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

fine young gentlemenThe first thing you should know is that despite the title, the three major protagonists of this book are neither fine, nor gentlemen. Young, sure, as all three are 16-year-olds who attend Percy College School, an elite Canadian academy.

Jacob Aberdeen is a sexual predator who prides himself on breaking virgins, a deviant who systematically stalks young women and who thinks nothing of window peeping, blackmail, and manipulation. In fact, he’s pretty much a psychopath.

Craig Osterman is a football hero with a sexy girlfriend and a dark secret. Who at PCS is trying to make his life miserable? What happens when his life starts to crumble? And then when he kills the teacher attempting to molest him, he becomes a strangely unrepentant, cold-blooded killer, determined to hide the evidence.

Matt Cutler is a frustrated virgin and compulsive masturbator. Obsessed with sex and his continuing quest to get laid, he’d do anything to make the score. He doesn’t even have football to distract him, ever since a back injury sidelined him.

Their paths cross and overlap as events spiral out of control, with everyone searching for the guy who murdered a beloved teacher, the administration desperate to cover up the fact that one of their own had abused his position for years, and Jacob determined to destroy Craig so he can have Craig’s girlfriend.  It doesn’t end well.

While in most sex comedies, the protagonists have some measure of sympathy to offset their hormonal antics, the so-called heroes of this book don’t have that redeeming factor, ranging instead from pathetic to despicable. Rude, crude, crass, shameless, manipulative, and reeking of entitlement, they’re not characters you want to see succeed. Honestly, this book is lacking in sympathetic characters in general, everyone possessing some dirty little secret or horrible trait. Misogyny, classism, even a touch of racism abound. The attitudes towards women and sex are simply horrible. Jacob and Matt may be prime examples of how women are primarily in this book to be sex objects or flawed authority figures, present for their amusement, ambition, or fantasies, but very few of the secondary characters are likable.

Honestly, I read this book as one might stare at a wreck on the side of the road, unable to look away. It lacks the humor of a comedy, the sophistication of a thriller, the innocence of a coming-of-age tale, and the charm of a slice-of-life story.  By the time it wrapped up, on a sour and bloody note, I had to wonder just what the author’s intention was. This is like the extremely awkward love child of Porky’s and American Psycho, with none of their respective appeal. If you’re looking for books that get into the mind of the teenage male, there are far better examples, including works by Don Calame, Andrew Smith, Barry Lyga, and Brent Crawford.

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

Money is truly the root of all evil in this somewhat imbalanced teen drama. Seven years ago, Leni Kohn’s family won the lottery–$22 million after taxes. Today, a week before Leni’s eighteenth birthday, the family is pretty much broke. Careless investments, wasteful spending, and too many generous “loans” have reduced their fortune to near-nothing. The family has one hope left: when Leni turns eighteen, her trust fund kicks in and she finally gets access to the million put aside just for her.  Everyone assumes that she’ll give it all to her parents, so the family doesn’t drown in debt. Even Leni assumes she’ll do what’s right for her family, no matter how much she dreams of using to pay for college or help the environment.

Then her older sister Natasha tells Leni that she made a deal with the devil for them to win the lottery, and the money is cursed, and Leni should get rid of it all. Leni’s about ready to laugh it all off as one of her sister’s odder quirks, until she starts getting visits from the archangel Michael, telling her to “fix it.” 

Now Leni is caught in a vaguely-defined struggle between good and evil, trying to find the right path. She suspects it has something to do with Gavin, a brilliant young man with a checkered past, who’s come back into her life at an unexpected time. But how can she fix something when she doesn’t even know what she’s fixing? How can she justify depriving her parents of the money they need?  With the days until her birthday ticking down, can she find a solution?

I wanted to like this book a lot. Part of it stems from a fascinating premise, one grounded in reality. After all, how many times do we read about lottery winners who go broke or come to a bad end? How often do we see stories about the accidental millionaires who can’t handle their newfound wealth? Stein’s portrayal of the Kohns as a family ruined by success is painful, riveting, and poignant. The parents who build a needlessly luxurious mansion and throw extravagant parties and throw their money at poor investments and risky ventures. The older brother who blows his money on parties and traveling, until he ends up back at home, dreaming of better days. The older sister who can’t let go of her ex-boyfriend, who sinks her money into a tea shop.  And Leni, the sensible, idealistic one, whose money has remained in trust all these years until she comes of age.  It’s a powerful look at people who simply weren’t prepared for their fortune, and how it undermines their sense of self and corrupts their priorities. 

