Friday, February 22, 2019

Last of Her Name, by Jessica Khoury

Stacia and her best friend Clio, along with their friend Pol, have been inseparable on their quiet agricultural planet on the far reaches of the Union.  Stacia dreams of excitement and seeing the kinds of spaceships she’s only ever seen on holo displays.  So, when an elite astronika spaceship appears in the sky and lands nearby, Stacia is excited.  That is, until troops round up everyone.  

Something big is happening in this quiet corner of the galaxy, a fact which is reinforced when the Direktor Eminent Alexei Volkov -- ruler of the Union -- himself appears.  He announces that Princess Anya Leonova, the youngest member of the royal family, all of whom were allegedly killed sixteen years ago, is in fact still alive and living here on Stacia’s planet.  Volkov wants her found and starts a violent campaign to rout her out.  Along with the others, Stacia wonders who she is.  She is shocked when she herself is accused of being the lost princess.

Soon enough she is fleeing for her life, finding friends along the way to help her survive from one crisis to another.  There are loyalists still trying to support the Leonov line and Volkov and his Union baddies trying to capture her.  Both sides are convinced that Stacia/Anya holds the key to finding the Firebird (an instrument which could grant the holder the ability to control the universe).  Both sides are ruthless in their search for it and for her.  A high body count and lots of near-death experiences ensue in this fast-paced but lengthy sci-fi adventure.

Khoury has fun using a lot of Russian-sounding names and Russ-lish words in the story.  It’s a cute motif, but more than a bit distracting when you speak the language and happen to be an expert on Russian names.  It's obvious that she’s chosen random words and tossed them in.  That’s a wasted opportunity as using words with meanings would have added a nice layer of complexity.  But I will acknowledge that I’m uniquely sensitive to that flaw.

I liked Stacia as a character and her major sidekicks (Pol, Ryan, and Mara) have useful supporting roles.  Everyone has a unique contribution to make.  But this is an action story and characters are mostly disposable (most of them are not only killed off, but several are actually killed off twice!). Nothing drags more than when Khoury fans the romantic flames and tries to heat up things between Stacia and Pol.  Such quiet moments are mostly a distraction in a story that rarely slows down for much else.  Some nice attempts at the end to point out that love triumphs over hate in the long run are hastily added, but really life is too cheap in this story for that message to mean much.

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC for this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th]

Pretend She's Here, by Luanne Rice

Ever since her best friend Lizzie died from cancer, Emily’s felt a distinct pain she’s felt unable to explain to others.  Except perhaps for Lizzie’s mother, who seems as bereft as Emily.  There were times when she really wanted to tell Lizzie’s Mom how much Lizzie meant to her, but after the funeral, Lizzie's family moved away. So, when Lizzie’s family (Mom, Dad, and little sister Chloe) come to town to pay respects at the grave, Emily is only too happy to accompany them to the cemetery.  But then, to her surprise, they kidnap her.

Imprisoned in a basement room which has been mocked up to look exactly like their late daughter’s old bedroom, the family forces Emily to change her appearance, to dress like their late daughter, and to participate in a charade of pretending to be Lizzie.  Threatening to hurt her and her mother if she doesn’t cooperate, Emily fights to maintain her sanity.

A brisk and generally satisfying psychological thriller that struggles with the plausibility (or lack thereof) of its premise.  Rice spends so much time trying to explain how any of this could happen that the story sometimes suffers.  The scenes with Lizzie’s Mom are sufficiently creepy but go off the rails as her character does as well.  The attempt to explain how Emily could end up being so cooperative mostly falls flat.  The culprit in both cases is the length of the story.  The longer it runs, the harder the coherency is to hold together.  A lengthy postscript “Part Two” doesn’t add enough to justify its inclusion and does the story no favors.

Rice does best at her characters’ interactions, whether it is Emily and Chloe, Emily and her boyfriend Casey, or Emily and Lizzie (in flashbacks).  This has been her strength in her other novels as well, so again I'm back to being hung up on the story itself.  As compelling as this premise was, the strain of keeping it together really drained the writing of its strengths.

