Peace, Love, and Baby Ducks

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , | Posted on 8:38 AM


Rating: 3/5 stars

How do you create a character who's often irritatingly self-righteous, yet also funny, smart, interesting, and deep down kind? And then tell a story from her point of view, showing how she's not totally oblivious to her faults but just blind enough to get into huge trouble? Meet Carly.

Carly's coming back from a hippie-esque summer camp in the mountains, an experience that has provided her with a skinny new figure, some interesting fashion aesthetics, and a whole new attitude towards the superficial, money-obsessed culture of her high school -- that is, complete and utter rejection. Carly is out to be real, and if that means ruffling some hometown feathers by not shaving her legs or by listening to 60's music or even by wearing eye-searing tie-die outfits....well, tough. She's not afraid to be different; she refuses to follow the herd.

Her old friends, of course, don't understand Carly's change of heart, and neither really does her sister, Anna. Little ducky Anna, who is just starting high school and suddenly isn't so little anymore -- especially in the bosom department. Carly doesn't know how to deal with Anna's unexpected transformation into teen sexpot...it isn't exactly nice to be jealous of your little sister's huge (*ahem*) assets, not to mention the way the boys are all drooling after her. To be fair, Anna herself is struggling with all the not-entirely-welcome attention that her new shape is causing, and navigating high school is obviously proving more difficult than she expected. But when is Big Sister Carly supposed to rush to the rescue -- and when should be let her little sister try to paddle along on her own?

Besides, Carly has her own preoccupations - like Cole, the smoldering new boy who happens to play acoustic guitar and has soulful eyes and totally gets all of Carly's 60's band references. It's a match made in Heaven...except Cole oddly persists in not asking Carly out and hanging out with these trashy Barbie girls instead. The only person who seems to appreciate Carly is Roger, her Danish friend, with his wry sense of humor and calm, steady demeanor -- except that Roger has been seeming a little too appreciative recently, especially since Carly doesn't like him back in that way. Does she?

A quality teen novel not only for the character challenge mentioned above, this story also manages to cover most of the 'high school experience' territory while dodging the worst cliches -- or at least smoothing them over with enough genuine interest and emotion. Case in point: 'The Boy Who Is Totally Wrong For Her' theme does unfortunately dominate the novel, but there's enough humor and genuine confusion on Carly's part to give it a pass (especially since the wonderful Roger also exists on the scene. Oh, Roger, you Giant Danish Love Boodle). The body issues also fly fast and furious, with some really cringe-worthy episodes involving diet/fashion obsessed parents absently demolishing their daughters' self-esteem with a few offhand comments. Not to mention the rampant hypocrisy and ignorance of the wealthy high school crowd, absorbed in vacuous and endless debates about hair treatments and vacation plans. A few supporting characters with an actual pulse -- Vonzelle most especially -- provide some relief from this oppressive teen atmosphere, and also give Carly a much-needed kick in the pants about her own self-absorbed and self-righteous tendencies.

Entertaining and substantial enough for a YA high school production, with a heroine who's often a bit frustrating but at least avoids dullness/total cliche. Even if you do want to throttle her sometimes. ;)

Paper Towns

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:28 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

Who is Margo Roth Spiegelman? High school legend, escape artist, perpetual runaway, Avenging Angel of Suburbia...

Quentin Jacobsen (Q), high school senior, feels pretty content with his normal life. Being minivan-chauffeured into school (often late), hanging out with his friends in band, unwinding with video games and looking forward to college -- he may not be at the top of the social totem pole, but Q has a comfortable space and a reasonable plan for life (college, career, maybe kids).

Until one night Margo Roth Spiegelman, Q's childhood sweetheart and the untouchable, dazzling figure of his fantasies, shows up at his window.

Wearing black face paint.

With a list of Eleven Tasks to complete before sunrise -- and she wants his help.

She leads him on a mad caper through the night hours, in a merry whirlwind of minivans, blue spray paint, catfish, and lots of Vaseline. Q has never felt so alive; he has never felt so close to this impossible, fascinating girl.

The next day, Margo Roth Spiegelman disappears.

Q has to find her. But in the course of tracking her down, Q's sense of Margo increasingly unravels, and he begins to wonder who he's really chasing -- and why.

