Book Review: Welcome, Caller, This is Chloe by Shelley Coriell

Chloe Camden is definitely the queen of her school until her best friend tears her reputation apart.  Things go from bad to worse when her new school counselor puts the kibosh on her junior independent study project (JISP).  Instead of doing the project she was so excited about, Chloe’s forced to take on a project with “more meaning,” meaning she’s got to tackle the school’s failing radio station.  Ostracized from her friends, dealing with family stresses, and trying to prove to the other radio geeks that she’s the real deal, Chloe works to find a balance in her life.  Hosting a call-in radio show seems to be the ticket to publicity (and maybe some trouble).

There’s something to be said for Shelley Coriell’s debut novel: it takes a risk.  The risk lies in the fact that its heroine and narrator, Chloe, isn’t particularly likable.  While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and it becomes clear, early on, that this is intentional), it can alienate readers.  Readers who give up early on Coriell’s quirky, cute novel are missing out, because once they’re about a third of the way in, things start to open up.  The result is a mostly-successful tale about an obliviously selfish girl who gets some hard life lessons.

The problem is that it takes a while to get to the meat of the story.  Chloe’s chipper, always-look-on-the-bright-side attitude starts to grate early on.  Her inability to see how shallow and self-absorbed she is is done in a fairly subtle way, which might make it hard for some readers to realize what Coriell is doing.  However, once Chloe starts working at the radio station and interacting with the group of misfits that run it, the story picks up.

Although it’s not a particularly inventive story, it’s still entertaining.  Chloe has a natural, authentic voice.  Some of the secondary characters–particularly Clementine, the surly manager of the station, and Chloe’s grandmother–stick out.  The light romance with Duncan should keep readers looking for love satisfied, but Coriell is careful to not let it overshadow the plot as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, the book is strongest when Chloe’s working at the station.  There are times when the story starts to meander a bit (there are side plots involving meth addiction, semi-homelessness, and dementia), but the ending is fairly tight.  Overall a fun, refreshing read featuring a quirky heroine.  Recommended.

The book hits shelves today.

Welcome, Caller, This is Chloe by Shelley Coriell. Amulet Books: 2012.  Electronic galley received for review via NetGalley.

Book Review: The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani

For Sonia Nadhamuni, life is pretty good until her dad loses his job.  She’s pulled out of her tiny private school and tossed into a public middle school where kids question her half-Indian, half-Jewish heritage.  As Sonia tries to navigate the complicated world of popular kids and unpopular kids, she struggles to decipher where her true friends lie.  Things aren’t great at home, either–with her dad out of work, the family has new challenges to face.

Veera Hiranandani has crafted a coming-of-age novel for the middle grade reader that is full of sharp observations about cultural identity and the inherent awkwardness of adolescence.  Sonia is a character who is grappling with adult issues while still in the late stages of childhood.  As she works to understand her own cultural identity, her dad’s clinical depression, and how she is seen by her predominantly white classmates, the reader is treated to multifaceted characters, gentle humor, and keen observations about life in middle school.

What could easily be an “issue” novel in another author’s hands never crosses into that territory here.  In fact, Girl is careful to never offer tidy solutions or compartmentalize its characters or their situations.  Instead, Hiranandani allows Sonia to be original and observant, creating a depth that is so often lacking in books for middle-grade readers.  This book is not always easy to read–it allows Sonia’s life to get messy without offering really satisfying solutions–but the richness of the writing and the characters make it a book which one cannot put down.

Highly, highly recommended to readers of MG and YA alike.  This is an important book featuring a smart, strong female of color.  Hiranandani is an author to watch.  The book is out now.

The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani. Delacorte Books for Young Readers: 2012.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

Book Review: Ditched by Robin Mellom

When Justina’s best friend Ian asks her to go to the prom with him, she’s surprised.  She’s never been the kind of girl to dream about the perfect prom night.  She accepts, thinking that if anyone can deliver the most perfect prom night, it’ll be him.  When Justina finds herself literally in a ditch after being kicked out of a car, she has to retrace her steps over the course of the night to figure out why Ian would ditch her and what she can do to salvage their relationship.

Robin Mellom’s debut novel is fast-paced and frequently funny.  It’s also a little bit gimicky and saccharine.  However, readers looking for a fun, light read about a disastrous prom night will find themselves satisfied by Justina’s crazy tale of woe.

The gimmick starts with Justina remembering the events of the night through the stains on her dress.  As she tells her story to a gas station attendant (while snacking on the types of food found in a convenience store), she recounts the stories that led to each mark on her dress (which has shoes dyed to match it).  While it’s a creative approach to telling the story, the premise starts to wear thin the further into the story Justina gets.  As the night’s shenanigans get more ludicrous, so do the stains on her dress and the situations she finds herself in.  While it’s certainly entertaining, there’s something inauthentic about the tale.