So to put the story at the crucial point where Leni must decide what to do with her money? There’s the seed of a compelling, provocative tale. Her moral dilemma and internal struggle is really something to study. While money isn’t inherently bad, it’s clear that it’s an easily-misused resource. No wonder she’s conflicted about giving it to her parents, knowing it’s just a stopgap measure when they need to find a new way of handling things. And this is the story I wanted to read, in which Leni find a way to break the cycle and rescue her family from the pit of despair and debt. 

So when I realized that this book also had a paranormal element, I honestly wondered if it was necessary. Did the book actually need this subplot regarding a vaguely-described deal with the devil, and ambiguous communications from an archangel?  Is it any stronger for having the supernatural quality in the background?  I don’t think so.  In fact, it’s a little distracting, even a little insulting, to be able to ascribe outside influences to such purely human elements.  Money doesn’t need to be cursed in order to lead to bad results, simple foolishness and greed can accomplish the same thing.

I know, I’ve never exactly been one to shy away from the paranormal elements in what I like. Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres, after all. But sometimes, that element of the fantastic does more harm than good, and Spoils is a good example of a story that would have been perfect as a mainstream book.  It has everything already in place: a family in crisis, a conflicted protagonist, a suitably compelling romantic interest, and a complex moral dilemma that speaks to its audience. Given the economy of the past few years, money is never far from anyone’s mind.  Almost everyone plays the “what if we won the lottery” game and this is a starkly compelling cautionary tale.

As it stands, it’s really quite a muddle. Is the money truly cursed? If so, is it only cursed when the Kohns use it for their own benefit? Or will all those people they loaned/gifted/donated it to suffer equally miserable fates somewhere down the line? Otherwise, why couldn’t Leni have kept a little for herself, to handle necessities as opposed to frivolities, or would paying for school be selfish somehow?  There’s too much left unexplained and unspecified where her mission is concerned, and I’m still not sure how the chain of logic led her to assume that she had to help redeem Gavin’s life.  More of the hand-wavy paranormal bits, I guess.

In the end, Spoils is a fantastic book undermined by a few too many extraneous elements, which is really a shame.

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

Scarletville, Iowa, bills itself as a National Redhead Sanctuary. Indeed, it’s a town where the vast majority of the populace are redheads.  A town where gingers are worshipped, and the redder the better. Where strawberry blondes are disparagingly referred to as “strawbies” and looked down on as “not red enough.” Where those who dye their hair to fit in are dubbed “arties” and outright ostracized for their false redness. It’s the town’s dirty little secret, that blondes and brunettes are shunned, mocked, discriminated, kept out of positions of importance.

Felicity St. John is one of the reddest of the red, and a beauty queen in the making.  Her mother, a former Miss Scarlet twenty-five years ago, has driven Felicity to compete all her life, with an eye towards making sure Felicity entered, and won, the Miss Scarlet pageant when she came of age. And now that time has come.

But Felicity’s not so sure she wants to be a beauty queen, to follow in her mother’s footsteps, to bring home the trophy her mother has craved for so long. She’d rather take art classes and follow her own dreams. But with the pageant fast approaching, it’s time to play dutiful daughter a little longer.

Only…there’s a problem. Someone has found out Felicity’s dark secret—that she’s dyed her hair ever since she was a toddler—and now they’re blackmailing her. If she gives in to their demands, it could ruin her social standing and her chances at Miss Scarlet. But if anyone finds out the truth, it could destroy her entire life. Caught between two impossible choices, can she find a way to break free?

At first, I looked at Red as a relatively run-of-the-mill YA drama. You know, slice-of-life, with teen angst, romance, a protagonist forced to make hard decisions and come of age, the usual. And one set against a comparatively lightweight premise. A town full of redheads? Where the heroine’s deepest, darkest secret is that she’s not a natural redhead? Yeah, good for some laughs, but hard to take seriously. It reminded me of Emma Pillsbury’s parents from Glee, on a larger scale.

Bu then I reconsidered.