It seems like coming-of-age tales 'classically' consist of a movement from a sheltered, relatively ignorant childhood to the overwhelming complexities of the adult world. Paper Towns is a different sort of story, maybe set a little later on in the process -- there is no oasis of tranquil youth, only the pressures of being an overinformed teenager in a suburban cookie-cutter housing development. Green's main characters fiercely question -- the world around them, their place in society, their own aspirations and assumptions -- and while it doesn't ease the uncertainty, it's at least vastly superior to apathetic conformity. The book is impressive for being able to pull this off, creating characters who are engaged with the world without sounding insipidly idealistic or preachy, and a major part of that is how sympathetic Green makes them, especially through some excellent humor. Also magnificent is how they are all complete people; some play larger roles than others, but no one is reduced to cardboard for the sake of emotional scenery.

Q is smart and sardonic and slightly terrified much of the time, and it's wonderful to come with him on his quest, his private investigation into The Life and Times of Margo Roth Spiegelman. He doesn't know what the hell he's doing, most of the time -- which is the perfect expression of not only teenagedom but life overall, as Q increasingly realizes. You can get so caught up in Q's point of view that even the more 'cliched' revelations avoid triteness, and the plot is a beautifully absorbing mix of character-driven drama and whodunit mystery.

Not a book to skim, by any means; this is a pretty complex work for YA, with some refreshing new twists in looking at the world. It's definitely possible to overhype this novel, but as long as you don't expect anything to completely explode your mind, this is a scintillating read about finding out who you really are, what you need in life, and what to do about that beer-can sword superglued to your hand.

Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , , | Posted on 8:34 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

An absorbing adventure novel in the best sense, this book deftly weaves Chinese folktales and legends into a fascinating backdrop for a strong heroine. In her story, Pon acknowledges but doesn't exaggerate the 'traditional' draconian social codes for women, and she also avoids trying to awkwardly shove a 'modern' tale into the cultural framework. For Ai Ling, life as a young woman isn't fair -- the only thing worse than being given away in an arranged marriage is being refused by her suitors and causing her parents to lose face. She is caught in an impossible situation, longing for a love match like her parents' but knowing that, with her father's past disgrace, she would be lucky to secure any young man of decent reputation and income.

When Ai Ling's father is called to court and does not return, his disappearance puts his wife and daughter in dire straits, and Ai Ling sets alone out to find him. She soon discovers that she faces worse dangers than the customary threats to a lone woman traveler; dark spirits seem to be hunting her, creatures that seem to come straight from the pages of her father's forbidden text, The Book of the Dead. Further, Ai Ling herself seems to be changing -- she is caught up in odd trances where she seems to hear other people's thoughts, as if her spirit is sailing out of her body. Then there's the matter of the jade pendant her father gave her, a seemingly innocuous stone that begins to glow when the demons threaten...

When Ai Ling meets Chen Yong, a young man with half-foreign heritage, she wonders if their destinies are somehow intertwined. He is searching for his own father, and Ai Ling finds him both compelling and troubling with his strange, green-tinged eyes -- can she trust him with her quest?

Well-written and complex without being overly involved; Pon crafts a plot that's naturally integrated into the cultural background of ancient China. What I love most about this book is how the setting and characters are presented so...naturally (for lack of a better term). There isn't that weird, self-conscious foreignization/domestication dance that usually happens when presenting Chinese culture to an 'American' audience, because Pon focuses on the characters and the world as part of their story. Readers who don't know anything about China won't feel shut out, and I loved discovering creatures and legends I'd never heard of before.

Plus, I got to root for a female heroine who is both strong and yet also part of her own society -- she's not completely custom-bound, but she dearly loves and respects her parents to the point of making sacrifices. The supporting characters were also nicely drawn and the story was fantastical and even romantic without being overly sentimental...if that makes any sense. Overall, an excellent read with an infusion of rich mythology (and some mouth-watering descriptions of food. Yum!).

The Awakening

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 8:31 AM


Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Yet another second-book-in-series review, following Kelley Armstrong's YA debut with The Summoning. Mildly spoilerish below:

We pick up just about exactly where The Summoning left off in the Adventures of Chloe Saunders, a drama/film major in an artsy high school who discovers that a) she can see and talk to ghosts, so b) all her childhood 'nightmares' were actually real and c) this qualifies her as 'crazy teen' in the eyes of society and family alike. So she gets shipped off to Lyle House, a group home for troubled teens...but soon after arriving, Chloe discovers that her fellow housemates aren't so much troubled as -- well, disturbing. There's Liz, who claims to have a poltergeist problem; Tori, with serious anger issues; Rae, who is a bit too fond of pyrotechnics; Simon, who's charming and friendly and doesn't seem to belong there at all; and Derek. Oh, Derek... A hulking mass of a teenaged boy, Derek suffers from a lack of: hygiene, patience, and any social skills whatsoever. As the wonderful Maya sums up in her review, "Puberty has hit him like a meteor!"