(Disclaimer:  I received an ARC for this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th]

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Mike, by Andrew Norriss

Floyd is an up and coming tennis star on the youth circuit.  But he's haunted by a boy named Mike that only he can see.  Mike is more than a casual hallucination to Floyd.  He's starting to literally interfere with Floyd's ability to play.  And when a sports psychologist suggests that Mike might be trying to tell Floyd something, Floyd gives in and starts to listen.  The message he hears will utterly change Floyd's life.

For a story largely about how the subconscious influences people, Norriss's storytelling is surprisingly free of emotions or feelings.  It's a decent adventure, but largely told in a passive voice that sounds stiff and cold.  Even the romance is told with clinical precision, as just something that happens.  As for drama, suspense is largely lacking.  In the end, it felt like I was reading a biographical entry in an encyclopedia.

[Disclosure:  I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 26th.]

Friday, February 15, 2019

The War Outside, by Monica Hesse

A historical novel is most satisfying when it either addresses some familiar event in a new way or finds an event that is largely unknown and brings it to life.  This novel falls into the latter category.  While the internment camps that West Coast Japanese were sent to during WWII are pretty well publicized, the camps for enemy aliens are less well known.  And the idea that a camp existed in Texas where both Japanese and Germans were imprisoned (with their families) for crimes that were never proven in court is an eye-opener!

Haruko doesn't understand why her father was arrested.  He refuses to even discuss the matter with her.  But when he is sent to the Crystal City camp in Texas, her family decides to follow him.

On their arrival, she notices Margot, a German-American girl who has already been in the camp for months.  Her father's "crime" (attending a Nazi meeting as a favor for a friend) is better understood, but she faces different problems.  Margot's mother is having a difficult pregnancy amidst primitive medical facilities.  And her father struggles with boredom and the temptation to join with the camp's Nazi sympathizers to pass idle time -- an idea that horrifies Margot and her mother.  In the midst of this madness, Haruku and Margot form a friendship that attempts to reach across the racism and prejudice of the time.  But in the end, they fall victim to a tragic series of events.

This moving (and horrific story) combines strong characters and extraordinary circumstances to create a real page-turner.  The ending is haunting and unforgettable and it is a truly astounding work.  Historical notes at the end discuss which parts of the story are fictional and which are based on facts.  A surprising amount of the story falls into the latter category.

The Last to Let Go, by Amber Smith

When Brooke sees police cars outside their home, she’s convinced that her abusive father has finally killed Mom.  Violence has become so routine in their house, that it wouldn't come as a surprise.  She is shocked to find that instead it is her mother who has killed her dad.  Not that the aftermath is much different.  Her mother is locked up and the kids have to muddle through without either parent as the case goes to trial.  Brooke, as the middle child, takes the brunt of the worry and care for keeping the remains of the family together.

This was supposed to be a special year for Brooke – starting at a new school and taking a slew of advanced classes -- but as her family falls apart, all of these things seem unimportant.  Tangled up in this mess is the way that her feelings for a new supportive friend may (or may not) be sexual and dealing with that awareness seems too much to take on top of everything else.

In many ways, Brooke is the type of character I hate – self-pitying, lying, and too proud to accept help – but for reasons I can’t fully articulate, I cared about her enough to want to read her story.  Some of that is due to the extraordinary circumstances of the story itself.  But I think there is an element of grit to her that I respected.  And maybe also a desire to see her triumph in the end. I was thus disappointed when the story neatly resolves without dwelling on steps involved in reaching that resolution.  It was an awful lot of build up for a wave-of-the-hand solution!  

Friday, February 08, 2019

Drum Roll, Please, by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

Melly gets called "mouse" by her friends and family because she is usually so shy and quiet.  But put her behind a drum set, and she can become quite loud.  Her best friend Olivia talks her into going with her to rock band camp during the summer.

