Book Review: Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Amy Gumm has never fit in.  Raised in a trailer park by a mother whose struggles with addiction have made her parenting sporadic at best, Amy has had to fend for herself.  So when a tornado hits her trailer and whisks her away to the land of Oz–no, seriously, that Oz–she can’t believe her eyes.  Only, this Oz isn’t like the one in the books.  Here, Dorothy has changed the land and has mined the magic to fulfill her own desires.  Now, the land of Oz is in trouble, and citizens of Oz want Amy to be their chance for freedom.  In order for that to happen, Dorothy must die.

Danielle Paige’s dystopian tale set in the familiar fantasy land of Oz is guaranteed to attract attention.  It’s the time for fractured fairy tales and their ilk, so it’s perfect timing for this novel to hit shelves.  This edgy take on The Wizard of Oz will probably work better for older teens, as it’s quite gory at times.

The problem is that as fun as Paige’s inventions are here in the world of Oz, they’re flashy additions that can’t wholly disguise the fact that there’s nothing new happening.  This is a standard dystopian romance that’s been set in place of a familiar fantasy landscape.  All the well-worn tropes are here, and while it might be fun to see Paige’s re-imagining of the Tin Man or Dorothy herself, at its core, this is kind of a disappointment.

It’s also overly long, despite the fact that once the novel gets going, it keeps going at a good pace.  There are more than a few gaps in the logic of the story and its characters, and this is likely to distract and frustrate readers who pay close enough attention.  The fact that the writing itself isn’t stellar and is at times quite clunky and awkward only adds to the unevenness of the novel.

Overall a disappointment, but it will probably work for fans of fractured fairy tales or fans of shows like Grim or Once Upon a Time.  There will be a sequel, because of course there will.

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. Harper Collins: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Royally Lost by Angie Stanton

When Becca’s family drags her on a trip to Europe, she’s hoping for nothing more than a fast trip so she can go home.  When she meets Nikolai, that changes.  Handsome, a little bit mysterious, and totally charming, she’s smitten immediately.  Little does she know, Nikolai is a prince on the run from his family’s suffocating expectations.  Together, the two embark on a trip neither will ever forget.

Readers looking for the lightest of reads might find something to like in Angie Stanton’s whirlwind romance offering, but they’re  going to need to suspend disbelief, accept the fact that this one is short on character development, and be okay with a great deal of predictability.  Very much like any of the in-love-with-a-prince movies that are out there but without the added effect of vivid visuals, Stanton’s contemporary royalty romance doesn’t have much to offer readers.

It’s innocuous enough, which might be enough for readers looking for a clean romance.  But there isn’t any substance whatsoever to give this book any weight. Becca is dealing with some very real issues: a blended family, growing up, questioning her choice to go to college right out of high school.  The problem is that all of it feels like padding to flesh out the romance of the story, which isn’t anything to write home about in and of itself.

Even the book’s other greatest attraction–exotic locales–leaves something to be desired, as the two main characters angst so much over when they will see each other again, it’s hard to be taken in by the settings.  Utterly forgettable and completely underwhelming, there are much stronger titles out there, even for readers looking for light romances.

Royally Lost by Angie Stanton. Harper Collins: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

 

Book Review: The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith

Lucy and Owen live in the same apartment building in the heart of New York City, but don’t meet until their elevator loses power in a city-wide blackout in the midst of a blisteringly hot summer.  After their rescue, they spend one perfect night together, sharing secrets and falling in love.  Reality sets in before long, and the two are separated.  After that, they mostly communicate through postcards and  a few emails until they finally have a chance to meet up in person again.  Will they be able to rediscover the magic of their first meeting?

In terms of the “meet-cute” trope, this book has it down pat.  Lucy and Owen are fated to meet because of the elevator, and the result of that is a magic, kismet evening in which they discover a mutual attraction for one another.  Readers looking for plausibility should look elsewhere, because Smith’s latest offering has much of what her previous books have: romance, angst, and the most unlikely of situations.  The problem is, that what felt incredibly fresh in her first, excellent The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is starting to feel more than a little stale in this one, her third offering in as many years.