Of course, our heroine must get into Dire Straits with the Severely Misunderstood Yet Still Awfully Snappish Derek, as she investigates Lyle House and uncovers its true sinister purposes.

I enjoyed the first installment greatly.

Sadly, The Awakening seemed to suffer from The Empire Strikes Back Syndrome, aka Second Book in a Trilogy -- that perilous section where, if not handled properly, the story arc falters since not much is happening besides a buildup to The Final Showdown in book three. I didn't lose interest, exactly, but I wasn't especially shocked by anything that happened in this book; it didn't help that the characters were on the run for most of the time, and there are only so many times a chase-and-barely-escape routine should play out in one book. You know how The Lord of the Rings could be sarcastically summed up with the phrase, "And then they walked some more..."*
Well, events in The Awakening could be roughly described as, "And then they were chased some more..."

The focus was more on internal and interpersonal development, as Chloe discovers more about the Edison Group's nefarious schemes and her own squirrely necromancing powers...but even the characters seemed to be in a holding pattern at this point, not quite reaching any firm conclusions or goals. I'm fine with Chloe not achieving instant Obi-Wan control over her powers, but she gets the Han Solo end of the stick here -- she's constantly getting chased, snarked at, beat up, and generally pushed around by the plot. While Han Solo would just shoot everyone in the face, Chloe grits her teeth and takes it. Admirable, but also tedious after a while.

It wasn't a bad book by any means -- and it's probably a necessary one for the trilogy -- but it still isn't my favorite. Hopefully the last installment will pick things up again with a satisfying finish, where Chloe masters her mojo and summons an entire army of dead squirrels to crush her enemies and take over the world. Or not.


*Btw, I love The Lord of the Rings, every page, ever since my loooong high school bus ride days. Therefore, I mock with love.

Hell Week

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Posted by Cobalt | Posted in , , , | Posted on 11:02 AM


Rating: 4/5 stars

This is a review of the second in a series, but I don't have time for a first-series-book review and wanted to gush a bit about Hell Week now. So, mild plot spoilers for Prom Dates from Hell (the first book of the series) to follow:

Maggie Quinn, intrepid girl reporter, is no stranger to the supernatural -- after sixteen years of repressing her own psychic abilities, she was forced to wake up and smell the brimstone after a demon-summoning almost massacred her senior class on Prom Night. She saved the day with some quick thinking, snarky comebacks, and the guidance of her no-nonesense Irish grandmother -- oh, plus the assistance of her professor father's handsome graduate student, Justin (who has a winning combination of Boy Scout dependability and Indiana Jones rakish good looks).

Now in her freshman year of college, Maggie faces a host of new challenges, including a tougher reporting scene, an oddly distant Justin, and the horrors of an 8 a.m. Calculus class -- not to mention the mystery of the Sigma Alpha Xis, a sorority whose sisters tend to experience uncanny amounts of good luck. Maggie initially goes undercover during Rush in order to expose the hypocrisy and injustice of the campus Greek system, but as she approaches Pledge Night and Initiation, she finds that there's more than frat parties and bragging rights at stake. Something demonic is brewing on Greek Row, and it's up to Maggie to put a stop to it -- that is, if she can maintain her cover without getting pulled into the SAXi's enticing web of power, success, and perfect fashion sense.

It's easy to bill this one as Buffy meets Nancy Drew in the best way -- Maggie is a sharp, smart heroine who can banter with the best of them while dodging jinxs and demons. She's got insecurities too, though, and still struggles with her psychic 'gifts,' in the form of disturbing dreams and visions that feel more like full-body assaults. Plus, her now-ambiguious relationship with Justin has Maggie stuck in a romantic holding pattern that's easy to sympathize with, even as she observes the Greek scene and wonders about the real factors of attraction and desire on campus. Excellent plot with some great twists and a satisfying pace that never lapses into and-then-this-happened monotony; I was always eager to pick up the book for the next development, and the conclusion was a satisfying reward. With her sharp, vivid characters, witty dialogue and creative story, Clement-Moore officially has me hooked on the adventures of Maggie Quinn: Girl vs. Evil.
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