Book Review: Rival by Sara Bennett Wealer

At the age of nine, I started playing the violin. I played in the school orchestra right up through Senior year of high school. I took private lessons in junior high and high school, and for a little while in college before giving it up for good. I was never so passionate about music as the girls in Sara Bennett Wealer’s Rival, but I recognize the stresses and pressures she depicts. But this novel is about so much more than music.

RivalRival by Sara Bennett Wealer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: checked out from my public library

Even with all those people between us, even with our folders up, our eyes on Mr. Anderson, and our voices busy on a really hard Bach catata, I feel a steady ping coming off of Brooke like the signal from a giant antenna.

Brooke and Kathryn used to be friends, and now they are bitter enemies. From the outside, popular Brooke and shy Kathryn have nothing in common but a love of music. Their shared history is gradually revealed in sections that alternate between present events and what happened one year earlier.

After reading the first chapter, narrated by Kathryn, it would be easy to think that this is a simple drama of Mean Girl bullying, but Wealer weaves a more complicated tale. That becomes clear by the end of the second chapter, as Brooke begins her side of the story. Both girls are flawed but sympathetic characters; neither one is really the hero(ine) or the villain. Wealer perfectly captures the complicated lives of teenage girls: the secrets, the rivalries, the betrayals. The raw emotions are true to life, as are the pressures that both girls deal with. Tensions build on all fronts until a satisfying conclusion that manages to avoid being too neat or easy. A terrific contemporary realistic read.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Across the Universe (Across the Universe, #1)Across the Universe by Beth Revis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

Mom wanted me to go first. I think it was because she was afraid that after they were contained and frozen, I’d walk away, return to life rather than consign myself to that cold, clear box.

Seventeen-year-old Amy’s parents are part of a team about to colonize a new world. A new world that is a 300-year voyage away, so the whole family – along with the rest of the science and military experts on the mission – will spend the journey cryogenically frozen. They will be woken by the descendents of the original crew when they arrive, as if no time has passed for them at all. But Amy is awakened 50 years early, and she discovers that life on board the Godspeed has become very strange indeed. The ship’s crew has formed a monoethnic society under the strict control of a leader named Eldest. His successor, Elder, is 16 and wondering if he truly has what it takes to lead. And someone on board is trying to murder the frozen colonists.

The first-person narration is shared by Amy and Elder in alternating chapters. Through Elder, the reader gets an insider perspective on life on-board the ship, which he accepts as normal. Simultaneously, Amy’s horror at the situation is keenly felt. Revis gives readers a lot to think about in this engaging mix of mystery and sci-fi: what makes a good leader? how far should a leader go to protect the people? Highly recommended for ages 14 and up; be prepared for requests for the forthcoming sequel!

View all my reviews

Book Review: The False Princess by Eilis O’Neal

The False PrincessThe False Princess by Eilis O’Neal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from my public library

I was a good, quiet, and rule-following girl. The perfect princess, if not for my clumsiness and sometimes painful shyness.

Just after her sixteenth birthday, the Princess Nalia is summoned to meet with her parents. What they tell her could not have come as more of a shock. She is not their daughter, not the Princess. She is a commoner, brought to court as a baby to stand in for the real Nalia, in an attempt to keep the royal heir safe from a prophecy that she would die before the age of sixteen. Now, the real Princess is coming home, and her stand-in will be sent to her only living relative – a previously unknown aunt in a small village – and expected to make a new life for herself. But it is not long before Sinda (as she is now known) discovers that there is much more going on than the King and Queen know, and it just might fall to her save the kingdom itself.

There is a little bit of everything in this debut novel: fantasy, mystery, romance. O’Neal brings the elements together with a master’s touch. The plot is intricate, yet it avoids getting muddled. Characters are developed so that they show both strength and weakness, good and bad. In flowing prose, O’Neal creates a world that pulls the reader in and refuses to let go until the last page. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Book Review: What Can(t) Wait by Ashley Hope Pérez

Since I put together my original list for the Debut Author Challenge back in November, I’ve been eagerly waiting for copies of the books to show up in my library system. And let me tell you, so far, these books have totally been worth the wait.