This book is freaking brilliant. In creating her little town of redhead supremacy, Alison Cherry has taken an innocuous physical detail, and turned it into the perfect stand-in for a host of real issues. In discussing the way in which non-redheads are ostracized, bullied, and discriminated against, she’s bringing our attention to all forms of discrimination against the Other. Be it race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or what-have-you, it’s represented here. Felicity’s struggles to pass as a redhead, always worrying that she’ll be exposed for what she really is, terrified that even a little slip might drive away friends or destroy her social status, is representative of the worry and confusion many LGBTQ teens feel when trying to figure their lives out. (Admittedly, Felicity still doesn’t have to worry about many of the problems and risks many queer teens experience, up to and including physical abuse or death… but even as I acknowledge those awful truths, I don’t want to discount the message present here.)

Alison Cherry has taken all of the angst and emotional turmoil, all of the social upheaval and complexity, faced by minorities of every sort, and repackaged it with a cis white straight face. In the real world, a girl like Felicity, who’s beautiful, poised, confident, accomplished, in a steady relationship with a guy—in short, absolutely normal—would be accepted without reservation.  Her hair color wouldn’t even be a factor.  Only in this dysfunctional, intolerant, close-minded town of redhead supremacists would she be afraid of being destroyed by a single mistake.

As we see throughout the course of the book, there are distinct and real disadvantages of being anything but a redhead. They’re shoved out of line, informally barred from competing in the Miss Scarlet pageant, shut out of many high school clubs and student body positions, and so on. The rage and frustration brought on by this treatment leads to Felicity’s blackmail experience, and while I can’t exactly approve of the tactic, I can understand where the perpetrator comes from.

Alison Cherry’s tactic is brilliantly subversive. In crafting this tale of discrimination, hidden identities, self-determination, and prejudice against the Other, she’s quite possibly created a relatable, accessible allegory that doesn’t include anything dangerous. Yes, this story could very well be considered “Safe” since it doesn’t contain any major characters of color (there are a few minor ones running round, and as expected, they get the same treatment as all non-redheads) and hardly any queer ones. (Again, the one exception I could find, a flamboyant guy who wears a dress to prom, is accepted because his hair is the right color.) 

I’m honestly torn by this. On the one hand, I’m all about YA that encourages and features diversity, and this book has very little of it. On the other hand, the author tackles some pretty complex subjects in such a sideways, unexpected manner, that I pretty much have to tip my hat to her. It’s an unconventional method that manages to be both subtle and a little silly, and it works.

Of course, all of these deep thoughts have distracted me from the other aspects of the story, so let me tackle them in brief. Felicity’s internal turmoil is relatable and believable, and watching her participate, however unwillingly, in the downward spiral of her own social standing, is painful and yet strangely refreshing. As she strips away the trappings she didn’t even want, you can see the real Felicity, the one her own domineering mother can’t recognize, come out at last. Couple that emotional journey and character growth with a sweet (if somewhat predictable) romance, and you have the makings of a story that would be perfectly enjoyable even without the deeper message. 

Oh, and can I just say, I’m a huge fan of Felicity’s friend Ivy, the athletic tomboy who enters the Miss Scarlet pageant against her better will, doing it just to help out her friends, and who then does everything in her own indomitable style? For the bathing suit portion, she wears her swim team one-piece, cap, goggles, and flip-flops. WIN.

This is a surprisingly strong and satisfying debut for Alison Cherry, and I hope to see much more from her. She’s proven that she can deliver a sophisticated message in a deceptively innocuous wrapping, and I look forward to future offerings.

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

In one tragic night, high school tennis star Ezra Faulkner’s life is turned inside-out, when a car crash shatters his knee and destroys his athletic dreams. Now, as he enters his senior year, he’s forced to reinvent himself. His girlfriend broke up with him, his friends drifted away while he was recovering from the accident, and he’s lost his place in the school hierarchy. With no one expecting anything of him anymore, what’s he to do with himself?

First, he reconnects with his former best friend Toby Elliot, whose own fall from grace (involving a Disneyland ride and a tourist’s unexpectedly severed head) occurred years ago. Toby, captain of the school debate team, tries to lure Ezra into competing.  Second, he meets Cassidy Thorpe, a newcomer to the school.  She’s smart, attractive, quirky, independent, and fascinating. She’s also mercurial, capricious, and hiding some dark secret deep in her heart.

