(#100) Book Review: Hourglass by Myra McEntire

Emerson Cole’s life has become increasingly complicated since her parents’ death.  She sees ghostlike apparitions that pop in front of her eyes when she touches them.  More than anything, Emerson wants to be normal: she wants to stop seeing these long-lost people, and she wants to get through high school relatively unscathed.  But Emerson isn’t normal, and when her brother hires a consultant from a secret organization called the Hourglass, Emerson’s world gets even messier.  Michael Weaver is handsome, mysterious, and totally off-limits.  But the two are tied together in ways that Emerson can’t even comprehend.

Readers, I must provide a foreword to this review: Hourglass let me down.  This is probably my own fault.  Before reading the book, I was under the impression that it was a book containing magical realism.  For some reason, inside my head, this book was tied loosely to Nova Ren Suma’s excellent Imaginary Girls.  I have no clear understanding of why this was the case, but there it is.  Hourglass is nothing like Imaginary Girls in any way.  This book is much more paranormal romance than anything else.  Unfortunately, that romance left me absolutely cold.  Here we go.

There are no shortage of positive reviews out there for McEntire’s debut novel.  There’s obviously a readership for this novel (and for its future installments, as I believe that this is–wait for it–book one in a planned trilogy).  However, McEntire’s novel suffers from a great many things that made it almost painful to get through: slow pacing (worsened by a less-than-compelling central problem), poor characterization, and an overall blandness that fails to distinguish it from other paranormal titles.

For a book that clocks in at nearly 400 pages, McEntire sure takes her sweet time getting to the meat of the story.  The pacing is slow–uneven at best–and by the time the book gets to its climax, I was so bored by the story and its characters that I could hardly be bothered to care.  It seems as though McEntire struggled to find a central problem for her characters, because by the time Emerson is finally let in on the secrets of the Hourglass and why she’s needed, readers are almost halfway through the book with nothing to show for it.  When the big reveal is finally, um, revealed, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “That’s it?”

That isn’t it, though.  In addition to a lackluster plot, McEntire’s characters fall totally flat.  Emerson is boring, exhibiting no real interests or hobbies.  Her instant and immediate attraction and connection to Michael was more irritating than intriguing.  The two had little chemistry (despite McEntire’s repeated attempts to create chemistry–sometimes almost literally).  Comparisons to Twilight can’t be avoided as the two engage in a boring, predictable pull-apart, push-together dance that features a lot of angst.

Despite McEntire’s attempts to engage in some pretty serious genre-blending, the book never lives up to its premise–or its promise.  The science fiction elements don’t mesh well with the paranormal elements.  The time travel subplot feels completely out of place.  The romance threatens to overtake the story as a whole, and because none of it is particularly interesting, the result is a big, bloated, boring mess.

Give this one a pass, you guys.  I’m sorry to say it–and it might work for some readers, but unless that reader is a die-hard paranormal romance fan, there’s just a lot of other stuff out there that could be read first.

Hourglass by Myra McEntire.  Edgmont USA: 2011.  Library copy.

 

 

(#99) Book Review: Blood Red Road by Moira Young

For eighteen-year-old Saba, her entire world has always been the dried up Silverlake, a place where sandstorms and drought influence everyday life.  Although life is hard, Saba feels comforted by the fact that her twin brother Lugh is there for her.  When some men ride up, shoot her father, and kidnap her beloved brother, Saba is determined to save him.  As she navigates the chaotic world outside of Silverlake, Saba discovers that she’s a strong fighter and a quick thinker.  With the help of the maddeningly handsome Jack and a group of girl rebels called the Free Hawks, Saba might just be able to save Lugh after all.

Moira Young’s tale of a girl living in a post-apocalyptic society is pretty epic.  The first book in a planned trilogy tackles loss, love, the pains of growing up, and giant killer sand worms.  This is an adventure story of the highest order, and it’s entertaining, engrossing, and worth every minute of its 450-odd pages.

Told in Saba’s phonetic, illiterate dialect, the writing takes some getting used to.  Once the reader is able to adjust to Saba’s unique voice (there’s nothing to be afeared of here), they won’t be able to get enough of it.  Saba’s voice lends authenticity to her tale, and Saba herself is remarkably well-drawn: she’s persnickety, and there’s a great deal of impressive character detail given to her and to her friends.

