Apr. 1st, 2013

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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

He’s a teen movie star with a pet pig and a severe case of the sort of loneliness only the famous can know. 

She’s a small town girl with daddy issues and her own reasons for keeping out of the spotlight.

When an email goes to the wrong address, it sparks a conversation and unlikely friendship between Ellie O’Neill and Graham Larkin. Despite the simmering chemistry found in their electronic exchanges, they hesitate to reveal actual names, giving their relationship an air of mystery and anonymity. 

That all changes when Graham’s newest movie chooses Ellie’s home town of Henley, Maine, to do some local shooting. Soon enough, the two have met face to face, and they finally have the opportunity to take things to the next level. But can they embark on a relationship without the whole world knowing? How will Ellie’s friends, or worse, her overprotective mother, handle her dating a movie star? Is Graham the sort of guy to settle for a girl like Ellie?

For the most part, This Is What Happy Looks Like is a fairly standard romantic drama/comedy, albeit an entertaining, wholly satisfying one. As I read it, I made certain predictions about how things would go wrong, and at what point (since, as we know, things always go wrong…) To my pleased surprise, I was generally wrong.  Smith manages to avoid most of the obvious pitfalls and stumbling blocks, and steers clear of the usual sort of awkward miscommunications which are standard romcom fodder.  In a sense, my enjoyment of this book stemmed not from what happened, but from what didn’t happen.

The initial email exchange between Ellie and Graham is both cute and a perfect insight into their characters; it’s hilarious that a seventeen-year-old movie star stays up late emailing random people because he’s got nothing better to do…and yet it’s totally fitting in Graham’s case. (Though a Hotmail address?  Really? People still use Hotmail?)

The only part of the story that didn’t quite work for me was when Graham and Ellie took the time out to go find her father, who she hasn’t seen in years. It’s not that it was a bad sequence—in fact, it was a perfect opportunity to see both of the characters out of their natural elements, giving them a chance to, well, just be themselves—but it felt like a whole different story altogether. Sometimes a road trip element works, sometimes not, and this was a case where it felt out of place and could have been handled in a different fashion.  (I can just imagine circumstances where Ellie’s father, a U.S. Senator, decides to visit Henley to meet with Graham to bolster his image among the younger audiences…)

I really did enjoy this book. Ellie and Graham’s romance is believable and sweet, and they overcome all the various obstacles with a minimum of effort, mostly stemming from Ellie’s own issues.  Graham, it must be said, felt almost too good to be true, unspoiled by fame and fortune and Hollywood success, a teenager struggling with loneliness as his career alienates him from friends and family. Is it possible to remain that normal when you’re one of the hottest teen actors on the market? (Okay, he has a pet pig named Wilbur, how normal is that?)

In short: a lovely story that works wonders from a slightly improbable premise, starring likeable characters and a satisfying romance. This may not be ground-breaking, but it’s definitely what happy looks like.

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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Faith Patel may only be an average soccer player—practically a benchwarmer for the Fraser High Copperheads—but it’s something she loves.  More importantly, it’s one of her few refuges from the constant pressure of family and academics. Torn between her responsibilities to her younger siblings, and her mother’s insistence that she get the grades needed to get into a good school, she has to fight for the chance to play soccer, to take a little something just for herself.  Worse, her obligations prevent her from having a social life, and she afford the time and money needed to pay on club teams like many of her teammates, further setting her apart.

Things get complicated when she develops a crush on her coach after he shows an interest in her wellbeing. Now Faith has to worry about what to do, how to approach the older man. Is it all in her head, or is there a real spark?  And when one of her teammates finds out, will everything come tumbling down?

Offside is a strong, if fairly to-the-point, story about warring obligations and inappropriate crushes.  Faith’s predicament is honest, believable, and just a little painful, as we see the desperate-for-a-break, stressed-from-all-sides young woman get caught between dutiful daughter and sister, and teenager in need of stress relief.  It’s easy to identify with her yearnings, confusion, and desires.

However, the short nature of this book seems to keep the storylines from really going anywhere. What could have been a powerful way to explore the power dynamics between teen and adult, athlete and coach, fizzles, primarily present only in Faith’s mind.  Coach Berg is pretty much an unknowing participant in the plotline, and we never get to see just what he thinks, or how he’d react.  Likewise, the issue with Faith’s teammate and the potential blackmail/troublemaking also stays fairly mild, never going anywhere.  While I’m definitely not advocating that the author take up what could be an intensely controversial or volatile issue, the fact remains that the storyline seemed ready to steam right into those troubled waters, before veering off into safe territory. Sadly, this book just doesn’t seem to reach its full potential, possibly due to its relative brevity, or an inability or unwillingness to push the boundaries.