While the book is populated with a cast of vibrant characters, the short time span in which the story takes place means that the reader never really gets to know any of them.  Readers can tell that Justina is a bit of a character herself and that she has feelings for Ian, but this is all through Justina telling, not showing.  The supporting characters fall by the wayside, getting moments to shine but ultimately filling the required stereotypes for this wacky story.  (At times, this feels like a novelization of a Disney movie.)

It’s an easy read, and it’s one that I’d recommend to reluctant readers.  Because it’s pretty tame, it would work well for younger teens.  The event of prom is guaranteed to attract a certain demographic to be sure.  Ditched hits bookshelves today.

Ditched by Robin Mellom.  Disney-Hyperion: 2012.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

Waiting on Wednesday: If I Lie by Corrine Jackson

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

If I Lie by Corrine Jackson

Expected Release: August 28, 2012

Quinn’s done the unthinkable: she kissed a guy who is not Carey, her boyfriend. And she got caught. Being branded a cheater would be bad enough, but Quinn is deemed a traitor, and shunned by all of her friends. Because Carey’s not just any guy—he’s serving in Afghanistan and revered by everyone in their small, military town.

Quinn could clear her name, but that would mean revealing secrets that she’s vowed to keep—secrets that aren’t hers to share. And when Carey goes MIA, Quinn must decide how far she’ll go to protect her boyfriend…and her promise.

(summary via Goodreads)

This is one of those books where it go could either way: it might be really well done and compelling, or it might be super contrived and totally melodramatic.  I’m hoping for the former, because it sounds like it could be an interesting character study.  We’ll have to wait until August to find out, though.  It’s a debut author, too.

What are you waiting on this week?

2012 Debut Author Challenge

This year, I’ve been participating in the 2011 Debut Author Challenge.  The challenge is pretty simple: readers try to read at least 12 MG/YA books published in 2011 by debut authors.  So far this year, I’ve read 26, which is well past what I expected to accomplish.  For a full list of what I’ve read, you can see my Debut Author Page.

Kristi at the Story Siren hosts the challenge, and she’s recently opened up the sign-up for 2012.  This is an easy challenge, and since I’m obsessed with YA anyway, there’s no reason for me not to sign up.  It gives me a chance to read the newest voices contributing to YA.

There are a lot of great debuts next year.  Here’s the link to the Goodreads list for 2012 debuts.

Some books I’m hoping to get to next year:

  1. Cinder by Marissa Meyer (January 3, 2012)
  2. The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani (January 10, 2012)
  3. Tempest by Julie Cross (January 17, 2012)
  4. Fracture by Megan Miranda (January 17, 2012)
  5. The Other Life by Susanne Winnacker (February 1, 2012)
  6. Someone Else’s Life by Katie Dale (February 2, 2012)
  7. This One Time with Julia by David Lampson (February 2, 2012)
  8. Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi (February 7, 2012)
  9. Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood (February 7, 2012)
  10. Article 5 by Kristin Simmons (February 14, 2012)
  11. The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg  (February 21, 2012)
  12. When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Helliseth (February 28, 2012)
  13. Shooting Stars by Alison Rushby (February 28, 2012)
  14. Where It Began by Ann Redisch Stampler (March 6, 2012)
  15. A Breath of Eyre by Eve Marie Mont (April 1, 2012)
  16. The Selection by Kiera Cass (April 24, 2012)
  17. Kiss the Morning Star by Elissa Janine Hoole (April 28, 2012)
  18. Welcome, Caller, This is Chloe by Shelly Coriell (May 1, 2012)
  19. Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield (May 10, 2012)
  20. My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick (June 2012)
  21. Reuinted by Hilary Weisman Graham (June 12, 2012)
  22. Something Like Normal by Trish Doller (June 19, 2012)
  23. If I Lie by Corinne Jackson (September 4, 2012)
  24. Time Between Us by Tamara Island Stone (October 9, 2012)
  25. Level Two by Lenore Appelhans (Release date unknown)
  26. What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen (Release date unknown)

There are sure to be other books that end up making this list, but these are the ones I’m most excited for.  Are you participating this upcoming year?  What books are you looking forward to?

(#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.