It starts off inauspiciously as Melly's parents, on the night before camp starts, announce that they have decided to get a divorce.  Things grow steadily worse as she and Olivia are separated at camp and Melly ends up assigned to a wildly incompatible group to play with.  Worst of all, Olivia has fallen for a guy in her group and doesn't have time to spend together anymore, just as Melly needs her friend most!

Alone and lonely, Melly learns to make new friends and makes a few self-discoveries along the way.  With the help of a band mate, the independent Adeline, Melly makes tentative steps towards standing up for herself and working out how to be both a good friend and good to herself.  In the end, she also builds a better understanding of how to deal with her parents and changing family.

A pleasant and fulfilling middle reader that addresses a variety of interpersonal relationship issues in a realistic fashion.  This includes not only friendship and family, but also Melly's nascent sexual orientation -- a subject that it handles sensitively and age-appropriately.  Placed by Bigelow within the context of how feelings between even boys and girls are so undeveloped at this point, Melly and Adeline's exploration of their feelings for each other feels similarly tentative. These are kids for whom holding hands and kissing are still wondrous (and scary). Bigelow captures that innocence respectfully.

The Opposite of Innocent, by Sonya Sones

When Lily was a little girl, she announced to her father’s best friend Luke that she wanted to marry him.  Luke promised her that he would wait for her and everyone had a good laugh.  Years later, Luke comes back for an extended stay with her family.  Now a teen, Lily finds that she likes him, obsessively in fact.  And when he reciprocates her affection, she’s thrilled.  But the fifteen-year gap in their ages is only the beginning of their troubles.  Lily quickly finds that Luke’s interest in her is not the sweet romantic fantasy she has in mind, but something darker.  And when she attempts to break it off, he threatens and coerces her.

While novels in verse are more frequently misses than hits, Sones is an outlier in the genre, producing really powerful novels that combine strong verse and vibrant topics.  As the genre is prone to, she can be melodramatic (and more so with a topic like this where the “ick” factor is quite high).  But the novel is blessed by well-written verses (several of which could easily have stood on their own).

The story is not in itself original, but I liked the characters and appreciated the major role she gave to Lily’s friends (who could have easily been throwaway roles).  The plot is dragged out a bit by making Lily particularly resistant to seeking out the help she is offered early on – a decision that Sones herself feels compelled to criticize in the book’s afterward.  I so wish that authors would find a better way to meet their contractual length requirements than having their protagonists make bad decisions!

Friday, February 01, 2019

Finding Yvonne, by Brandy Colbert

As Yvonne enters her last year of high school, she is losing her enchantment with playing violin.  Up to now, she’s assumed she would go to a conservatory.  But after her teacher drops her, it just doesn’t seem worth the trouble.  Then she meets a street musician named Omar who really believes in her and who inspires her with his own playing and with his casual bohemian lifestyle.

But this isn't the only option she has.  Accidentally, she discovers that she has some serious baking talent.  Her father (a professional chef) and his mentor think she should become a pastry chef.  The idea of following into the same sort of work as her Dad had never occurred to her, but it doesn't seem like a terrible option.

Career is not the only thing that Yvonne is struggling with.  Omar isn’t the only guy on her mind and her long-standing friendship with Warren, her father’s sous chef, is starting to heat up.  Juggling the two guys seems OK as long as they are just friends.  But Warren wants to take it to the next level and things with Omar have moved beyond friendship.  And then events intervene that force Yvonne to make some difficult choices.  

I was doing pretty well with this breezy but thoughtful exploration of a young woman’s struggle to discover herself.  There were a few melodramas (a missing mother, some baggage with Warren, etc.) but Yvonne is a great character who stands up for herself and makes all the right statements.  I imagined her coming up with a cool decision at the end that would resolve her dilemma.  But then Colbert throws in the aforementioned crisis out of the blue that amps the story and makes her character more symbolic (and subsequently less interesting).  The twist largely ditches the original story and opens the narrative up to a polemic that sidetracks her character.  The ending is not bad but so much of what the story was building up to is lost.