An inability to connect to either character, both of whom take turns narrating this tale, makes this a bit of slog to get through.  Lucy’s incredibly wealthy and privileged, living in a swank apartment and spending the majority of her time unsupervised, as her parents are always out of the country.  Implausible but not out of the realm of probability, this still feels more like a plot point than an actual feature of Lucy’s character and situation.  Owen’s mother is dead and he grapples with an emotionally absent grieving father, but again, this feels like a plot point rather than a whole character.

Too often, it feels as though Smith is moving the pieces around on the page to keep her characters longing for each other in a way that never fully makes sense.  It would take an extraordinary love–one which this reader did not see on the page–to make these two characters work so hard to stay in touch after they move away from each other.  The base of that relationship is never established, making this feel like a flimsy premise at best.

That’s not to say that readers won’t like this one.  There’s plenty here for readers who like their YA romance chaste and full of longing.  Armchair travelers won’t get a ton out of this one, but there are enough geographical locations mentioned to at least pique the interest of some.  Still, this is one that never fully connects with the reader and fades fast from the memory as soon as it’s done.  Disappointing all around.

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy: 2014. 

Book Review: The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder

Hannah and Zoe are the best of friends, and completely inseparable.  They’ve always been there for one another, so when Zoe tells Hannah that it’s time to leave their po-dunk New Jersey town and see the world, the two embark on a crazy road trip adventure.  Along the way, Zoe tries to teach Hannah about the intangible things in life: like insouciance, audacity, and happiness.

Wendy Wunder’s sophomore novel has high aims and delivers on many of them.  This novel has much of what many readers of contemporary YA look for in their books: romance, independence, self-discovery, and a great deal of wit.  The result is a mixed bag, and while it will work for many readers, it didn’t completely gel for this one.

Because Zoe’s bi-polar disorder plays such a prominent role in the novel, it’s impossible to discuss the novel’s limitations without also touching on that.  Zoe has relied on Hannah to help her down from her episodes, and while it has worked in the past, the two girls find that it is harder and harder to self-medicate when it comes to Zoe’s increasing mania.  Therein lies the biggest issue for this reader when it comes to this book.

Without disputing the fact that bi-polar disorder is a very real thing that some teens face, there was something about the portrayal in this novel that didn’t sit right with this reader.  Too often, Zoe felt like a manic pixie dream girl, and while Wunder did try to showcase the other side of that coin, it felt oddly hollow.  Hannah shoulders a great deal of her best friend’s burden, but something about the story didn’t feel authentic.  Zoe has a support system in place at home, so it seemed odd that that support system would just allow the two girls to go off gallivanting.

So much time and energy is spent on describing Zoe’s zaniness and illness that it feels as though Hannah gets the short shrift often.  Unfortunately, this reader never connected to either character, making this harder to get through.  Lacking that connection to these girls made the stakes feel very low, even though that was clearly not Wunder’s intent.

That being said, the novel is–like her previous work–incredibly well-written.  There are some real gems of insight here, and there is a certain segment of the reading population that will love this one.  Wit and a certain rawness are present throughout the novel.  It just wasn’t enough to sustain the novel to its inevitable (and predictable) conclusion.

Also, the sudden veering into magical realism near the end felt like a way to add some safety netting to the conclusion, which harmed the emotional impact.  Not all readers will feel that way, though.

The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder. Razorbill: 2014. 

Book Review: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

What begins as an assignment for English class spirals into something much more for Laurel.  She was supposed to write a letter to a dad person, and she ends up writing a ton of letters to a bunch of dead people.  She starts with Kurt Cobain, because her sister May loved him so much.  And they both died young, so it felt symmetrical.  But then Laurel starts writing to other people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, and Heath Ledger.  As she writes these letters, she spills her secrets, long kept to herself, about what happened the night May died.

An eye-catching cover, intriguing title, and interesting premise can’t save this book from its overwritten, uneven execution.  Epistolary novels are always difficult because they’re inherently one-sided.  An epistolary novel where the letter recipients can’t even write back because they are dead is decidedly even more one-sided.  While there is some good here: Laurel is an introspective girl who makes for a mostly-authentic narrator, the book gets bogged down in its own telling, making for a slog of a read.