There’s a lot going on in Young’s novel–some people will argue that she crowds too much into it.  There are so many subplots occurring that Young can’t address them all.  As a result, some of them are dropped, but it’s this reviewer’s guess that they’ll be picked up in future installments.  Despite being perhaps overly crowded with ideas and events, Young’s novel is extremely well-paced and completely captivating.  This is an engrossing story that features a strong female protagonist in the same vein of Katniss Everdeen.

Recommended to fans of sci-fi post-apocalyptic fiction.  Readers who are missing new installments of The Hunger Games might find a kindred book spirit here.

Blood Red Road by Moira Young. Doubleday: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review.

(#98) Book Review: The Sweetest Thing by Christina Mandelski

For Sheridan Wells, the months leading up to her sixteenth birthday are anything but sweet.  Still reeling from being abandoned by her mother years ago, Sheridan buries herself in cake decorating at her grandmother’s bakery.  Her workaholic father is more interested in his restaurant and possible TV deal than in her life, and Sheridan is so single it’s almost funny.  While Sheridan is convinced that connecting with her mom will fix her life, she can’t ignore that there are some serious obstacles in the way: including her father’s intention to move her to New York.

Christina Mandelski’s coming of age tale about a young girl wrestling with love and loss is a pretty basic premise, but good writing and solid plotting make it work fairly well.  Mandelski plays it pretty safe with the actual plot, crafting a story that is enjoyable but ultimately predictable.  However, she takes some risks by creating a protagonist that is not immediately likable.

Sheridan’s story is most compelling when she’s in the kitchen, decorating cakes.  Her passion for the activity is clear, and the description of the process is satisfyingly detailed.  The fact that Sheridan feels closest to her absent mother when she is in the kitchen is a little heartbreaking but helps ground her motivations and obsessions.  Sheridan’s tense relationship with her dad and her obsession with finding her mother feel realistic, but the problem is that there isn’t a lot of change present in Sheridan by the end of the story.  Some readers will get tired of her childish outbursts and obstinate blindness when it comes to her mother.

Which brings me to the weakest part of the story.  The central problem focuses on Sheridan and her estranged mother.  Much of the story is driven by Sheridan’s attempts to contact her mother and the frequent revisiting of birthday cards her mother has sent over the years.  However, readers will see through the plot point as well as the mother’s actions.  This weakens the emotional tension that is supposed to drive the narrative, making for a less effective story overall.

That being said, the novel is still enjoyable.  Recommended for fans of contemporary YA, especially fans of novels featuring detailed information about baking and cake decorating.  I enjoyed this one but wanted it to have a longer lasting emotional impact.

The Sweetest Thing by Christina Mandelski.  EdgmontUSA: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

(#97) Book Review: Past Perfect by Leila Sales

Chelsea has been working as a historical reenactor with her parents for years.  This summer, she’d be happy to work at the mall with her best friend and finally get over her ex-boyfriend Ezra.  But when her best friend insists on working at Essex Historical Colonial Village with Chelsea, she feels stuck.  When she shows up for work and finds out that Ezra is also working there, she feels horrified.  Between struggling with her feelings for Ezra and for a new boy (who might also be her enemy?), Chelsea’s summer is anything but carefree.

This is a written version of a romantic comedy if ever there was one.  Sales’s sophomore novel doesn’t quite hold up to her first one, but it’s still a light, fluffy, mostly satisfying read for those looking for a little escapism.  Sales is a good writer, and her humor is what carries this novel.

Because of the novel’s unique setting, Sales is able to get away with some cliches that wouldn’t work for most contemporary YA novels.  These cliches and tropes seem almost fresh because of the setting, and the funny, almost over-the-top events that happen to Chelsea and her co-workers help to lessen the trite feeling of the meet-cute and otherwise predictable plot points.  The problem is that much of the novel’s conflict is based on a petty dispute between two different re-enactment companies, and it feels too petty at times to sustain any real sense of tension.

There’s also the problem of Chelsea, who is, frankly kind of annoying.  She’s immature (and she’s supposed to be) and she mopes for a very long time over a boy the readers don’t know much about and therefore have very little stake in.  More than once, it felt as though Chelsea made decisions to further the plot instead of furthering her own character.  While Sales was able to create realistic, flawed characters in Mostly Good Girls, her protagonist in this story feels too much like an everygirl and sort of fades into the background.  As a result, I had a hard time connecting to her.

