Monday, July 29, 2013

Review of Believe by Sarah Aronson

Carolrhoda Books
by Sarah Aronson
Released September 1, 2013
2 Stars

While on a trip to Israel when she was six years old, Janine Freeman was the sole survivor of a suicide bomber. Now she is sixteen, and the man who rescued her from the rubble believes that her broken hands have the power to heal. Janine doesn’t believe in God, and she’s tired of the media stalking her and making her a symbol of faith, or the “Soul Survivor.” How will she find peace in a world that won’t let her be the person she wants to be?

For a novel with such bold ambition and monumental themes, the narrative starts slowly and does little to increase speed from there. The prose is choppy and uneven, bordering on distracting. The setting, Bethlehem, PA is a great example of forced irony. And while the character of Lo, Janine’s aunt and adoptive mother, is a strong, insightful character, she alone cannot hold the action of the book. Janine is a shallow character with little to offer that might invest the reader in her fate. She wants to be a fashion designer on her own merit and not because she is a celebrity. She hardly ever ventures into public without scanning her surroundings for paparazzi so she can avoid them.  However, as stated by her best friend, Miriam, Janine doesn’t “want to be famous, but if anyone ever—for a split second—forgets who [she] is and what [she] lived through—[she] makes sure they remember.” If her friends ask a favor of her, she declines or lets them down. If her fashion design teacher offers solid critical advice, she balks. If she is asked to keep a life or death promise, she blabs. Janine is perhaps the most unsympathetic character ever placed in the pages of a book—she rarely admits fault and enjoys criticizing others. What connections she has are superficial. Even her relationship with her boyfriend, Dan, is one-sided. She refuses to show him affection in public, she only mentions him in the book in passing (he only appears in a few scenes), and when Dan breaks up with her, she shows little emotion, only slight confusion. Certainly there have been unsympathetic characters in literature before, but the difference is that these characters usually experience phenomenal growth through the events and tests they face in the story. Don’t get me wrong, the story has tests. Janine faces difficulty and disappointment, but it is unclear how all of these ups and downs shape her character. Maybe the goal of the novel is to show Janine discover humility and faith, and perhaps the author seeks to achieve this through the novel’s ending. Alas, Janine’s change is unconvincing and falls flat—too little too late. The conclusion only slaps an unlikely ending on a more unlikely story.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review of The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls

The Silver Star
by Jeannette Walls
4 Stars

When their mom goes AWAL to pursue her singing career, Bean and her older sister, Liz, decide to visit their Uncle Tinsley in the town where their mother grew up. The two hop a bus from California, travel across the country, and end up at the Holiday mansion in Byler, Virginia where they beg lodgings from the eccentric Uncle Tinsley. Byler is a wonderful change for the two girls, at least at first, offering a stability they have never known, and a sense of family roots. But Byler also offers adversity through prejudice, preconceived notions and abuse of power. How much can these two girls endure before they take to the road again?
While this novel is not promoted as a YA novel, it has great YA appeal. First off, the narrator is twelve-year-old, Bean, whose voice lends a great youthful flavor to the novel, and whose simplistic views of right and wrong and naiveté enriches the thematic elements, and amplifies the shortcomings of those adults who ought to know better.  The novel has the flavor of To Kill a Mockingbird, especially the town of Byler, a setting reminiscent of Maycomb, Alabama. In Byler, manners and family tradition are important, segregation is part of the history of the area and desegregation of schools has just begun, and the past is never forgotten.  In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird is mentioned a few times in the novel, since Bean is reading it in school, and perhaps that is in part the inspiration for the plot of this story. The story is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and while the war is mentioned a few times briefly, it doesn’t actually play a large part in the narrative—just as WWII is mentioned a few times in passing during the Mockingbird narrative. As in Mockingbird, the antagonists in the novel are all adults, the first being Charlotte, Liz and Bean’s mother, whose selfish antics leave the two girls in a constant state of neglect. Thankfully, she only plays a small part in the entire work, and this is fortunate because “flaky” just scratches the surface of her character. While Liz and Bean are very forgiving of their mother for the most part, the reader may have a more difficult time forgiving her. Perhaps the most evil and hated protagonist in the story is Jerry Maddox, the mill foreman and boss, who constantly bends the rules and abuses others simply because he can get away with it. When the two girls join their fates to Jerry’s, they have no idea how much trouble they will encounter. While I enjoyed the ending of the novel and the sort of poetic justice that Maddox receives, I am troubled that the story does not offer consequences for Maddox’s eventual fate. However, perhaps that is the way of the world—karma steps in where men will not—the consequences of the universe are far more serious than those of the court system. Adult readers who enjoyed Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help will likely enjoy this work. Younger readers who enjoyed Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, and Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now will find a similar magic in this work.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review of Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

