Book Review: Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff

Mila has a special talent for reading people–and a room.  She has the ability to figure out things that might be hidden from other people using clues that so many people ignore.  When her father’s best friend, Matthew, goes missing–leaving behind his wife, infant son, and beloved dog–she and her father travel to America to search for him.  As Mila unravels the mystery of Matthew’s disappearance, she starts to realize that there are things she can’t know because she’s not old enough–and that the person she thought she knew completely might have secrets of his own.

Meg Rosoff’s excellent, thoughtful novel manages to be both contemplative and undeniably suspenseful.  Her keen knack for writing makes her characters come alive on the page, and her care for them shines through.  A knockout of a novel, this has crossover appeal for adults as well as teens.

Mila is a brilliant child, but Rosoff isn’t afraid to make her a child.  She treats Mila with care and respect, allowing her to be perceptive, insightful, and also appropriately naive at times.  Mila is a well-wrought character with a fully-realized personality.  Her relationship with her father is well-rendered, too.

There’s a lot simmering beneath the surface of this one, and Rosoff allows the story’s central mystery to illustrate the growth that Mila herself is undergoing, even if she is not aware of it.  There’s a lot here about how painful it is to grow up and start becoming an adult, and it’s reflected in the sparse, beautiful writing.

The mystery will keep readers turning the pages, because it’s suspenseful and a little haunting.  It’s also quiet, thoughtful, and brilliant.  Highly recommended.

Picture Me Gone by Meg Rosoff. Putnam Juvenile: 2013. Copy accepted via publisher for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

Carey and her sister Jenessa have lived in a broken-down camper in the middle of a national forest in Tennessee for as long as Carey can remember.  Their mother leaves for weeks at a time, showing up with canned goods and hand-me-down clothing every once in a while.  But her visits are becoming fewer and further in between when the girls are discovered and taken away from the woods by Carey’s biological father and a social worker.  Now, they must adapt to life in mainstream society, but it won’t be easy: Jenessa doesn’t talk, and Carey knows why.  Both girls are hiding secrets, and the truth won’t stay hidden forever.

Emily Murdoch’s powerful, painful, and ultimately hopeful novel is a quiet examination of the power of forgiveness and family.  Quiet, beautifully written, and ultimately redemptive, this is one that shouldn’t be missed.  A memorable and often haunting story, hand this to readers who like their novels quiet and their characters complex.

Murdoch’s novel doesn’t offer her readers any easy answers to the questions it raises, and she doesn’t set out to make anyone in her novel a straight villain or an angel, either.  Carey’s voice is unbelievably authentic and absolutely unforgettable.  Her speech patterns are memorable, their cadence fascinating.  She’s a complex character, but readers will find it impossible not to root for her and her nearly silent younger sister.

The novel isn’t terribly long, but Murdoch explores all sorts of issues, including addition, sexual assault, the enduring strength of love and the unbreakable bond of sisters.  Carey’s feelings for Jenessa are palpable, and her struggle to forgive herself and accept her father is gradual and ultimately quite satisfying.

This is a standout of a debut, and Murdoch is an author to watch.

If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch. St. Martin’s Griffin: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley and read for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Maybe I Will by Laurie Gray

When Sandy is assaulted by one of Sandy’s best friend’s boyfriends, the consequences are worse than Sandy could have imagined.  Instead of standing by Sandy, the friend takes the side of the boyfriend, and the assault is called into question.  Desperate and unable to cope, Sandy turns to alcohol to numb the pain.  Will anyone ever believe Sandy?

Laurie Gray’s well-meaning but ultimately misguided and ineffective book about sexual assault features a protagonist without an assigned gender.  This novel is meant to illustrate the fact that sexual assault is not about sex, but the way it’s handled not only strains credulity: it also keeps readers at a great distance by keeping Sandy from ever becoming a fully-formed character.  While it might work for some readers and definitely raises some good questions, it does so at a disservice to its own plot and characters.

Sandy is meant to be read as either male or female so that the reader doesn’t let prejudice about one sex or gender get in the way of the sexual assault.  The problem is, the gender of Sandy sort of does matter to how people would react to the assault.  If Sandy was female and assaulted by her friend’s boyfriend, wouldn’t that friend react differently than if Sandy was male?  And if Sandy was indeed male, wouldn’t that itself raise some questions in Sandy about his sexuality if he was assaulted by another male?  By leaving out this important aspect of Sandy’s character, Gray misses the mark of what she was trying to hit on.

