Saturday, March 30, 2013

Book Review: Rival by Sara Bennet Wealer

Book: Rival
Author: Sara Bennet Wealer
Published: 2011
Source: Local Library

Brooke has everything Kathryn wants. Popular, rich, and confident, she rules the school with an iron fist and has personally made sure that Kathryn is at the bottom of the popularity heap. Naturally, she's up for Homecoming Queen. More than that, she's sure to win the Blackmore vocal contest, which comes with a hefty college scholarship check. Brooke doesn't need a scholarship, but Kathryn does, desperately.

Kathryn has everything Brooke wants. Dainty and pretty, she always seems to get the boy that Brooke is crushing on. She also has loving, involved parents and a best friend who really gets her. Kathryn has no idea how good she's got it, and Brooke hates her for it. She's also terrified that this little nobody is going to beat her in the Blackmore vocal contest, which comes with the kind of prestige that could be Brooke's first step toward stardom and out of this cruddy little Midwest town.

What makes it all ten times worse is that once upon a time, they were friends.

Very often, I lose patience with multiple POV stories. What's the point? You're all allies, or headed toward the same place. Or, your stories are parallel and don't intersect until the very end. This book, however, is the kind of story that was made for multiple POV. Through each other's eyes, you see how minor misunderstandings and differences have built into a wall of hatred between two very similar girls.

There is one character who's an overt villain and who is really the one behind the most awful bullying. I also wish that the subplot with Kathryn's male best friend, and the subtle does-he-love-her-or-not tension, hadn't been wrapped up so quickly.

However, the best and biggest part of this book is the two main characters. Neither Kathryn nor Brooke are as dreadful or as innocent as they think they are. They both do things out of thoughtlessness and spite. But they both have to learn that forgiveness, like tangos and rivalry, takes two.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Book Review: Marco Impossible by Hannah Moskowitz

Book: Marco Impossible
Author: Hannah Moskowitz
Published: March 19, 2013
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

Stephen's best friend, Marco, has a plan. It's the last day of eighth grade, and he's decided that he needs to confess his love to the boy of his dreams. At the high school prom. In order to get to the prom, they have to get tickets, tuxes, and a reasonable story to get in the door.

Naturally, he calls on Stephen, and Stephen goes along. What's a best friend for, anyway? But as the day goes on, he begins to realize that there's more at stake, and more at play, in this simple little caper than he'd ever bargained for. And even though they've been friends forever, Stephen can't for the life of him work out what's going on in Marco's head.

When I started this book, I thought it was going to be a delightful and kooky romp. As I worked my way through the story, I realized that was just the surface. This really isn't a story about a boy who wants to declare his love to another boy. It's about a boy who thought he knew his best friend inside out, and realizes that's not the case at all.

Marco has things he isn't telling Stephen. Stephen has things he isn't telling Marco. Everybody, in fact, has their little secrets, and these are what builds up into the explosion of truth-telling at the end.

You may have already picked on one of my favorite things about the book, and that's Marco's sexuality. Rather, how Marco's sexuality is handled. To Stephen, it's a non-issue. It's part of who his best friend is and always has been. But as I got deeper in, I realized that wasn't the case for every character, and that plays into the things that Marco isn't telling Stephen.

For a sweet and funny book with more under the surface, this would be my pick.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Cybils Book Review: The Theory of Everything by J.J. Johnson

Book: The Theory of Everything
Author: J.J. Johnson
Published: 2012
Source: Review copy from the publisher specifically for the Cybils

Ever since her best friend Jamie died in a freak accident, Sarah's been on a downward skid. Her grades have slipped, her snark quotient has gotten cranked up to 11. All her other friends have drifted away, and even her ever-patient boyfriend, Stenn, is starting to get fed up. And her parents, well, they've waved the end of their rope bye-bye a long time ago.

Sarah knows she's got to get a handle on her life and her relationships before she ruins all of them, but every time she gets close to feeling good, she feels as if she's betraying Jamie's memory. She knows Jamie wouldn't have wanted her to be sad forever, but how can she possibly be happy without her best friend?

I openly admit, I hadn't heard of this book before it got a finalist slot in the Cybils. I read the author's first book (This Girl is Different) and liked it, but oh, god, a girl grieving the death of her best friend? Pass the Kleenex, we're in for a long night. I prepared myself for Bad Behavior, Meaningful Conversations and/or Blinding Revelations, Deep Connections with others who've Been There, and possibly a New Love.

Then I started reading, and I realized that I was in more capable hands than that.

What I liked best was how Sarah took responsibility for her own recovery. She makes an effort not to be so snarky, she tries to reach out to other people instead of pushing them away, and she really works at being a better person. She even takes a job at a Christmas-tree farm to make amends, and she defies her parents to do so. She does this not because she has a Blinding Revelation or a Meaningful Conversation, but because she's been aware of her downward trend ever since it started. When she makes the reasoned decision, (quite early in the book, too!) that she needs to start dragging herself out of the pit, she works at it. She isn't great at it, especially at first, but she tries and sometimes succeeds, and it's from that place that her life starts to get good again.