(#81) Book Review: The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle

When Laurel’s parents and younger brother are killed in a terrible car crash, her life is turned upside down.  Complicating the tragedy is the fact that her neighbor David’s father was behind the wheel when it happened.  David’s mother was killed, too, and his father is in a coma.  As Laurel tries to cope with her grief and adjust to the new life that has been forced upon her, she also struggles with growing apart from her best friend, questioning whether or not she’ll ever be seen as anything other than the girl whose family died, and wondering whether what she feels for David–who keeps disappearing and reappearing in her life–is real or is a result of their shared fates.

Jennifer Castle’s debut novel is a quiet little story, and although comparisons to Gayle Forman’s wildly popular If I Stay are going to be unavoidable, I actually think it does the book a disservice.  While Forman’s book flirts with the supernatural, Castle’s book is firmly rooted in reality, and it is her realistic portrayal of the aftermath of a tragedy and the very real process of grief that makes her book work so well.

This is largely a character-driven novel, and Castle gets it right, especially when it comes to Laurel and David.  Each character must navigate their own grief, and while each chooses to do it in different ways, they also find themselves drawn to one another.  The depth of their sorrow can only be understood by the other, and Castle does an admirable job of creating a relationship between the two that can only be forged through a shared sense of loss.  Laurel and David share an emotional connection that could be physical but is hindered by Laurel’s confusion about her feelings and David’s tendency to pull away.  It is an interpersonal relationship that is done extremely well.

The story is one that could be rife with cliches, but Castle manages to sidestep them, choosing instead to focus on the little moments that life offers in the wake of a huge loss.  This is done in part by allowing readers to trace the evolution of Laurel’s grief as she struggles to reconcile her loss with her desire to be normal again, but it is also helped along by creating a cast of secondary characters that are largely sympathetic.  Laurel’s grandmother, her best friend, and her crush Joe are some of the characters that help add dimension to the story without falling into stereotypes.

A compelling and subtly emotional read, Castle doesn’t go for the big tear-jerker moments so much as allows the readers to gently empathize with the pain that Laurel and her grandmother experience.  This is not a fast-paced novel, but it is still compelling, and I couldn’t put it down.  Highly recommended for fans of well-done contemporary YA.

The Beginning of After will hit bookshelves on September 6, 2011.

The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle.  HarperTeen: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

(#75) Book Review: A Long Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan

Rosalinda “Rose” Fitzroy is awoken from a stasis chamber by a kiss.  She has been asleep for 62 years, and everything she knows about the world has changed.  As she tries to adjust to her new life in a world that has suffered a terrible period called the Dark Times, she struggles to reconcile her past with her present.  Everyone she’s ever known is dead, and she must start anew.  Rose’s new world holds dangers and challenges she might not be ready to face.

Providing a brief synopsis of Anna Sheehan’s strong debut novel doesn’t do it justice.  Loosely based on the story of Sleeping Beauty, Sheehan’s soft-science-fiction novel requires a little time to really get going.  Once it does, though, the book is an absolutely compelling look at a little girl lost in the future.  Despite a few minor issues, this book is really, really good.

Much of the world-building in Sheehan’s novel is done through the characters, which works because her characters are so strong and well-written (more on this in a moment), but the science fiction aspects that are dealt with outside of the characters are done so with thoughtfulness and consideration.  Sheehan’s exploration of both stasis and genetic engineering is where this is particularly clear.  In addition to building the future world in which these characters live, Sheehan formulates some interesting questions about life, ownership, and the future of technology, and she doesn’t give easy answers.

But the book is strongest when considering its characters.  Rose herself is a problematic narrator: at the beginning of the book, she comes across as a woe-is-me, poor little rich girl.  Her personality is very bland, her manner quite passive, and it isn’t until later that the reader realizes that this is all intentional on the part of Sheehan.  Rose’s personality is bland because of her history and because of how she’s been treated.  Her personality flaws are called out by other people around her, and she is required to grow in order to make headway in the world.  Because Rose’s situation and history are explained through flashbacks throughout the book, these revelations come slowly, and readers who stick it out will be rewarded.

In addition to Sheehan’s complex, layered protagonist, there are an array of well-developed male characters to be had as well.  Xavier is remarkably well-drawn, his love story with Rose both believable and heart-breaking.  Several reviews have pointed to a similarity between Rose and Xavier’s relationship being similar to the one in The Time-Traveler’s Wife, and I suppose it is, in some ways, only perhaps even more heartbreaking because Rose and Xavier have only one year where they are the same age.

The boy who awakens Rose, Bren, is also strongly characterized and provides a nice juxtaposition between what Rose had in her past life and what she wants in her present.  Their relationship is not tidy and is in fact extremely complicated, which is a nice change from much of the YA offerings these days.