There’s also the fact that none of the characters ever really come alive here.  Sandy is kept at a distance from readers throughout the story, and Sandy’s descent into alcoholism over the span of like, a day, is completely ridiculous.  While it’s nice to see Sandy’s parents stand up for Sandy, it’s hard to walk away from this one feeling as though any of the people were real at all.  Give this one a pass–there are much better stories out there about sexual assault.

Maybe I Will by Laurie Gray. Luminis Books: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via publisher for 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: So Much it Hurts by Monique Polak

Iris wants to be an actress more than anything.  When a fairly-famous director visiting from Australia takes notice of her, she’s flattered and completely intrigued.  It doesn’t matter to her that he’s a decade and a half older than her because he’s so smart, charming, and attractive.  She starts secretly dating Mick, and it isn’t long before she realizes that Mick has an anger in him that puts her in danger.  By the time Iris realizes what’s happening, she’s isolated and embarrassed, so she continues to see him as his anger–and violence towards her–increases.

Novels about abusive relationships are tricky, because readers aren’t dumb and know when they’re being manipulated.  There’s been no shortage of YA novels about abusive relationships in the past few years, and I’ve  read quite a few of them.  Some are more successful than others, and this is one of those novels.  Monique Polak’s novel about a young girl who finds herself trapped in an abusive relationship might appear fairly textbook in its execution, but the solid, accessible writing and the authentic voice of Iris as a narrator make this one compelling even for the most reluctant reader.

As far as sympathetic characters go, Iris is one.  She’s been raised by her mother because her father was expelled from the country for illegal activities.  He’s been estranged from her since she was a little girl, and so she’s never had a strong male presence in her life.  Enter Mick, who is older, attractive, and confident: he knows what he wants, and he knows what Iris wants to hear.  It’s clear early on that Mick has chosen Iris because he sees a certain vulnerability in her, but this is done so subtly that it works.

The plot is fast-paced, the narrative voice authentic.  Polak’s writing is accessible but doesn’t pander to her audience.  She offers a fairly standard trajectory of an abusive relationship, but what’s lovely to see here is how she allows her secondary characters to develop into actual people.  The novel ends on a hopeful and believable note, and readers should be satisfied.

Recommended.

So Much it Hurts by Monique Polak. Orca Books: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via publisher for 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Whatever by Ann Walsh

Darrah gets in trouble when she pulls the fire alarm at the hospital and an old lady got hurt.  As punishment, Darrah is asked to sit through a restorative justice circle and accept the consequences of her actions.  Those consequences end up meaning Darrah has to help Mrs. Johnson around the house two afternoons a week for the foreseeable future.  It doesn’t take long for Darrah to realize she actually likes helping Mrs. Johnson, especially when it comes to what she’s learning about cooking and baking.  The fact that Mrs. Johnson has a super cute grandson doesn’t hurt, either.  But Mrs. Johnson is worse off than she first appears, and when she dies, Darrah is left to deal with the loss.

Ann Walsh’s well-meaning but ultimately heavy-handed novel has some interesting things going for it.  A detailed description of a restorative justice circle near the book’s beginning clues readers into the social justice concept and provides a nice alternative to simple community service or the paying of fines.  Mostly likable characters also make this a pleasant enough read, but Walsh relies too heavily on tropes that are so overdone, they’re hardly effective.

In crafting a plot that relies on the wise elder tutoring a young, defensive whippersnapper, Walsh doesn’t offer her readers anything new or particularly insightful.  While both Darrah and Mrs. Johnson are fairly well-realized characters, there’s also nothing about them that means they have any real staying power.  There’s also the issue of Darrah’s transformation: she goes from bad to good so quickly it’s likely to make readers’ heads spin, and there’s no rationale for this sudden behavioral change.

On top of the sudden transformation, Walsh packs her novel full of other issues, and seems to lose sight of too many of them.  Darrah’s main passion is acting at the beginning of the book, but it’s dropped so quickly that it’s not mentioned again as the novel reaches its conclusion.  Other issues, including Darrah’s epileptic brother and strained relationship with her parents, hardly get the kind of treatment they deserve.

Well-meaning but half-baked.

Whatever by Ann Walsh. Ronsdale Press: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via publisher for 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Audacious by Gabrielle Prendergast

Raphaelle is sixteen and always seems to get herself in trouble, no matter what she does.  She can’t seem to do anything–even draw, which she loves–without angering someone.  When her father moves her family to a smaller city, Raphaelle wants to leave behind her rebel persona and start fresh, but it isn’t long before “Ella” reverts to her radical ways, causing waves at her school and attracting the eye of a boy named Samir–a Palestinian Muslim who is very different from her Catholic family.