The result is kind of boring, as much as it pains me to say it.  There’s something gimmicky about the execution of the book, too, although it’s hard to place what it is, exactly, that makes it feel this way.  Perhaps its the feeling of nostalgia that winds its way through the narrative?  It feels disingenuous?  Not all readers will pick up on this, but more will find themselves frustrated by how slowly Laurel reveals herself.

That is a large part of the book’s problem, too: Laurel is so slow to give readers a glimpse into her tragic past that by the time she arrives at the night May died, the ending of the book feels rushed.  It makes for a jarring end to a novel that is otherwise incredibly slow and deliberate.  Tighter editing would have helped with this; the book feels overly long at just over 300 pages.

Perhaps the most distracting aspect of this novel is how similar in tone and execution it is to Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  This is compounded by the fact that Chbosky blurbed this one.  It might find some readers who don’t mind the slow-as-molasses pace, but this is definitely not a stand-out.

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

 

Book Review: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Seven stories, spanning years, intersect in this novel.  All seven stories–featuring all sorts of different characters, including a pilot, a painter, a ghost, a vampire, and a king–take place on a remote Scandinavian island called Blessed where there’s a mysterious plant resembling a dragon.  What do all these stories have in common?

Midwinterblood has received a great deal of press in the last year, and rightfully so.  It’s an ambitious novel, and it’s memorable, without a doubt.  Just trying to summarize the plot above was no easy feat.  Heaped with critical praise, this is going to be one that divides readers: they’re either going to “get” it, or they aren’t.

I fall into the latter category.  Try as I might, I never fully connected with this one.  It could be that the hype machine got to me and I was never going to love it as much as I felt like I should, or it could be that it simply didn’t work for me.  What I do know is this: the writing is impeccable, the characters are fascinating, and the premise itself is compelling.  But it never came together for me.

While the characters are definitely fascinating, the reader never spends enough time with any of them to fully grasp what is happening or what their motivations are.  There’s this creeping feeling throughout the novel, and while that in itself should keep the pages turning for most readers, there wasn’t enough substance here for me to walk away feeling sated.

That being said, the writing is excellent.  Sedgwick writes each section of the story with an intriguing, haunting prose that hooks the reader.  The creeping feeling of dread that permeates the pages is due in large part to his talent, and even the most skeptical reader will have a hard time overlooking that.

It might be that this is a novel that demands a second or third read-through, but for the time being, I’m left wondering, “Yeah, and?”

Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. Roaring Brook Press: 2013. Library copy.

Book Review: No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale

Friendship, Wisconsin is your average small town.  Everyone knows everyone, and people are generally friendly.  It’s a safe place until high schooler Ruth Fried is found murdered in a gruesome way in the middle of a cornfield.  What was once a peaceful place is rocked to its core in the aftermath of the murder.  Especially in the case of Kippy Bushman, who was Ruth’s best friend. So imagine her horror when the local police seem content with the first suspect that comes along, despite evidence–including Ruth’s salacious diary–to the contrary.  So it’s up to her to solve her friend’s murder and avenge her death.

Kathleen Hale’s ambitious debut YA novel doesn’t quite reach its goals, but it’s not for lack of trying.  Combining elements of suspense, mystery, and satire, this novel’s aims are high, but it stumbles more often than it soars, to borrow a terribly trite phrase.  Although there’s some genuinely good stuff here–Kippy is a memorable character in all her awkwardness, and some of the secondary characters are diverting–it isn’t enough to keep this novel from getting bogged down in its own plot.

That is, perhaps, the novel’s greatest problem.  The pacing is off throughout this twisty mystery because there’s too much plot thrown in.  An abundance of red herrings can certainly keep readers guessing, but when the plot goes down one dead-ends and side-stories, the result is a slow mess.  In fact, Kippy’s venture into an institution threatens to derail the entire story.  Where was the editor on this?

A skewering of mid-west culture is at times spot on (potluck, bratwurst, etc) and at other times woefully overdone (this reader could have done with far less of the “don’tcha knows”).  Is this Fargo or is this a novel for teens?  At any rate, some readers won’t be tripped up by the stalling plot, but others will just want Kippy to get on with it already.

Disappointing, but it’s clear that the DNA of the story had serious promise.  Hale will be an author to watch.