The Dial Press
Random House Digital
Tell the Wolves I’m Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt
5 Stars

June loves her Uncle Finn, not just as an uncle, but a best friend, godfather, and her first girlish crush. So when Uncle Finn dies from AIDS June is at a loss about how to deal with the crippling grief she feels—worse, it’s the 1980s and the world is just being introduced to the disease. Even though her uncle is a famous painter, there is a stigma attached to his death. No one seems to understand her loss or even want to talk about it until she meets Finn’s boyfriend, Toby, someone June never knew existed.  Was Toby Finn’s killer, or is he the man who can help to heal June’s heart?
Perhaps one of the reasons I connected with this novel is the fact that it was set during the 1980s. I was a teenager at this time, and I can remember when AIDS was first publicized. AIDS was terrifying, but was largely treated as a “gay” men’s disease, so many teens not only dismissed it out of hand, but mocked the victims. Religious groups saw it as a just reward for immoral behavior, and rural teens just didn’t get it. The GLBT community was very much in the dark in the 1980s—at least in my small town. Who knew that people in my community might have struggled with these issues and with this illness? The novel was enlightening and helped to reveal the struggle many families must have had not only with the disease and its devastating results, but with acknowledging the sexuality of their relatives.  June is a wonderful conduit for the themes in this novel and an endearing character. Her innocence enlightens the reader to the conflicts of the time, and also personalizes Finn and Toby.  June makes Finn and Toby human when others may not see them as sub-human. I felt the family dynamics were very important to the novel as well. I loathed June’s sister, Greta, who I thought was hateful and self-absorbed, and even at the end I wanted to smack her. But Greta is an important character, because she is what she is and June still loves her despite her cruelty and cynicism. Just like every other character in the novel, she is flawed, and yet there is still love in her and she is still worthy of love. June’s parents, her mother especially, show the embarrassment that some felt having gay relatives, and also the narrow-mindedness of forcing relatives to choose between lives. In all, the conflicts were not only real, but tragically so, and beautifully woven to create a snapshot of 1980s life. Looking back from 2013, much has changed, but perhaps not as much as we may imagine. The disease has become more widespread, not a “gay” disease at all, but sadly one that still seems to have badge of dishonor associated with it.  Perhaps the novel helps to reveal those erroneous assumptions about the disease because the truth is AIDS doesn’t discern between color or creed, sexuality, nationality or any other standard—so it’s best to realize that we are standing in its path—flawed, human, and vulnerable. We need one another, and kindness, love, patience and understanding are our best tools of defense.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Review of If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

St. Martin's Griffin
If You Find Me
by Emily Murdoch
5 Stars

Fifteen-year-old Carey is very protective of her sister, Janessa, and she should be. Their mother, a former musician and member of the symphony is a mentally ill drug-addict who has left the two girls abandoned, living in a trailer in the woods of Tennessee with only a few cans of beans and the heads on their shoulders to survive. And the girls have survived, despite the abuse and neglect they have endured, but now the state has found them, and the two are being sent to live with their father in a world that is foreign to them—a world that threatens to expose the secrets they are hiding.
Beautifully written in a fluid and poetic voice, the reader might find themselves riveted to this story for the appreciation of the writing alone. Yet, readers will more likely fall in love with Carey. It is hard not to fear for Carey and cheer for her as she emerges from a world that seems as foreign as the Middle Ages and steps timidly into the modern world. Taken very young and fed with lies from their mother, Carey suffers from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, which makes it difficult for her to see or understand her mother’s criminal behavior. It is this that makes the reader want to read on and see how Carey and Janessa grow after their liberation from the trailer in the woods—however, it’s not the only curiosity.  Carey repeatedly references the “White Star Night” a night that stole Janessa’s voice, and that Carey fears will expose her as unlikeable and guilty, and will take her away from this new life and from Janessa. If the elegant writing and wonderful characterization of the innocent Carey, sweet Janessa, Delaney (who we hate to love) and Carey’s new parents aren’t enough to draw the reader in, the mystery of The White Star Night clenches it. Perhaps best of all is the fact that while the story is complete, it doesn’t necessarily resolve Carey’s fears or spell out the consequences of Carey’s past for the reader. Far from being a weakness, it reinforces the reality that peppers this novel—we know that whatever happens to Carey in the future, whatever consequences come from her terrible past,  she will endure and overcome. Such is the strength of her character, and the merit of those who love her. This is a wonderful story that shows how “being close to people [means] hurting sometimes…” and how that hurt, while devastating and painful, can help us recognize healthy relationships when they come.  It also reveals the pain and confusion children feel when they are betrayed by those who are supposed to love them—those who have been consumed by a chemical reality that skews the parent/child relationship.