What Can't Wait (Carolrhoda Ya)What Can’t Wait by Ashley Hope Pérez

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I watch the life that my parents lead, and I know that I want something different. They have worked hard their entire lives with no savings to show for it. My dad dropped out of school in Mexico before third grade; my mom “graduated” from middle school. My brother and sister got out of high school, but they don’t want anything more.

High school Senior Marisa is working hard. All the time. At school, she is trying to keep up with a college-preparatory course load that includes AP Calculus. Even with her affinity for math, it’s hard to stay on top of homework when her after-school hours are taken up with working extra shifts at the grocery store to help support la familia (she hands over half of her paycheck to her parents) and baby-sitting her niece. Her math teacher is pushing her to apply to an engineering program in Austin, but her parents aren’t even eager to see her start school in town at the University of Houston. Marisa sees the life her sister leads, pregnant as a teenager and now in an unhappy marriage to the father, and she knows she wants a different life. While her best friend is happy to live out her life in Houston, Marisa wants to do more. Her whole life, she has tried to be the good daughter, to do and be everything her family needs. When does she get to take of herself?

In this realistic novel, Pérez brings the reader intimately into Marisa’s world, viewing it through her eyes. The dialogue is peppered with Spanish phrases, echoing the speech of many bilingual teens. Secondary characters are vividly drawn, and glimpses of their perspectives illuminate Marisa’s conflicts. Her life is full of complications that come with being a child of immigrants. Although the particular challenges she faces will be unfamiliar to some readers, her struggle to balance her own needs with those of the people she loves is universal.

Book Source: checked out from my public library

View all my reviews

Book Review: Nerd Girls: The Rise of the Dorkasaurus by Alan Sitomer

Nerd Girls: The Rise of the DorkasaurusNerd Girls: The Rise of the Dorkasaurus by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I have a 3.73 grade point average and my body looks like a baked potato. My eyes are brown, my hair is brown, and sometimes when I snack on too many fig bars and run real fast in PE, I end up with brown streaks in my underpants, too. I’m not just un-cool; I’m anti-cool. I mean, I even know hot to properly use a semicolon in a sentence. What could be more pathetic than that?

With that opening paragraph, Sitomer immediately pulled me in to Maureen’s story, and then just as quickly pushed me back out. I hate to grammar nit-pick, but splitting an infinitive in a self-congratulatory comment about the proper use of punctuation is just unfortunate.

Unfortunate is a good word for Maureen. Her two best friends both moved away over the summer, so she is left alone facing the trio of eighth-grade bullies known as “the ThreePees” (for Pretty, Popular, and Perfect). She tries to stop them from tormenting Alice, a new student who happens to be allergic to every substance known to man, but they retaliate by uploading a humiliating video of her to YouTube. Her own older brother and younger sister think they whole thing is hilarious, and her mother is the sort of unrelentingly positive thinker who simply refuses to deal with the problems right in front of her. Nearly against her will, she bands together with Alice and another class outcast known as Beanpole Barbara to get back at the ThreePees by beating them in the school talent show. Now, if only they actually had a talent….

Nerd Girls is reminiscent of Benton’s Dear Dumb Diary series, minus the illustrations. The characters and situations in this book feel about as realistic as an episode of Glee. Both teachers and students are caricatures, and convenient twists occur that simply could not happen in real life. The dialogue rushes headlong past “witty banter”, with characters uttering lines that sound like they should be accompanied by a laugh track. Barbara and Sophia, especially, get stuck with the comic relief roles. Plot points come pell-mell, with little to no foreshadowing or subtlety. The big secret that Alice is hiding is revealed in an info-dump late in the book, and, oddly, still does not explain something that seemed like it should have been a big clue. Perhaps it will be explained in a later installment in the series, if readers still care enough about the flat characters to read them.

On shelves July 2011

Book Source: e-ARC via NetGalley

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter

The Goddess Test (Goddess Test, #1)The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spent my eighteenth birthday driving from New York City to Eden, Michigan, so my mother could die in the town where she was born.