There is a Wise Old Mentor character, Sarah's boss. He's a little stock. But he's also one of the first adults in awhile that trusts Sarah to do things that are hard for her, and in a way, that's the theme of the whole book. Pulling herself out of the darkness and back into life again is the hardest thing Sarah has ever done. It may be the hardest thing she will ever have to do. But ultimately, she is the one who has to do it.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Book Review: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Book: Orleans
Author: Sherri L Smith
Published: March 7, 2013
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

After being socked with a series of devastating hurricanes and overtaken by a virulent illness called the Fever, the inhabitants of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have been abandoned by the rest of the United States. Divided into tribes of blood types, Orleans (the “new” was dropped) has fallen into barbarism and savagery, where the people fight tooth and nail to survive just one more day.

Fen is one of those people. But she has a newborn baby, the child of her dead friend Lydia, on her hands and she swears that this baby will have a better life if she has to break every law of the Outer States and the Delta to do it.

Daniel is from the Outer States, a military scientist trying to cure the Fever, who has snuck into Orleans to gather data for his quest. They run into each other in a blood-hunter’s camp (which is exactly the kind of place it sounds like) and strike a deal--she’ll take him where he needs to go, and when he leaves, he’ll take the baby with him.

When I saw this book on Netgalley, I waffled over whether to request it or not. Another dystopia? Sigh. But I loved Smith’s first book, Flygirl, and finally I decided to give a whirl. I’m so glad I did.

Was it Fen? This tough and uncompromising girl’s quest to get Baby Girl to the Wall and a better life is certainly memorable. Was it Daniel? Though he has a doctorate, he has a lot to learn about life on the other side of the wall, and surprisingly rises to the challenge. Was it the end? I . . . I can’t say anything more about the end, except that while it was devastating, it was perfect.

These are all elements that I loved, but what jumped out at me was the setting, Orleans itself. Many times in dystopias, the physical and cultural surroundings are scary and dark things, utterly wtihout redemptive factors. But Orleans is the kind of place you fall in love with, as much as for its flaws as for its beauties.Yes, it’s scary and dark. Yes, it’s not exactly a place where you’d want to live. But like the real city, it teems with life, energy, and beauty.

One of the most touching moments in the book takes place on All Saint’s Night. Fen and Daniel, hiding out, see a Mardi-Gras-like parade of people from many tribes, tacitly truced for the night. They dance and sing, “Nous sommes ici!” We are here. No matter how far Orleans has fallen, the place and the people are still there.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Book Review: Also Known As by Robin Benway

Book: Also Known As
Author: Robin Benway
Published: February 26, 2013
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGalley

The daughter of two spies and a gifted safecracker herself, Maggie has had a strange childhood, to say the least. She’s been all over the world but never attended school. She’s hobnobbed with the best spies in the world, but never had a best friend her own age.

Now Maggie’s facing her first solo assignment. She’s sure she can carry it off. She’s only been in training since she was three years old. Then she discovers that pretending to be someone you’re not is easy, until you meet the people that you really want to like you for yourself.

I thoroughly enjoyed Benway’s first two books, so I picked this one up and wasn’t disappointed. Was it believable? No. Was it cotton-candy fun on a silver platter? Oh, my, yes.

Watching Maggie try to apply her spy skills to fitting in at high school (even a posh New York City high school) is the kind of fish-out-of-water stuff I really enjoy. And it was no surprise to anyone but Maggie when Jesse, the boy she's assigned to crack like one of her safes, turned out to be sweet and cute and probably the best fictional boyfriend a girl could ask for.

Her other big find was Roux, a former mean girl, long toppled from her throne and now friendless until Maggie turns up. Roux was hi-larious. I had a little trouble believing that she could have been the mean girl, because she was so delightful. Then I realized that the things that made her delightful - loads of snark, well-hidden vulnerability, and a certain high-handedness - would have actually made her a really good Bitch Queen.

If you’re jonesing for more Gallagher Girls, this should help with that. Breezy, funny, and sweet, this confection of a novel is just right to put a smile on your face.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Reading Roundup: February 2013

By the Numbers
Teen: 13
Tween: 3
Children: 8

Review Copies: 9
Purchased: 3
Library: 12

Teen: Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins
This sweet love story had more to do with growing up than it did the swoonypants. Make no mistake, I swooned, but the focus was on two realistically imperfect teens growing into themselves and each other.
Tween: The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
A Chinese-American kid tries to figure out where she falls in between the two labels. I really liked the realism of how both sides sometimes made Lucy feel as if she weren't American or Chinese enough.
Children: Season of Secrets by Sally Nichols
I put in my notes, "Sad but not sobby." Sally Nichols seems able to walk that line easily. A girl struggling with her mother's recent death and the subsequent upheavals in her life meets the Oak King of Celtic mythology, and begins to understand that all life is cyclical.

Because I Want To Awards
Most Thought-Provoking: Out of Nowhere by Maria Padian
This story of a small Maine town dealing with a sudden influx of Somali refugees caught my attention because I work with refugees every day. Review coming at some point soon.
Yum Yum!: A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff
With recipes included in every chapter and baking throughout, this book made me hungry for something sweet.
Just Goofy Good Fun: The Butler Gets a Break by Kristin Clark Venuti
The second Bellweather book is as kooky and funny as the first. It'll bring a smile to your face, especially the end. We all need a Benway.