Review of Tarnish by Katherine Longshore

Viking Children's
Tarnish (Companion Novel to Gilt)
by Katherine Longshore
4 Scribbles

Anne Boleyn wants to be somebody; but that’s difficult in Henry the VIII’s court back in the early 1500s, where politics and social gossip can make or break a gal. Worse, Anne has trouble following the rules; when she has an opinion she voices it, unfortunately, this isn’t a world where the voice of a girl is welcome. So when Thomas Wyatt offers to help make her “popular” in court and give her a chance to be heard, Anne agrees. But will she find love in the process? And if so, will that love destroy her?
This isn’t your typical historical YA novel. For one thing the author stops short of extending the story to the end of Anne’s Boleyn’s life, preferring instead to explore what her life may have been like as a teenager and before her marriage to Henry VIII (since history reveals how that turned out.) It is written in the bawdy and edgy style of the period and doesn’t sugar coat the amount of womanizing the kings of history (and some might argue the present) tended to do, nor does it romanticize the fact that during these times and in Anne’s own words, “a woman [has] no choice. You have to do what your father says. And eventually what your husband says. You can use your feminine wiles to encourage certain outcomes, but at the end of the day, their will is the only will that matters.” For Anne, lust will determine her future, even though she is obviously a wily and plucky character who craves individuality and control over her destiny. Supporting characters like Anne’s best friend Jane, her humble sister, Mary, her often inebriated brother, George, and of course the romantic poet Thomas Wyatt, are also interesting and well-drawn. The vocabulary is quite advanced, and the descriptive language is phenomenal. At times while reading the walls of my room fell away for me, and there was only castle, tapestries, finely dressed lords and ladies and the dance. Therefore, teens who want an easy, quick historical novel might want to look to less sophisticated writing, but those who want a challenge, and to see how a talented writer takes well-researched elements of history and weaves an interesting tale filled with intrigue and unexpected turns, should scoop this one up.

Oh, and if you haven't read Gilt, no worries. This is a stand alone, even if it can be read as a companion work.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review of Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

Knopf Books for Young
Strands of Bronze and Gold
by Jane Nickerson

3 Scribbles

Sophia has always envied those who live the good life, ladies who enjoy high society, fine clothing and jewels and live in beautiful mansions, but she has never had the opportunity to enjoy these things since her family is impoverished. However, when her father dies, she is sent to live with her wealthy and mysterious godfather, Monsieur Bernard de Cressac at Wyndriven Abbey in Mississippi. Her godfather dotes on her, showering her with clothing, jewels and gifts she could never have dreamed of, yet soon it becomes clear that Monsieur de Cressac is interested in being more than just a godfather to Sophia. Sophia thinks she could love him, until secrets from his past begin surfacing, and it becomes clear that Monsieur de Cressac is not the gentleman he projects.