Gabrielle Prendergast’s strong verse novel is chock-full of action, memorable characters, and provocative themes.  A thoroughly modern take on finding one’s identity, this novel is sparse with words but paints a vivid picture.  Readers should devour this one and wait eagerly for its planned follow-up.

Ella is a strong narrator, offering readers insight into her fragile family life (her mother harbors an eating disorder, her sister seems to do no wrong, and her father ignores everyone) and her own psyche.  She wants more than anything to do what she believes to be the right thing but also remain true to herself and her beliefs, but she keeps finding that the two cannot coexist peacefully.  Her radical, artistic side is her true self, but she battles with it for a good portion of the book.

Also interesting are the secondary characters, which round out this rich and riveting tale.  Especially noteworthy is Samir, Ella’s love interest.  A Palestinian Muslim by birth, Samir is also drawn to radical art, and the two cause a stir, albeit in very different ways.  Prendergast is careful to give all her characters dimension, and the story is all the better for it.

There are moments where the narrative seems to slip into a bit of didacticism, but the story as a whole is so well done that it hardly matters.  Prendergast explores a plethora of topics, including religious prejudice, sex, censorship, and eating disorders, and all of it is done exceedingly well.  The fact that she has such a profound understanding of the teenage search for identity comes across clearly here.

A standout.  Highly recommended.

Audacious by Gabrielle Prendergast. Orca Books: 2013. Electronic galley accepted via the publisher for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Baygirl by Heather Smith

Kit Ryan is growing up in a fishing village in Newfoundland in 1992, when the government announces a moratorium on cod fishing, leaving her father suddenly without work.  Already a terrible alcoholic, Kit’s father moves her family from their rural community to live with Uncle Iggy in a much larger city.  Uncle Iggy is battling his own ghosts, though, and Kit struggles to fit into this new world, where the other kids taunt her with the nickname “Baygirl.”

Heather Smith’s smart, authentic historical novel is a standout debut of a book.  The novel manages to gently illustrate change without offering its readers any simple answers, and the likable Kit makes for an entertaining and sympathetic narrator.  Strong secondary characters and a near-seamless blending of social and personal issues make this a novel not to be missed.

As far as protagonists go, Kit is a knockout.  Intensely likable but also flawed, she’s smart, strong-willed, and has a sense of humor.  Her anger at the beginning of the story is palpable, but throughout the course of the novel, this gives way to understanding as she grows and matures.  This evolution feels natural and is believable.

Secondary characters round out the story.  Particular care is given to Kit’s father and the exploration of their rocky relationship.  A terrible alcoholic, Smith never allows him to fall into the stereotypes of a terrible, abusive drunk.  Instead, she allows readers to see how multifaceted and difficult the disease is, confronting many of the misconceptions head-on.  As Kit discovers why her father is unable to face the world sober, so do readers, making this journey all the more moving.

The insider view of Newfoundland during the cod moratorium gives this novel a strong sense of place.  At times gritty and at times very funny, Smith has created a memorable historical fiction that many readers will find completely compelling.  This one is worth your time.

Baygirl by Heather Smith. Orca Books: 2013. Electronic galley accepted from publisher for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Living with Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles

Josh didn’t expect to spend his father year living with his uncle Larry miles away from home.  But after what happened last year, Josh feels such shame that he can’t face his life.  So he lives with his karate-obsessed uncle, and he goes to a new school away from his best friends.  He practices karate with Stella, the girl who lives upstairs.  They have a connection, but Stella’s possessive boyfriend keeps getting in the way.  Besides, if Stella knew the real Josh, would she even like him?

Jo Knowles’s excellent Living with Jackie Chan is the follow-up to her novel Jumping Off Swings, but readers who aren’t familiar with the first can still very much enjoy this pitch-perfect novel about mistakes, growing up, and forgiveness.  Knowles is a powerful writer, and this spare, character-driven novel is compelling through its final pages.

Josh is as shut-down as a character can be.  He’s so consumed with his own guilt and regret about leaving behind the girl he got pregnant that he won’t allow himself to feel even an ounce of happiness.  His misery is his penance, even as he tries to escape the past.  Of course, he can’t, and it’s with the help of the equally compelling characters of his uncle Larry and friend Stella that he’s able to move forward.  This growth is gradual and authentic.  Josh is an incredibly complex character, but he’s also really likable.