That’s not to say that the novel isn’t without merit.  It’s still a fun look into the world of historical re-enactment.  It’s clear that Sales has a respect for the business of history, and the scenes where the characters were at work were some of the strongest and most entertaining.  It’s just that the overarching conflict never felt like much of a conflict, and without that added tension, the story never quite came together.  There are charming bits, but the story feels like it’s missing something.

Past Perfect by Leila Sales.  Simon Pulse: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via publisher.

(#96) Book Review: The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder

Amber takes one day to have for herself.  Her life seems to be spinning out of her control, so she skips school and takes a limo to the beach with only her iPod for company.  At the beach she meets Cade, who seems as lost as she is.  The two of them have a perfect day with no regrets.  What is Cade’s secret?  Will Amber be able to get him to open up?

Letters from the past are interspersed with Schroeder’s trademark free verse in this novel about an important day in the lives of two teens.  The result is uneven at best: sometimes the poetry just tells the story, and sometimes the poetry is almost too precious to stand.  The poetry is only part of the problem, though, because the intensity of Amber and Cade’s relationship feels too rushed and strains the credibility of the entire story.

There are things that are good here, though.  Schroeder’s word play is often surprising and satisfying, especially when she allows the words to dance around on the page.  Amber’s history is very unclear at first, and while some readers might be frustrated by what she’s holding back, it will be compelling for others.  This is a quick read for those who don’t want to linger on the poems (which often feel rushed).  Fans of verse novels are more suited for this book than those unfamiliar with the literary technique.

But the problems outweigh the novel’s good aspects.  Neither Cade nor Amber are particularly compelling or interesting characters.  Because the novel is told in verse, the reader lacks much of the critical insight into the characters necessary to understand and sympathize with their problems.  While both teens are definitely facing hardships, these problems become almost secondary to their instant love connection.  The melodrama of the story (rest assured, there is plenty of it to be had) is only heightened further by the quick, unrealistic romance.

This one won’t work for all readers, but my guess is that fans of Schroeder’s other work will enjoy this one, too.  At the end of the day, nothing about this novel is very memorable.  Readers looking to get into verse novels should start somewhere else.

The Day Before by Lisa Schroeder. Simon Pulse: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via Simon & Schuster GalleyGrab.

(#95) Book Review: Without Tess by Marcella Pixley

Tess and Lizzie are sisters whose bond runs deep.  As children, the two of them live in two worlds: the real one  and the imagined one in which they are selkie girls, mermaids, horses who can fly.  Tess is the magical one, the one who believes in the fantastical world so strongly that it consumes her.  Lizzie wants to believe, so she tries as hard as she can, but she’s never as convinced as Tess is.  As the two grow older, Lizzie starts to lose her hold on the fantastical, but Tess still clings to it.  Then Tess dies, and Lizzie is left to deal with the aftermath and her residual guilt.

This is a really dark book.

The word on the street is that this book had a hard time being sold because publishers were so worried about how dark it is.  Pixley’s story about the love between two sisters and how their bond is effected as one descends into madness starts out hard, and it only gets harder.  It’s different, and its emotions are quiet and affecting but never melodramatic.  An emotionally taxing read, this one is ultimately worth the effort.

More than one reviewer has mentioned the similarities between Pixley’s books at Nova Ren Suma’s excellent magical realism story Imaginary Girls, and while I certainly see the connections, each story is strong enough to stand on its own.  While Suma’s Imaginary Girls was full-on magical realism, with Ruby’s ability to bend the rules of the natural world, Pixley’s Without Tess is much quieter and much more grounded in actual realism.  Like Chloe in Girls, Lizzie looks up to her older sister and wants to make her happy–whatever the cost.  Like Chloe, Lizzie is an unreliable narrator, but it doesn’t feel as intentional here.  Lizzie is drowning in her grief over the lost of Tess, and that is what distorts her story.

A compelling story overall, Pixley excels at creating a realistic, palpable bond between Lizzie and Tess.  The two girls grow up fairly isolated, away from town and near the water.  For most of their early lives, there are not other children to play with, and so the two girls make their own fun.  As Tess imagines different creatures for them, Lizzie struggles to keep up.  The introduction of a third party (in this case, a young girl exactly Lizzie’s age) creates expected tension and adds a nice complexity to the story.  Both girls are remarkably well-drawn.