A main strength of this novel is its rich description and the authentic, gothic feel of the mid-1800s setting. Not only is Mississippi hot and dreary, adding to the feeling of suffocation and isolation Sophia feels the longer she stays under de Cressac’s care, but the Abby, carried stone-by-stone from Europe and recreated in the new world, adds a heavy feeling of secrecy and undiscovered mystery to the place. Sophia’s character is quite naïve despite her impoverished upbringing; she adapts easily to the wealthy lifestyle without any of the suspicions someone who is poor might normally have in a similar situation. And while I question why she doesn’t see strings attached to her good fortune, she is only seventeen, and perhaps was sheltered by her father and older siblings from the harshest parts of poverty. In any case, her sweet naïveté is necessary for the tale’s unraveling mystery. The reader sees Sophia’s innocence begin to fade away as she discovers secrets about de Cressac’s many former wives, his views on slavery, and his quick-temper. De Cressac, based on the legend of Bluebeard, is sufficiently monstrous, as monstrous as any abusive husband in the present day would be, and is perhaps the best-drawn character of the novel. He is a man who leaves the reader on edge, never knowing when his rich generosity will be replaced with violence—an antagonist the reader will love to hate—but he alone cannot carry the conflict in the novel. The forbidden relationship between Sophia and the kind minister helps fill in the gaps, adding needed conflict; without this, the novel would have been simply page upon page of Sophia wondering rooms and visiting with ghosts of wives past when she isn’t appeasing de Cressac at dinner. The love that grows between Sophia and the minister adds tension in the story—until the minster appears, Sophia has little to lose if she leaves de Cressac. Less impressive are the story’s ghosts who were likely added to increase the feeling of mystery and intrigue so common in gothic tales, but their addition did little for the story. For one thing, Sophia isn’t afraid of them. Wouldn’t it be better if she felt the slightest bit of awe at the appearance of a ghost at least? A slight chill or feeling of apprehension? The ghosts appear on numerous occasions, but really add nothing to the story other than to give Sophia some weak sympathetic companions.  Even the twist at the end could have been achieved without them. While I enjoyed the novel overall, especially the creepy climax, I didn’t struggle to set it aside from time to time in order to peruse other works, and I am surprised to see the author plans to make this tale a series with two more novels. Short of citing the classics, I am at a loss to compare this work to other YA books, so I’ll just say that fans of historical fiction will likely enjoy this novel, but those expecting a story filled with spine-tingling ghosts and page-flipping action might consider another author.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review of Scowler by Daniel Kraus

Delacorte Books
for Young Readers
by Daniel Kraus
3 Stars
Nineteen-year-old-Ry, his little sister, and his Mom eke out an existence on a farm that hasn’t grown crops in years.  Yet, this little family of three are content to live in peace. But when a meteor falls from the sky and Ry’s violent father returns, all hell breaks loose. Will Ry succumb to the influence of genetics or nurture, or will otherworldly influences tip the scales in one direction or the other? And, in his case, are any of the alternatives good ones?
This is a very dark work, told mainly via the eyes of the main character, Ry,and his three toy companions, Mr. Furrington, Jesus and Scowler, who he resurrects from his childhood to help deal with the trauma of his father’s menacing return.  Perhaps it is this darkness that prevents me from appreciating the work, although I have no doubt that it required a great deal of insight into the mind of both a child dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and the mind of a sociopath. Ry’s father, Marvin, is suitably hateful, obscene and abusive, and clearly illustrates the cycle of violence that can evolve in dysfunctional families. That being said, Ry’s character not only shows the effects of child abuse (and spousal abuse for that matter) but also reflects on the idea that such sociopathy might be inherited.  In either case, the odds are stacked against Ry, and this becomes clear from the onset of Marvin’s appearance. Part survival story, part psychological exploration, the novel will certainly sicken most who read it, although at times it becomes difficult to stick with the narration when the point of view switches into the voices of Ry’s toys.The strongest characters in the novel turn out to be the females. Linda, Ry’s “therapist” is the first to peel away the layers of psychological abuse, and his mother, Jo Beth, while impotent at first, eventually steps up to the plate to protect her children. However, it is the meteor that is a seriously perplexing plot addition. While it is clear why the author chose to place the influence of the meteor in the story, it remains unclear as to why the element he chose was a meteor when other avenues may have produced a similar effect ( I can say no more without adding a spoiler). For me, the arrival of the meteor was a ploy to swing the novel into a more sci-fi genre and attract sci-fi readers, even though the work is clearly more focused on inter-personal and dysfunctional relationships. So, those of you looking for a true work of sci-fi, look elsewhere, those who want a hard core, wicked, and disturbing story about dysfunctional families and abusive relationships, be sure to give this one a go.

Review of Die for Me by Amy Plum

Die for Me (Revenants)
y Amy Plum

4 Scribbles
After the death of her parents, Kate and her sister Georgia move to live with their grandparents in France. Kate swims in depression, struggling to fit into a world without her mother and father, but then one day she sees a boy who catches her attention. Vincent Delacroix is everything a girl could want, handsome, charming, sensitive, and doting. But when Kate finds out that Vincent isn’t a normal teenage boy, she isn’t sure she can stand to love him.

