serious mental illness at the same time, Walton touches on a variety of different facets including school, family, and long-term survival skills.  Still, the story never really sought great depth.  I get that it is difficult for writers to express the ways that adolescent boys really do have feelings, but it gets frustrating to have Adam toggle between the cliché horny/thoughtless/violent impulse that I have complained about here before, at the neglect of the hurt and frustration of living with an illness.  Maya is an interesting character but told through his eyes, we don’t really get much chance to get to know her.  And we don’t really learn all that much about mental illness either.

The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, by Lauren Karcz

Mercedes’s grandmother is dying back in San Juan and Mom has gone back to care for her, leaving Mercedes and her sister to their own devices.  Mercedes should be working on a follow-up to her hugely successful painting, Food Poisoning #1, but she is stuck in a rut.  At this rate, she'll have nothing to submit for the annual show and her chances of getting into art school are dimming.  But she is simply not able to capture any inspiration and instead endlessly listening to her favorite band The Firing Squad.

But then neighbor Lilia offers to take Mercedes to her own studio, which turns out to be an abandoned apartment building.  It is a magical place.  Seemingly alive, strange things occur, but it is also a place where one can find one’s muse and where Mercedes is able to create amazing works of art.  There’s only one big catch:  the artwork can never leave.  She is faced with a choice:  between living in this space where her art can bloom or denying it all and being stuck outside in the real world.

An odd and dreamy work which explores artistic creativity as a concept through this rather unusual setting.  The studio itself is creepy, but never entirely scary.  And the story never quite commits to being fantasy or horror, just as it never quite commits to realism.  That leaves it in an uncomfortable place.  The pace is slow and dream-like, with most of the action – so to speak – taking place in alternate realities.  It’s hard to know where we are heading.  I found it hard to focus on and missed a few details (having to go back and re-read passages) so that part was frustrating.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Gravity, by Leanne Lieberman

Ellie and her sister struggle with how to fit their Orthodox Jewish faith in with their other needs.  Ellie's sister wants to go to college and study business.  Ellie's problem runs deeper:  she likes girls (or at least she thinks she might).  When she spends the summer at her aunt's cottage, she falls in love with an adventuresome (but disturbed) young woman who is willing to experiment with her.  And while the relationship is a revelation to Ellie, it triggers a crisis of faith as she explores how Orthodoxy views homosexuality.  At the same time, Ellie's mother is also experiencing challenges to her faith and the two women's journeys are nicely juxtaposed.

I have a soft spot for intelligent books about faith.  And while this one doesn't resolve its central crisis, it introduces and explores it in a very informed way.  Orthodox Judaism would be easy to caricature or demonize (think of the novel Hush) and Lieberman touches on some of the community's darker corners.  But the key focus of the story is the spiritual journey of Ellie and her family -- each of whom have slightly different paths to explore. I also appreciate that as far removed from her faith as Ellie got, Lieberman still wanted to depict the tie it holds over her and honor that rather than see it as a burden.  This is not a story about breaking free from faith, but of finding new meaning in faith.

The Lake Effect, by Erin McCahan

Briggs has what ought to be an easy summer job: helping an old lady take care of her beach house on Lake Michigan.  He’s good with old ladies – charming them the way he charms most women.  The summer is just a minor detour on his long-term career plans to go to college, law school, and make a lot of money.  Spending some time on the beach, taking care of an elderly woman, and perhaps meeting a local girl for some fun is just a chance to relax.

But he isn’t expecting stubborn and determined Mrs. Bozic. Nor the girl next door who is resistant to his charms.  And during a summer of home improvement, the quest for the perfect blue paint, funeral shopping with Mrs. B, and more than a few discussions about death, Briggs will learn a lot about life and plans.

At times charming and hilarious, I found myself ultimately defeated by the unevenness of the novel (the overuse of chapter breaks didn’t help much either!).  The story's strength is its characters.  Mrs. B was, of course, hilarious and a lovely foil to Briggs’s cavalier arrogance.  Girl next door Abigail seemed less valuable (this is not a story that really needs a romance and it did not get too far).  Briggs was the usual snarky crude boy with a heart of gold that YA writers love and girls will apparently tolerate.

I do wish we could move beyond the idea that boys’ books need to have fart jokes and petty humiliation to attract male readers.  It’s a tiresome cliché and ultimately promotes the idea that boys should be callous and rude to each other (if there is a more fundamental cause of rape culture, I don’t know it!).  And in this case, it is such a contrast to the decent things that Briggs does.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Secret of Nightingale Wood, by Lucy Strange

Since her older brother Robert died, Henrietta's mother has been depressed and secluded in her bedroom.  Dr. Hardy says she needs to be left alone and he gives her strong psychoactive drugs to control her hysteria.  Henry is convinced that the doctor's treatment is hurting Mom and she longs see her.  But with father away, the staff obey the doctor and mother's condition grows worse.

So, it falls on Henry to rescue her family from the doctor and his nefarious ambitions.  With the help of the neighbors, an old family lawyer, and a witch in the woods, Henry will do so.  And in the process uncover some historical mysteries along the way.  Set in the early 1920s, this story will appeal to fans of The Secret Garden, with its combination of adventure and personal development.

Either derivative or a tribute to that long tradition of young girls exploring scary woods and saving the day, there's not much new here, but it's an enjoyable read.  I found the ending drawn out and full of far-too-neat wrap-ups, but the story itself contained suspense and a brave girl to root for.

[Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  When I am finished, I will donate the book to my local public library]

Summer Unscripted, by Jen Klein

When Rain becomes the recipient of heartthrob actor Tuck’s impassioned monologue, she’s starstruck.  He needs her!  She knows that she has to spend the summer with him, which is going to be difficult because he's away for the summer playing a role in the cast of Zeus! (a musical based loosely on Greek mythology). She knows nothing about the theater at all and spending the summer working musical theater has surprises.

But the biggest surprise of all is finding out that Tuck doesn’t turn out to be quite the pick that she imagined.  Instead, it is moody staff photographer Milo that captures her fancy and takes her to parts unknown.

Pretty silly stuff in all.  And, as Rain’s roommate protests, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a girl with two cute guys who like her.  The summer stock stuff is fun, of course (especially, if you’ve ever done the work) but there’s not a whole lot else here except the usual escapism.  Light entertainment.