But perhaps the strongest and most surprising character to come out of the novel is Otto, the telepathic mute boy who was genetically engineered (just go with it, okay?) by Rose’s parents’ company.  As Rose and Otto develop a friendship through their IM conversations (it sounds tedious but it works really well and provides some of the most compelling interaction the book has), Otto develops as a smart, compassionate character.  The fact that he and Rose have palpable chemistry doesn’t hurt, either.

The book leaves open the possibility of a sequel but stands on its own as well.  Once you get into it, you won’t be able to put it down.  Trust me, this one is worth it.

A Long, Long Sleep hits bookshelves TODAY.

A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan. Candlewick: 2011.  Electronic galley provided for review via NetGalley.

(#73) Book Review: The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab

In the town of Near, children have always heard the stories about the Near Witch who one lived there.  Lexi grew up hearing the tale, and she often entertains her little sister Wren with the same story.  It has always just been a fairy tale.  But when a strange boy appears in the town and then local children start to go missing from their beds, the villagers start to get suspicious.  As the search for the culprit intensifies, Lexi races to find answers to her own questions: about the story of the witch and about the mysterious boy she calls Cole.

With The Near Witch, Victoria Schwab has crafted a twisty fairy tale about a small town panicked over the loss of its children and in denial about the power of a woman who once lived there.  Slow to start, Schwab takes her her time building the tension and the action, allowing the story to reach a climax that will leave many readers on the edge of their seat.  Strong characterization and an accessible voice in narrator Lexi make this debut worth reading.

Schwab is a good writer, and her stylistically strong writing creates a clear and somewhat eerie picture of the town of Near.  What is interesting to note about Schwab’s story is the narration itself: Lexi’s voice is fairly contemporary, and yet the story seems to be set in some undefined part of the past.  There is no technology, and Lexi spends time cutting wood and helping care for her little sister Wren, but there is still something modern about her voice.  It is intriguing but not distracting, which is a delicate balance to manage.

For the most part, Schwab creates strong characters.  Lexi is by far the strongest in her characterization: smart and driven but stuck in her town and by her circumstances.  Wren, her little sister, is also well-drawn, containing the voice of a young child who in many ways idolizes her older sister.  Lexi’s mother and her uncle play minor roles, but both are given consideration and are treated with care.  It is only Cole, the mysterious newcomer to Near and love interest for Lexi, whose characterization I found lacking.

This book is both a fairy tale itself as well as a tribute to the tales it draws inspiration from.  Although there is a love story present here, it is a quiet one, and the novel’s main focus is one of horror.  Schwab successfully plays with that mood.  As more children begin to disappear, the tension the villagers of Near feel is palpable.  Creating that sort of tension, as well as sustaining it, is a rare skill, and Schwab does it well.

The Near Witch hits book shelves TODAY.

The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab.  Disney-Hyperion: 2011.  Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

(#72) Book Review: Dark Parties by Sara Grant

Neva has lived within the electrified boundaries of the Protectosphere for her entire life.  The isolation of her world has put a strain on the civilization: resource shortage, inbreeding, and government censorship are all part of daily life.  Neva and her best friend Sanna believe that the government is lying when they claim that there is no life outside of the bubble, and they hold a dark party to try to recruit members into their resistance.  As Neva begins to discover the truth about her world, she realizes she might have gotten more information than she bargained for, and the choices she makes will effect those she loves.

Sara Grant’s Dark Parties is a dystopian novel for people who haven’t read a lot of dystopian fiction.  It’s not a bad debut novel by any means, but it’s not particularly inventive, either.  Fans of dystopian stories are going to see too many similarities to other novels in the genre, and because Grant’s story doesn’t have a whole lot of new ideas to offer, this will be disappointing.  However, Grant is a good writer, and she’s written a fast-paced, mostly enjoyable novel about a girl’s awakening to the injustices of the world.

Neva is a strong female protagonist, and her devotion to her family and friends is believable.  While Neva herself is a well-drawn character, most of the characters who surround her are not.  Because much of the novel is focused on pacing, little attention is given to building character development or the world around them.  A particularly weak point is the supposed attraction between Neva and Braydon, which felt rushed, superficial, and more like a plot point than an actual romance.

There are some good things happening in Grant’s novel.  The commentary on history and how the people in charge can shape and change it is particularly striking, as is the concept of a dwindling population trapped in their own xenophobia.  The cliff-hanger ending leaves the story open for a sequel, but I can’t help but hope that Grant leaves Neva’s story where it is and allows the reader to imagine what could happen next.

Dark Parties hits shelves on August 3, 2011.

Dark Parties by Sara Grant.  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: 2011. Electronic copy accepted for review from publisher.