Monday, March 26, 2018

Lights, Camera, Disaster, by Erin M. Dionne

Hess Greene loves movies and everything about making them.  Given the option, she would love to do nothing all day but work on them.  But there's always school in the way!  That attitude towards school causes her to ignore her assignments and miss her tests until it seems that it's gone too far and Hess runs the risk of being held back a year.  Can she find a way to fix her life without losing her ability to work on movies?  Or will she in fact fail at both?

A middle reader about a girl with a lot of artistic inspiration but not very much inner discipline.  That makes for a difficult read because her problems, while potentially rooted in physiology, seem mostly to do with an inability to simply sit down and do the work.  It doesn't help that she is also prone to tedious bouts of self-pity that annoy parents, teachers, and friends (and thus the reader as well).  That she eventually turns her life around is what mostly saves this story, but it's a hard trudge.

That said, a character strong enough to annoy you is at least a well-written one!   And Dionne's ear for modern middle school life is admirable.  Young readers will get this story and, if they are forgiving enough about the narrator's faults, may well enjoy her journey.

[Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book from Scholastic Press, in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book goes on sale on March 27, 2018]

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Psalm for Lost Girls, by Katie Bayerl

While she was still alive, people said that Callie's sister Tess was a saint (of the type that performs miracles).  That she might not have lived the life of one was neatly overlooked by the needy town and their overzealous mother.  And when Tess dies young, the fervor to have her beatified grows out of control.

Everyone seems to have an agenda except for Callie, who simply wants her sister to regain the life that others stole from her to make her something she wasn't.  But is Callie really son altruistic?  Does she really have a sober vision of Tess or has she simply found a way to beatified her in her own way?  As the community suffers from a seemingly unrelated child abduction (and then "miraculous" reappearance), questions about Tess's sanctity and Callie's inability to let go come to a head.

The very interesting premise of this novel -- the fine line between grief and honoring the dead -- gets muddied by so many other things in this literary debut.  The story I most wanted to read (the tension between mother and living daughter) is there but clouded and eventually overrun by the psychopath child abductor subplot.  And the similarly interesting story of the two sisters, compounded by their attraction to the same boy, just drops off the radar.  Added to the mix are elements about church conspiracy, a struggling New England community, and a complicit media that make for interesting swirl but largely distract from the meat of the story.  There are so many wonderful ways this story could have gone, but instead it just limps to its meager conclusion amidst unrealized ambitions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Little Something Different, by Sandy Hall

Lea and Gabe are in love with each other and everyone knows it, except them.  So, why not let the rest of the world write their love story for them?

This is the basic premise of Sandy Hall's original and quirky NA story:  a love story between two college students told from the perspective for fourteen different narrators.  Obvious suspects like friends, roommates, and siblings are joined by less obvious voices (teacher, teacher's spouse, bus driver, waitress) and even a few silly ones (the park bench and a friendly neighborhood squirrel).

With so many different points of view, it does become a bit mushy telling the story.  Success relies on each point of view having its own special offering.  And here, I think Hall has overdone it.  The voices are very similar so their distinctiveness relies entirely upon offering a unique viewpoint.  The squirrel and the park bench serve this role quite well (I'm partial to squirrels, so I may be biased), but some of the others blur together.  For example, the bus driver and the waitress are largely the same character and Lea's roommate and Gabe's brother serve basically the same role in the story.  The many perspectives sometimes become redundant and the story loses speed.  There is also the small issue that an obvious romance can only be milked out so long before you just want to shove these people in front of each other (as, in fact, their friends try to do).

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Map for Wrecked Girls, by Jessica Taylor

Ever since Emma betrayed her sister Henri, the two have barely talked to each other.  But when a freak boating accident leaves them stranded on a dessert island, things change (although not for the better).  Along with them is Alex, a boy with a tortured past, that Emma falls in love with.  Meanwhile, Henri drifts away becoming more and more anti-social and distant.  And throughout, the three young people struggle for survival in a very hostile environment.

While the point of the story is supposed to be the loss and reconciliation between two sisters, I found that portion of the story tedious and strained.  The resolution was particularly unsatisfactory, relying on an implausible explanation and a far too easy solution.  The survival tale proved more thought out and mildly suspenseful.  And the juxtaposition of the two very separate stories was ultimately awkward.  It was a hard slog to get through.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dress Codes for Small Towns, by Courtney Stevens

Billie and her friends make up the “Hexagon” – a gang of rowdy and inseparable teens in their small Kentucky town of Otters Hollow.  They’re prone to mischief and pranks.  As the story opens, they’ve managed to nearly burn down Billie’s church in an experiment involving a dirty sock and the church’s aged microwave oven.   