The novel is relatively brief, and while I would have liked to have spent a little more time with Lizzie as a teenager, her memories of the past are haunting.  She is so overcome with guilt and grief that memories of Tess are almost drowning her, and Pixley does an excellent job of conveying that.  A cathartic read with a slightly hopeful ending, this will resonate with readers who enjoy dark stories about sisters.

Without Tess hits bookshelves on October 11, 2011.

Without Tess by Marcella Pixley.  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

(#94) Book Review: Texas Gothic

When Amy Goodnight told her aunt that she and her sister would watch over her ranch for the summer, she didn’t know that it would entail discovering bodies and dealing with a ghost who wants revenge.  To complicate things, her hot cowboy neighbor keeps showing up and driving her crazy.  As she and her sister Phin try to solve the mysterious ghost sightings, Amy realizes that struggling to be normal in a family of witches might not be worth it.

Rosemary Clement-Moore’s atmospheric, fun paranormal novel about sisters battling ghosts is the epitome of fun summer reading.  Clement-Moore’s prose is light and Amy’s narration is conversational.  The characters in the novel are exceptionally well-developed and the story is compelling.  Apart from some slight pacing problems and a feel that the book could have been a bit briefer, this is an incredibly enjoyable read.

To her credit, Clement-Moore has created a world where the magic feels natural and the characters use it and comprehend it in an authentic way.  Nothing about the way the magic is inserted into their world feels clunky or unlikely.  Amy and Phin have grown up using magic and science together, and they respect it (though Amy does fight against her own power in her quest to be seen as normal).  The supernatural mingles with the natural in this story, as Clement-Moore inserts quite a bit of physical anthropology into her story (this book is the equivalent of a love child between Supernatural and Bones).  All of this is done exceedingly well, and it’s clear that Clement-Moore did her research.

There’s something inherently charming about the novel as well.  It might be the conversational tone that Amy uses to narrate, or it might be the palpable chemistry between the characters (all of whom are given care and detail–even the minor ones).  Whatever it is, this is a very fun read.  Although it starts to feel overly-long in the last third, Clement-Moore’s rising action is enough to temper even the most impatient of readers.

Recommended to fans of paranormal ghost stories.  Although it’s definitely good for summer reading, it would also work right around Halloween.

Texas Gothic by Rosemary Clement-Moore.  Random House Children’s: 2011.  Library copy.

Book Review: The Implosion of Aggie Winchester by Lara Zielin

For Aggie Winchester, life in her small northern Minnesota town is fairly standard. She spends most of time cutting class with her goth-girl best friend Sylvia and avoiding the fact that her mom is the principal of her school.  But things start to change when Sylvia announces that she’s pregnant, Aggie’s mom tells her she has cancer, and Aggie’s getting weird mixed-signals from her ex-boyfriend.  When both Sylvia and Aggie’s mom get embroiled in a scandal involving ballot burning during the prom queen election, Aggie’s investigation uncovers more questions than answers.

Although Zielin’s novel about a lost, surly outsider struggles to balance the teen melodrama with it solid, important content, there’s still a lot to like.  Aggie herself is a nicely-developed protagonist and narrator, and Zielin raises some tough questions that don’t have easy answers.  Unafraid to tackle darker issues, Zielin’s coming-of-age novel will resonate especially for readers looking for like-minded disaffected youth.

To her credit, Zielin writes teens especially well.  She gets them, understands their motivations, and doesn’t make it easy for them or the reader.  Aggie screws up a lot and Zielin lets her without interfering.  Aggie’s lessons are all learned through experience.  She’s not always lovable, but she does always feel authentic, real, and honest.

Unfortunately, Zielin doesn’t give the same care or consideration to her other characters.  While Aggie’s relationship with her parents is fairly well-developed (and completely aggravating in that way that’s so common for sixteen-year-old girls), her friendship with Sylvia and the entrance of new-bad-girl Beth never really gel.  Beth (and to a lesser extent, Sylvia) is completely irredeemable and one-dimensional.  There is no depth here, and there is never even an attempt to explain or justify her nastiness.

While the overall story moves quickly and the central dilemma is interesting, Zielin loses focus near the end.  Aggie’s relationships with her mother and Sylvia seem to get lost as the story’s events veer off into overwrought, melodramatic territory.  Most readers won’t have a problem with this (some won’t even notice), but sophisticated readers might find themselves frustrated with the lack of follow-through.