This novel has much in common with the Stephanie Meyer Twilight saga. Girl moves to a new place, Girl meets mysterious sexy guy, Girl meets guy’s entourage and becomes best friends with Charlotte, one of the crew, Girl finds out guy is Undead, and Girl discovers she cannot live without guy. Oh, and guy has seriously dangerous enemies who will target her if they know she loves Vincent.  So, if you are a Twilight fan, you won’t be able to help loving this story. I like Twilight okay, but I’m sort of burned out on the whole vamp genre, so it was nice to see this tiresome formula have a little twist. In fact, I’ve already read the second book Until I Die and downloaded book three which just came out in May, If I Should Die. I seriously think this series will be opted for film. That being said, let’s discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the work outside of the obvious weakness, it’s a ringer for the Twilight formula.  Perhaps best of all is the unique Undeadness that Vincent suffers. He is a Revenant. This means that he has a compulsion to save the lives of humans, and once he dies for someone else, three days later he is resurrected again (we’ll just leave Christian theology out of the discussion of this novel). Thus, he isn’t immune from death, which is why Kate isn’t sure she can love him, I mean who wants to endure the death of a loved one over and over again especially when they’ve recently lost their parents (I mean, if he’s coming back though, what’s the big deal?). I’m not sure I buy that obstacle to their love entirely, but whatever. A better hurdle is the fact that Revenants have sworn enemies, Numa, who would happily destroy Kate if they knew her importance to the clan, and the fact that her wonderful grandparents would not like her dating a Revenant.  So those conflicts are well done. The characters in this novel are a huge plus. Kate isn’t especially interesting to me (perhaps because she’s a bookworm like me) but her sister Georgia is amazing and fun and quirky, and I adore the crew that Vincent rolls with.  Kate’s grandparents are classy and cultured, and that’s pretty cool. And of course, the author has so many opportunities to elaborate on the history of each character layers and layers of interest are added to the already great mystery of the story line. I also admire the way the author deals with the age issue between Vincent and Kate. I was always bothered by the fact that Bella in Twilight is dating, essentially, an old man, which makes Edward sort of a pedophile.  However, in this novel, Vincent returns to the age he was when he died, each time he rescues someone. So he is only a few years older than Kate. This is drilled into the reader by repeated pronouncements of Revenant’s ages. So, even if I might still be a tad skeptical, the author artfully brushes that concern aside, thus making the kissing scenes less, um, disturbing. Lastly, the novel is set in Paris, France. Who doesn’t want to know more about France? And if you listen to the book on audio like I did, even better. Then you get to hear the sexy French accents. So those of you YA paranormal romance lovers who like a little who-dun-it action in the mix, check this one out, you’ll be hooked!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Review of Gated by Amy Christine Parker

Random House Children's
by Amy Christine Parker
5 Scribbles
To be released, August, 2013

After Lyla’s sister is kidnapped and never found, her family decides to escape the evil world by moving to Mandrodage Meadows, or “The Community” with the man who shows continued concern over their loss even in the wake of 9/11—Pioneer.  Now Pioneer has been given a vision that the end of the world is coming, and Lyla must prepare to enter the underground silo that will protect her family from the impending apocalypse.  But how many people may have to die before she gets there?

Short, intense chapters begin with chilling quotes from notorious historical cult leaders like Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Koresh. These alternate with significant Biblical passages that all work together to create an impending sense of hysteria and doom throughout the narration.  Through Lyla’s eyes, it is easy to see how vulnerable individuals with no family or friends to speak of, or those who haven’t been well-supported by the community at large after a tragedy, might be pulled into a cult.  Lyla is even more vulnerable because she has so little power in The Mandrodage Meadows Community; she is clearly at her parents’ mercy which begs the question, do teens have the right to challenge the religion their parents have chosen for them? And in Lyla’s case, the husband they have chosen for her?  The most fascinating character in the story is perhaps Pioneer, who seems a bit odd at first, but quickly becomes a terrifying figure. Parker does a phenomenal job at illustrating the mind of a psychopath left to his own devices. Pioneers continued madness forces Lyla to act when she realizes that sometimes bravery is doing what is right, even if one has to act alone.  Fans of S.A. Bodeen’s The Compound and Pam Bachorz’s Candor won’t be able to put this believable bit of sci-fi suspense down, and that’s a promise.