But the kids love their town and they love the annual Corn Dolly Harvest Festival.  The Festival is endangered after the passing of the town’s patriarch and the Hexagon decides that they are going save the Festival.  They launch a massive fundraising campaign and incidentally get Billie nominated for the Corn Dolly Contest – an award given to the woman who is judged to be the epitome of femininity and generosity in Otters Hollow.

That description couldn’t be any further away from androgynous, scruffy, boot-kicking Billie.  And for her, even the idea of “femininity” is hard to grasp.  She’s still trying to figure out if she’s straight or gay – a fact not helped by her interest in both a boy and a girl, or by her desire to keep things platonic.

Part of the key of the Hexagon’s bond is that everyone stays as friends only.  But as they have grown older, that promise is starting to fray.  All of which makes Billie’s sexual orientation an object of speculation.  And in a small town not being easy to compartmentalize is a problem, which complicates her relationship with the town -- a town that she loves, but which may not love her back.

A nice genre defying novel that blows apart stereotypes about the rural South, Christian fundamentalists, and teen gender identity angst.  Billie is a true original – a tomboy who kisses both the boy and the girl (and stays friends with both!).  She can be kind and generous, and still make bad choices.  And her friends are full of mischief and trouble.  Sometimes the cast of characters gets overwhelming but this story feels new and special.  There's lots of energy and personality in the characters and a real small town feel.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

How to Make a Wish, by Ashley Herring Blake

Grace’s mother Maggie is a train wreck, but since the day her Dad was killed overseas, Mom has been the only parent she’s had.  Dragged from one of her mother’s unhealthy relationships to another, Grace has never had much stability.  But she’s had dreams and friends.  The dream: to audition for a piano scholarship in New York.  Her friends: Luca and his Mom who look out for her when things get real bad.  And then, a new girl Eva, who’s just been orphaned and bonds with Grace in ways neither of them expect.  But what good can any hopes, dreams, or wishes do when Grace’s Mom is always there to drag her down again?

A complex story that takes the central conflict between Grace and her mother and ties in so many complicated and wonderful side plots. While Luca and his mother are largely throwaway sidekicks, Eva the orphan girl becomes quite central: as a lover to Grace and also as competition for the affection of Grace’s mother.  The nuanced story between the two girls touches on friendship, romance, and jealousy, and is ultimately critical for Grace’s moment of transcendence.  I’m never a fan of the destructive mother motif, but at least this one focuses on Grace recognizing her codependence and learning to cope with it. That it manages to fit in a meaningful and authentically touching teen romance as well is impressive.

Ultimately uplifting and hopeful, this book beautifully describes a young woman learning to overcome on her own terms the traps laid by her destructive parent.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Wild Bird, by Wendelin Van Draanen

The story opens with Wren, a troubled young teen, being forcibly removed from her home and relocated to a desert boot camp for rehabilitation.  There isn't much mystery about why her parents have taken this drastic step (she's a real handful from the beginning) but as the story starts to fill in the details, the depth of her problems keep growing and growing.

Naturally, as this is a story about healing, Wren comes back from the edge and really rebounds, but it is rough going and fraught with set backs.  Through the harshness of the environment and some really stellar counselors, she develops the self-confidence and self-respect she needs.

Some of this story is a bit overly rosy, but the core of the story (Wren's rebirth) is lovingly handled and beautifully told.  I really did despise her in the beginning and her growth could be maddeningly slow.  But in the end, I could look back and see the progression and feel it was truly authentic, and really appreciate how she had fixed her life  Pacing a story like this (where you know how it will end) is so challenging but Van Draanen gets it right.  That the ending is a tear jerker should come as no surprise, but the way it is becomes the surprise.  A lovely book!

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Impossible Vastness of Us, by Samantha Young

India Maxwell, a childhood abuse survivor, has plenty of issues with trust.  She’s learned to survive by being tough and being on top of her school's social hierarchy.  But when her mother announces that she’s remarrying and that they are moving across the country, it throws off everything India’s worked for.  And it triggers more than a few of her fears.

When they arrive, India finds that the situation is even worse than she feared.  Her stepfather-to-be is immensely wealthy and his stepdaughter and her friends, while India’s age, couldn’t be more different.  Initially hostile to her, India has to struggle to settle in to her new environment.  And as she does so, she finds that not everyone is who they seem and that the secrets that they hold could destroy each other and take India down with them.

Mostly non-remarkable romance material, Young focuses on the relationship between India and her stepsister Eloise.  This proves a good choice as Young knows well how to write the complexities of adolescent friendships.  The romance (a love triangle between the two girls and a boy named Finn) is less inspiring (at least its boy-girl parts) and serves as a better foil between the two girls.  So, read it for the girl-bonding sweetness and ignore the rest.

What should go down as the most perfunctory sex scene in Teen Harlequin history graces this novel on page (page 320 – blink and you’ll miss it!).