Despite these shortcomings, Offside is a well-written story, with realistic characters and believable situations, featuring the sort of problems teens can undoubtedly relate to. While the storyline revolves around high school varsity girls’ soccer, detail-rich and featuring numerous scenes set on and off the field, it still touches on universal themes.  At just over 100 pages long, it’s little more than an appetizer for some readers, but it might just be the right size to read on the bus after a game. The diverse characters and positive message, straight-forward without being heavy-handed, make this a worthwhile read. While not as strong as others I’ve seen in the series, it definitely has an appeal and a charm unto itself.

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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Madison “Maddie” Wong plays soccer for the Fraser Hugh Copperheads.  A talented midfielder, she dreams of playing for a Division 1 college like Stanford or Duke, but she’s overly reliant on the “sick soccer sync” she shares with her best friend Dayton.  Together, they’re unbeatable on the field. Unfortunately, the more intense Maddie becomes, determined to show off her skills to the college scouts starting to come by, the less dedicated Dayton is. In fact, Dayton’s more interested in partying and boys, leaving her “sync sister to founder and flail on her own.  Will Maddie be seduced by her best friend, and abandon the game for a chance at a social life? Or will she find her own path, one that doesn’t rely so heavily on a single other person?

Out of Sync, part of the Counterattack series of quick reads for “reluctant readers,” focuses on the intense pressures facing many student-athletes. Maddie, the very picture of the driven player, must find the right balance between her athletic ambitions and her friends, between striving for perfection and accepting when she needs help. When she realizes just how much she depends upon Dayton, it forces her to reassess her skills, her rapport with her fellow players, and her own inner strength. She struggles with the temptation to let it all slide, to relax, and it almost costs her more than she can stand. 

Like all of the books in this series, it’s rather short and to the point, with little room for extraneous plots.  Out of Sync is a fun story, with realistic characters and believable situations, featuring the sort of problems teens can undoubtedly relate to. While the storyline revolves around high school varsity girls’ soccer, detail-rich and featuring numerous scenes set on and off the field, it still touches on universal themes.  At just over 100 pages long, it’s little more than an appetizer for some readers, but it might just be the right size to read on the bus after a game. The diverse characters and positive message, straight-forward without being heavy-handed, make this a worthwhile read.

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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Ashley Arthur is calm, cool, and collected. She can pick locks, steal cars, rewire alarms, and scale fences like a champion. She’s one of the best thieves in the world…and she’s only fifteen. With her partner Benjamin running tech support and remote backup, Ash is ready to tackle any challenge.  But now the pair have set their sights on one of the richest targets alive. They have solid information that Hammond Buckland, billionaire CEO of HBS, has a whopping $200,000,000 hidden somewhere in his corporate headquarters.

And they’re going to steal it.

However, the job goes horribly awry when Michael Peachey, reportedly the third best hitman in the business, shows up to terminate Buckland on secret orders from the government. Now the teenage thief is trapped in the same building as a ruthless assassin. Ash isn’t leaving without the money. Peachey’s not leaving any witnesses alive.

Things rapidly snowball out of control. Buckland’s had time to prepare for his potential assassination, and soon he has Peachey jumping through hoops of his own, one step ahead of the killer. But the three way struggle attracts the attention of both the police and the Terrorism Risk Assessment agency, and soon Ash is running from killers and the law.  Will she get her payday, or is this job doomed to failure?

Money Run is an absurdly entertaining, over-the-top, adventure that may be just a little too hard to swallow if taken seriously. Heath is adept at putting his characters into adrenaline-charged, life-and-death situations, constantly upping the stakes and the action appeal. By the time Ash has “borrowed” a Bugatti Veyron, one of the world’s most exclusive and expensive cars, and driven it off the top of the building only to crash it into the apartment building next door, you know this is no run-of-the-mill romp.  And believe me, that’s not even the most outrageous stunt to grace these pages.

Ash is a great protagonist, a skilled thief who does it for the kicks rather than the loot, adept at thinking on the fly and making her lunatic plans somehow work. I’d love to see a situation where she ran into Ally Carter’s tband of teenage grifters and thieves from Heist Society.

However, I’m not sure what to think about some of the other characters. Hammond Buckland would make a perfect supervillain: his elaborate plans, Wile E. Coyote deathtraps, penchant for monologuing, and ability to remain one step ahead of everyone place him somewhere between Lex Luthor and Ernst Blofeld on the level of accomplishment, and yet he remains vaguely sympathetic.  Peachey, on the other hand, is introduced as a competent, skilled, experienced assassin with the quirky habit of internally narrating his story like he’s going to sell it to the movies. But for someone so good as his job, he’s…not very good. Ash runs rings around him, and Buckland treats him like Bugs treats Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd.  It’s almost sad, watching this guy so completely off his game.

An interesting quirk of the book is that it seems to go out of its way to be set in a specific location. It was originally released in 2008 in Heath’s native Australia, but honestly, this book could take place in Australia, America, or possibly Canada. Currency is given in dollars, but the TRA is, as far as I can tell, entirely fictitious. There’s references to “this state” and “this country” without trying very hard to ground the story in a real location.