Four years ago, Kate’s mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live. Sure that the end is now near, she has insisted on moving back to her tiny (so tiny, it’s not even on the map Kate uses to get there) hometown in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She also insists Kate finish high school; Kate’s plan is to just keep her head down and spend as much time with her mother as possible. Still, she manages to get on the wrong side of Ava, the Captain of the cheer squad before the first week is out. And then, well, then things get weird.

After Ava dies playing a prank on Kate, a mysterious young man brings her back to life before Kate’s eyes. He claims to be Hades, Lord of the Underworld, and there’s a price to pay for Ava’s life: Kate must spend the next six months with him and face seven tests. He will keep her mother alive while she does. If she passes, she will become a goddess and Henry’s wife, spending six months of every year for eternity in the Underworld. But she is the twelfth girl to face these tests, and the others all died in the process. Can she pass the tests no one else has managed? More importantly, does she want to?

This retelling of the Persephone myth is first and foremost a romance, and readers uncomfortable with the genre may find themselves disappointed. For everyone else, this is a refreshing twist on the paranormal tales that have taken the YA world by storm, with a bit of murder mystery as well. Henry (Hades), in the role of romantic leading man, is dark, brooding, and tortured, and it will take a special leading lady to break through his emotional defenses. Kate – strong and independent, but inexperienced in matters of love and romance – faces tests of her character and moral fiber while falling in love for the first time. And also trying to stay alive long enough to pass those tests.

The book gets off to a bit of a slow and confusing start, with a prologue that provides information to the reader that Kate – the narrator – does not receive until much later. In the early chapters, the pacing is uneven, but once Kate enters Henry’s domain, the story finds its footing. Readers familiar with Greek mythology will figure out the major players (and solve the murder mystery) well before Kate does, but this is a solidly developed and satisfying romance.

Carter’s debut YA novel is the first in a series – volumes two and three are slated for publication in 2012 – and readers will be eager to find out what happens next.

On shelves in April 2011

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

View all my reviews

Book Review: Bumped by Megan McCafferty

BumpedBumped by Megan McCafferty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Preparing to pregg is a full-time job with no days off — but I don’t have a choice. Not when there’s so much at stake.

Melody is sixteen years old, and according to the advertising jingle playing on a continuous loop at Babiez R U, she is the most important person on the planet. With just about everyone over the age of 18 rendered infertile by a widespread virus, fertile teenagers willing to bear children as “Surrogettes” have become a hot commodity. Melody’s economist parent shave been preparing her for a lucrative pregnancy contract practically since adopting her as a newborn. Miles away, in a religious community called Goodside, Melody’s identical twin sister has been raised within the Church and groomed to become an obedient wife and mother by her mid-teens. Both girls have their futures mapped out. That is, until Harmony decides to leave Goodside and meet this previously-unknown sister. Her decision will have serious consequences for both of their lives.

McCafferty plunges the reader right into Melody’s world, so the first chapter is disorienting. Melody throws out slang terms and jargon that the reader must decipher. The second chapter is narrated by Harmony, whose sheltered background provides a natural way to reveal important details without drowning the reader in exposition. The perspective alternates between the two characters over subsequent chapters with distinct voices underscoring the differences between the two.

Reminiscent of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Bumped is a fast-paced dystopian novel that distills issues of love, friendship, faith, loyalty, and family to their essence. McCafferty blends drama and humor effortlessly, populating a disconcerting world with refreshingly complicated characters. A cliffhanger ending will have readers clamoring for the sequel.

Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request
On shelves April 26, 2011.

View all my reviews

Book Review: This Girl is Different by JJ Johnson

This Girl Is DifferentThis Girl Is Different by JJ Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stranded, hurt, but I can handle it. No freak-outs. No worries. This girl is different.

Three days before the beginning of her Senior year of high school, Evie sprains her ankle hiking along the creek. She refuses to see herself as a damsel in distress, but it still comes as a relief when two local teenagers stumble upon her and help her out. Even better, it turns out that the two teenagers will also be Seniors in a few days, and they’re happy to help Evie get settled in her new school. She’s not exactly new in town, but she has been homeschooled (or, really, “unschooled”) by her mother. With plans to go to Cornell, Evie wants to experience a year of high school before heading off to college.