No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale.  HarperTeen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Book Review: Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

Macallan and Levi have been friends for practically forever.  Even though everyone claims that a guy and a girl can’t be just friends, these two are out to prove them wrong.  They are just friends, and they share practically everything.  But their close friendship means that they keep tripping the other one up when it comes to matters of the heart.  So are they better of as friends, or are they destined to be together?

Hailed as an homage to the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally, everything about this gimmicky, treacly-sweet novel doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Although there’s plenty of squeaky-clean romance to be found here (parents who want their teens reading the most filtered, scrubbed-sterile fiction will find a friend in this book) that might appeal to younger readers looking for a bubbly, predictable romance, there are better offerings out there.  This one disappoints at every turn, starting with its tenuous-at-best connection to the smart, funny movie it takes its premise from.

Although it isn’t spelled out from the start, it’s clear early on that Macallan and Levi, who narrate the story in alternating chapters from both present and past, are going to end up together.  So, spoiler alert: they aren’t better off friends.  Because it’s so clear, so early on, that these two are going to eventually hook up, there’s no dramatic tension whatsoever to keep the story engaging.  Unfortunately there isn’t any levity to any other parts of the novel to keep it fresh.  Although a couple of more serious issues are touched on, they aren’t given any depth and therefore aren’t impactful.

The book’s issues are myriad, but one that rankled this reviewer was how clean the teens were when it came to pretty much everything, but especially language.  There’s not any swearing in this one, making it helicopter-parent friendly but not very realistic.  At one point, a teen says something about their “rear,” and it’s jarring.  Not all readers will be bothered by this, and in fact some might find comfort in how gentle it is, but it doesn’t make for very resonant reading.

Disappointing, but sure to find an audience somewhere.  Recommend this one to fans of Susane Colasanti and the like.

Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg. Scholastic/Point: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

In 2044, things in the real world are pretty terrible, and most people prefer to spend their time in the OASIS, a virtual world designed by genius creator James Halliday.  Wade Watts is one of those people, and he chooses to spend nearly all his time in the OASIS utopia, where he can be anyone he wants.  Like millions of others, he dreams of finding the hidden ticket that will allow him to unravel Halliday’s legacy and inherit the OASIS.  Then, one day, he solves the first puzzle.  And all of a sudden, everyone is watching, and he’s in the race of his life to solve the rest of the puzzles before anyone else.

Ernest Cline’s detailed (some might say obsessively so) future world is pretty bleak.  However, the virtual world offers tons of appeal for both its denizens and the book’s readers, as long as they’re willing to suspend belief about, like, everything.  A future-world that doesn’t make sense as soon as its readers spend more than a second thinking about it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems in this pop-culture-ridden, geek-friendly adventure story.

Let’s start with the world-building in Cline’s novel.  Although the OASIS is obsessively detailed and Cline spends an insane amount of time filling the readers in on why things are they way they are and how the OASIS actually works, it still doesn’t make sense.  Other than the OASIS itself, has anything been created since the turn of the millennium?  It’s not realistic that an entire world would be obsessed with the 1980s to the point where it seems as though no other creative works have been created since.  The people in this world have no culture of their own, which might be the point, but that’s never really clear.

If readers can swallow the gaping holes in the book’s world, they might still find the incredibly lengthy info dumps hard to get through.  Cline allows Wade to give readers a blow-by-blow of every video game battle and movie reference, and the novel has a tendency to go on for way, way too long.  Holy exposition, readers.  Easily a third of this novel could have been cut, speeding up the pacing and keeping the story moving.

Many readers are going to gobble up the pop culture references and get caught up in trying to solve the riddles alongside Wade.  However, the pacing of the book is so off because of the exposition that it makes it hard to build the suspense.  Lackluster character development–particularly in the form of the book’s villains–make it harder to care about anyone outside of the book’s narrator.  Also, Cline tries to skirt the issue of race and gender by claiming it’s a post-racial world because everyone can live in the OASIS as whatever they want.  The problem is that the underlying message is that what everyone wants is to be a white male.  Gross.

Definitely appeal here, and some readers will race through it, despite the book’s structural problems.  This one didn’t work for me on any level.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Random House: 2010. Library copy read for book club.

 

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.