Now, Heath has already gone on record addressing the similarities between this book and the 2011 movie, Tower Heist. (Spoilers of a sort to be found at that link). All I can say is that while there are definitely parallels, I’m pretty sure it’s mostly just coincidental. Your mileage may vary. 

In the end, I’d definitely say I enjoyed this story. Sure, it’s almost ludicrously over-the-top at points, with the initial heist turned into something approaching slapstick levels of comedy, coincidence, bad timing and Rule of Cool, but it’s no harder to accept than, say, Catch That Kid! If you want a fast-paced romp that reads like a mashup of Heist Society and Die Hard, a teen adventure with a cinematic feel, this is a worthy offering.

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Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. Please leave any comments there.

Caitlin Myers is a teenage actress who desperately wants to be a superstar.  When she gets the chance to audition for a local B-movie slasher flick, she leaps at the chance.  She’s thrilled when she wins the role, though less so when she learns it’s as a bikini babe who spends way too much time showing way too much skin.  Nevertheless, she allows ambition to override common sense, and accepts the role.

Two problems: She’s 16, and her mother won’t let her take the time off school to do the film.

Solution: Caitlin starts lying.  To everyone.  She tells the people doing the movie that she’s 18 and, you know, totally legal. And she plays her separated parents off against one another to create the alibis needed to skip school and follow her dreams.  She lies to her friends about the quality and prestige of the film and the fun she’s having.  She lies to her boyfriend about the same things, and how she’s feeling.

The work is long and hard and exhausting.  It’s also more than a little sleazy and unsettling.  And when they ask her to take her top off, she naturally balks.  But faced with pressure, she caves and does the nude scene.  Later, after second thoughts, she changes her mind and tries to have the scene removed.  Fat chance.  It’s there to stay, and her contract won’t allow for her to object further.

Faced with no other way out, Caitlin reveals her true age…and that’s when the house of cards collapses all around her.  As the lies stand revealed, she’s faced with upset people on all sides: parents, friends, boyfriend, director and producer….

Here’s where I’d normally leave you with the dangler, and you’d accept that, secure in the knowledge that, having reached Act 2 or 3 in the story, we’d thus be looking forward to Caitlin’s eventual redemption as she climbs out of the hole she’s made for herself.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  Last Cut as good as ends with our heroine at her lowest point and we’ve no idea what happens next or how she deals with the fallout.  And while I am opposed almost to a fault when it comes to spoilers in my reviews, it’s hard to talk about a book that ends halfway through a character’s journey otherwise.

Caitlin herself puts it best, when she says, “I have a feeling this is going to bite me in the ass.”  As the narrator, she’s supposed to have qualities to which we can relate. Instead, we’re treated to the thoughts of a selfish, self-absorbed, high-strung dive, a compulsive liar who barely thinks ahead unless it’s to count her Oscars in her imaginary future. She alternately uses, lies to, and ignores her friends, and is surprised when they turn on her. She pits her parents against one another in a heartless display of emotional manipulation and outright falsehoods.  And yeah, I’ m not going to say that the director of the movie is a paragon of virtue, demanding T&A for his low budget slasher flick…but in his defense, he thought she was of consenting age and understood her contract. He may have been a jerkwad, but he didn’t deserve to have Caitlin torpedo the whole production with her illegal, underage showboating. 

That’s not all. Caitlin spends the entire story being jealous of a newcomer, a talented actress who transfers to her school and who actually dares to compete with her for the choice roles.  At no point do we ever get any impression that Lianne, her competition, is anything other than a genuinely decent person, but Caitlin goes wild with jealousy and hatred at every turn.  No wonder her friends are ready to ditch her; Lianne probably seems like a breath of fresh air after all that.  Caitlin also quits her job with no notice, to go work on the film…good luck getting a reference after that!  Doesn’t she know that most actors wait tables in between gigs anyway?

Perhaps if Last Cut actually had a second half, the one where Caitlin actually dealt with the consequences of her actions, made amends, and displayed some personal growth, I wouldn’t be quite so critical of this story.  After all, it’s standard procedure that when you bring your hero low, it’s to build them back up again.  We want to see how the protagonist presumably comes out of the experience as a better person.  Here, we see Caitlin act horribly, alienate or upset everyone she cares about, and ruin her career, and that’s about it. 

It’s a shame; I wanted to like this a lot more than I did.  Lorimer’s SideStreets line of edgy, “fast-paced, high interest” books for reluctant readers really seems like a great thing, full of potential.  A quick scan of other offerings displays a wide variety of situations and topics, diverse characters, and realistic slices of life.  However, they all aim for the 30k word count, which is a pretty tight range for something aspiring to be a book.  I’m not sure Last Cut makes the best use of its space.  (That, and the overly authentic teenspeak, both in narrative and dialogue, started to grate after a while.  As in, “Plus, I don’t think she gets that sometimes kids have to be like, grown up and stuff.”)

 In short, I applaud the overall aim of the line of books from which this sprung, but I still feel like I only got half a book featuring a wholly unlikable, unsympathetic character whose ambition got the best of her, and no true resolution.   

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