Once school starts, it isn’t long before Evie’s outspoken nature and commitment to social justice put her at odds with the high school Powers That Be. Her attempts to improve the situation for students, while founded on the best of intentions, risk destroying her new friendships and budding romance. She has always told herself that she is different, but can she stay true to herself and still get through a year in the Institution of School?

Evie’s unique voice is a welcome addition to the YA Lit scene. She is smart, strong, and self-confident, but also vulnerable to the emotional turmoil that comes with being a teenager. Having spent her whole life with her mother and uncle, moving from place to place, following her own interests in solitary study, she is unprepared to deal with the social side of high school. Her outrage at the injustices of school life (Why do the students have gross bathrooms while the faculty have nice, clean ones? Why are the students cooped up inside all day, instead of being allowed in the courtyard during lunch?) and the abuses of power she witnesses ring absolutely true, and her determination to do something about them will have readers cheering her on. Johnson’s debut YA title is a welcome breath of fresh air. Highly recommended.

On shelves April 1, 2011

Book Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

View all my reviews

Book Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium (Delirium, #1)Delirium by Lauren Oliver

My Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book Source: e-ARC via NetGalley, by request

The deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it, and when you don’t.

Ninety-five days. That’s how long it will be before Lena turns 18 and has “the procedure”, a sort of brain surgery to prevent Amor deliria nervosa, the disease of love. After that, she will complete her education, be married to a suitable young man, and have however many children the evaluators deem appropriate. In the first few chapters, the reader gets acquainted with Lena and learns that she has plenty of reasons to fear ever falling in love. As in any good dystopian scenario, though, all is not well in this new loveless America, and Lena begins to uncover the truth behind the many lies she has been told.

The idea of love as an eradicable disease, and that its elimination would create a perfectly content society, is an interesting one, but it never really becomes clear how the destruction of the “sickness” became the U.S. government’s number-one priority. The book lacks the solid world-building really needed to support the reader’s suspension of disbelief, but sympathetic characters, suspenseful action scenes, the promise of secrets revealed, and the specter of doomed romance all combine to keep the reader turning pages to the end.

There is a little echo of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the way the government has taken control of so many facets of people’s lives, especially their relationships, and there is a big echo of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the way a metaphor becomes literal. In Lena’s world, love really does make you crazy. It really might kill you. And it really can save you in the end.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Almost Perfect

I took a little while after reading this one to put up a review. It’s this year’s Stonewall Award winner in the Children and Young Adult category, and I wanted to like it more than I did. Don’t you hate when that happens?

Almost PerfectAlmost Perfect by Brian Katcher

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Book Source: Checked out from the library

I knew I shouldn’t stare, but I couldn’t look away. Girls this strange didn’t exist in Boyer. They lived in Columbia or Kansas City or places like that.

High school senior Logan Witherspoon has known all of his classmates since kindergarten. In a town the size of Boyer, MO, everyone knows everyone. So, it’s a surprise when a new girl, Sage, joins his biology class. With her outgoing nature and flashy clothes, she seems like the polar opposite of Logan’s ex-girlfriend, the girl he dated for three years and thought he might one day marry. Sage is attractive and intriguing, but Logan knows she’s hiding something about her past. He never thinks to suspect that her secret is that she was born in a male body.

The first-person narration gives the reader Sage’s story filtered through Logan’s experience, making this more a story about Logan’s meandering journey out of total transphobia than about Sage herself. Katcher creates a believably confused and sympathetic Logan, so it’s unfortunate that Sage feels like an amalgamation rather than a fully-fledged character in her own right, as if events from different people’s lives were thrown together and expected to become a coherent backstory.

Katcher explores the meanings and boundaries of friendship, love, and loyalty, issues that any teenager struggles with. Logan’s interactions with his sister, mother, and friends contrast against Sage’s description of her relationships with her parents and sister, just as the relationship Logan had with his ex-girlfriend forms a stark contrast to his developing relationship with Sage. Logan’s story will prompt teen readers (and maybe some adults, too) to think about how they would act in his situation. And that can only be a good thing.

View all my reviews