Recommended to fans of contemporary YA featuring persnickety heroines.

The Implosion of Aggie Winchester by Lara Zielin.  Putnam Juvenile: 2011.  Library copy.

(#92) Book Review: Bitter End by Jennifer Brown

Alex is a senior in high school when she falls for the new boy at school named Cole.  He’s funny, cute, and a rising sports star who seems to adore her as much as she adores him.  Alex has always felt like something was missing from her life, and it seems as though Cole is that missing piece.  The only problem is that he seems a little jealous of her friendship with her two best friends, Zack and Bethany, but Alex can understand why he doesn’t want her spending all her time with them.  But as the two get deeper into their relationship, she starts to realize that Cole’s subtle put-downs are increasing in frequency and are being accompanied by violent behaviors.  As she struggles to reconcile the fact that this boy whom she loves is also a boy who can hurt her, Alex faces some of the toughest decisions of her life.

This is the third book I’ve read this year about teens in abusive relationships, and it is by far the best of the three.  While I really liked Deb Caletti’s Stay and really hated Amanda Grace’s But I Love Him (this is actually a case where the more I think about the book, the angrier I get), Jennifer Brown’s sophomore effort surpasses these other books because she manages to create the most authentic tale of abuse that I’ve ever read.

The book’s power comes from Brown’s honest portrayal of Cole and Alex’s relationship.  The pacing is slow at the beginning, but it feels deliberate as Brown sets up the relationships and the unavoidable outcomes.  Brown has an expert ability to handle difficult subject matter (she did it in her debut novel Hate List as well): everything from Cole’s abuse and emotional manipulation to Alex’s inability to speak about the abuse to Bethany and Zack’s frustration and fear about the situation all feels so real that it hurts–it really hurts–to read it.  This is a raw read, Gentle Readers.

What was hard to accept in other books about abuse is made much more clear in this one.  As hard as it is to watch Alex remain in a relationship with Cole, who grows increasingly more violent as time passes, the reader understands what is happening.  Alex lives in a post-after-school-special world, one in which kids are taught about how to spot the signs of abuse.  It is actually this that makes it harder for Alex to accept the fact that she’s in one because she’s supposed to be a strong, enlightened girl who would never succumb to such a situation.  And yet, she does, and it is easy to see why.

Never didactic and highly visceral, this is an important book.  Highly recommended.

Bitter End by Jennifer Brown. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: 2011.  Library copy.

 

 

(#91) Book Review: Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler

Chelsea Handler is back with a third collection of stories about her crazy life.  These stories run the gamut from her weird youth to her even weird family to the nasty pranks she likes to play on her friends.  As each story seems to get crazier and even more ludicrous, Handler still manages to top it with the next.  Anecdotes from her life continue to entertain in this collection of conversational essays.

The problem with Handler’s third collection of essays about her life is that the joke is starting to wear thin.  Whereas Handler’s first two books were very funny and seemed generally focused, this one feels rushed, a little forced, and completely disjointed.  There’s no cohesive feeling to this one, and when I read about the fact that Handler has talked openly about how hard this one was to write and how much she hated doing it, it made sense.  There’s an undercurrent of resentment running through this one, and it made for a rather unpleasant reading experience.

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments where Handler is particularly funny or on-point.  The early parts of the book are its strongest moments, including the story about how Handler discovered masturbation as a child & the story about the day she stayed in bed and watched the Sex & the City movie twice in a row.  These bits give way to meandering stories about vacations with her friends and elaborate pranks she’s played on employees, and it is here that I started to get uncomfortable as a reader.  Not only were the stories overly-long to the point where I wondered where it was all going, but some of them were so mean-spirited that I no longer felt comfortable reading about her exploits.

Some readers have taken issue with what they think is Handler’s tendency to grossly exaggerate her stories.  This makes some people question the legitimacy and veracity of the stories Handler weaves, but that isn’t my issue.  Handler is a comedian; exaggeration is comedy’s bread and butter.  My issue lies with the fact that in this third book, Handler is not very funny, nor is she very unique.  This book read like a woman who has run out of good stories and resents the fact that she’s expected to keep coming up with stuff.  Give this one a pass and revisit one of Handler’s first two collections.

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler.  Grand Central Publishing: 2010.  Borrowed on Kindle.