Unusual in its portrayal of teenage pregnancy from the male perspective, Knowles offers her readers plenty to think about.  Honest, frequently frank, and simultaneously hopeful and heartbreaking, this is great contemporary YA.  Readers will be rooting for Josh to pull through and embrace his life–and his mistakes.

Highly recommended.

Living with Jackie Chan by Jo Knowles.  Candlewick Press: 2013. Publisher copy accepted for the 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez

Andy Cooper is dead, and Frenchie Garcia can’t seem to get over it.  Her friends weren’t aware of her massive crush on him, and they have absolutely no idea that she was the last person to hang out with him before he killed himself.  But the thing that Frenchie is most unable to come to grips with is how she unwittingly helped him die.  Frenchie’s obsession with death and Emily Dickinson make her somewhat of an outsider, and she feels more alienated from her friends than ever in the summer after senior year.  But when she meets Colin, she finds a way to recreate that night with Andy and answer her long-sought questions about what happened.

Jenny Torres Sanchez’s excellent novel is about growing up, growing apart, and coming to terms with life’s hardest lessons.  It tackles death, grief, loss, and much more with a sensitive approach, but the undercurrent of humor keeps the book from feeling too overwhelming for readers.  Expertly paced, vividly rendered, this is an excellent addition to any library or personal collection.

Frenchie is an authentically drawn character who is in complete limbo.  She’s stuck in the summer after senior year, and she’s grappling with the very real loss of her crush, Andy, as well as the gradual and more subtle loss of her best friend, Joel.  As the two drift apart, readers watch it happen and understand why it is–and possibly why it must.  Frenchie is both sullen and extremely anxious, and her preoccupation with death is intensified by her house’s close proximity to a cemetery.  All of this feels very real.

It helps that Torres Sanchez is a strong writer who moves her story seamlessly between the present and the night Frenchie spent with Andy.  These two stories unravel quickly enough to keep readers engaged but also slowly enough to keep them guessing.  There aren’t any easy answers for Frenchie, and Torres Sanchez doesn’t try to pander to her readers.

Memorable, thought-provoking, and a welcome addition to the YA cannon about death, grief, and loss.  This is worth your time.

Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia by Jenny Torres Sanchez. Running Press Kids: 2013. Copy accepted for review via publisher for 2013 Cybils.

Book Review: A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin

Justin was just hooking up with a girl when his dad walked in on him, and now his summer’s totally sucking.  Emmy has never felt like a part of her family because she’s adopted and her sister is biological.  There’s also the issue of her having lost an insane amount of weight and cyber bullying a kid from school–but he totally had it coming.  Now the two are stuck at Heartland Academy: part reform school, part counseling center, Justin and Emmy have nothing to do but face their fears–and themselves.

It’s unfortunate when a book that isn’t very good has a title that’s so easy to make fun of, because that’s sort of the case here.   A Really Awesome Mess gets part of the title right: it is a mess, but it’s not particularly awesome.  Indistinguishable voices between narrators, unlikable protagonists, and a bizarre treatment of eating disorders make this one a miss.

Much of the book’s problems lie with its dual narration.  This is often found in books with more than one author (though this is obviously not exclusive), and if it’s done well, it can work to further the plot and add dimension to the story.  If it’s not, it can serve to confuse the reader as to who is narrating.  This one is the latter.  Emmy and Justin sound incredibly similar, making it a chore to figure out who is narrating.

Neither one is particularly likable, even after their incredibly quick turnaround in therapy.  Part of this is due to the fact that the authors are trying to make their narrators unreliable–and they are–it’s clear early on that both characters are in serious denial about how bad their problems are.  But mostly, these kids are whiny little brats.

Perhaps the most perplexing part of the novel was the bizarrely inaccurate portrayal of eating disorders.  While some of the dialogue was meant to illustrate how others perceived Emmy’s disease, the focus on the vanity of her disorder was alarming and flat-out wrong.  Moreover, the treatment programs for those suffering from eating disorders was so out of whack with standard procedures that it makes one wonder if any research into treatment facilities was done whatsoever.  It was this insensitivity with regards to the disorder that tipped the scales.

There are much better books about kids in treatment centers out there.  This one is neither funny nor heartfelt.  Skip it. Skip it. Skip it.

A Really Awesome Mess by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin. EgmontUSA: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley and read for the 2013 Cybils.