Still, the chemistry between Cassidy and Ezra is almost instantaneous, undeniable, and irresistible. They become fast friends, which evolves into something more over time, as they go on unconventional dates (flash mobs, auditing college courses, midnight picnics) and help each other as part of the debate team.  But it turns out that Cassidy used to be a debate team superstar for another school…until she unexpectedly retired, and she’s none too eager to get back on the competition circuit.

The closer they get, the happier they are, the more Ezra sheds his former golden boy status for something closer to his true nature, the more he wants to understand why Cassidy keeps pushing him away at random moments. But can their relationship survive the revelations that eventually come out?  And will Ezra succumb to temptation when his girlfriend Charlotte tries to lure him back into a social life of parties and privilege? 

In this emotionally rich teen drama, Schneider utterly turns the “manic pixie dream girl” trope on its side. Cassidy may fit the bill with her carefree ways, unpredictable behavior, convention-defying manner, and apparent goal of teaching Ezra how to overcome the past and be himself, but some of the revelations, the twists, the complex depths shown along the way, undermine and overturn expectations.

One part romance, two parts slice-of-life, this book has all the right elements going for it. A likeable protagonist, an eclectic group of friends, a convincing coming-of-age arc, a believable connection between characters, and a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of high school debate. Schneider takes all of the usual tropes, and subverts them gleefully. Charlotte and her crowd may be wealth, or entitled, careless and a little cruel, but it’s not the all-consuming pack of mean girls and alpha males that so often populate these books. While you can paint Ezra’s former friends as self-absorbed and shallow, they’re not necessarily bad people; indeed, there seems to be a sincere effort on their part to welcome him back into their midst, with bygones being bygones.  It’s not they who changed, after all, it was Ezra, who proves to have more depth and different desires than they do. (Think of them like cats: when he shows up after a summer away, a summer in which they pretty much forgot he existed, their reaction is sort of a “Oh, you were gone? It’s been a while. What, no, it’s not awkward at all that you can’t play tennis, I’m the new team captain, and I’m dating your ex-girlfriend.  Want to go to Taco Bell with us?”)

Moreover, while Ezra does find new companionship amongst the debate team, it’s not  automatically the noble group of quirky yet sympathetic outcasts and underdogs who teach him how to be a better person. Some are cool in their own way, some are still losers in their own way, and some are douchebags who like to argue, and there’s no reason why they all need to be friends. A refreshingly realistic take on group dynamics.

As for Cassidy? Her manic pixie dream girl act may be an illusion, hiding emotional wounds which can’t be healed through the magic of love and debate. (Should Schneider consider a sequel to this book, I deeply, profoundly, beg her to focus on Cassidy, a compelling and complex girl who deserves more exploration, with or without Ezra.)

Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, may suffer from a bizarre, even disconcerting title, but its contents are as sincere, authentic, and enjoyable as any you’ll find in the YA field. I really was blown away by the skillful manner in which Schneider plays with predictable characters and tropes, before yanking the rug out from under us. It’s a little bit heartbreaking, a whole lot uplifting, and has just the right blend of realism and positivity.  There’s also a great subplot regarding one character’s sexuality, where the result, never in question, is one of slightly amused acceptance. Again, the sort of thing one really likes to see. I was particularly struck by this quote:  “I’m not gay. I mean, I think I am, but I’ll figure it out in college. You have to really know to be out in high school.”  Schneider shows that she gets how hard it can be to find oneself in high school, no matter how sure you might be at the time.

Bottom line: a book I loved, and I can’t wait to see what the author has planned next.

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

High school freshman Annie Fleet has several great passions: scuba diving, the mysteries of the ocean, and a crush on her schoolmate, Josh Rebstock. She finally gets a chance to get his attention when the two of them head to Mexico as part of a school field trip, a combination humanitarian and treasure hunting expedition.  With her diving expertise, she’s perfect for teaching Josh how not to drown in new and embarrassing ways.

Only the “Good Deeds and Golden Doubloons” trip isn’t what it appears. The teacher running it, Mr. Alvarez, reveals that he’s still a treasure hunter on the side, and he has a line on a fabled treasure, found and lost centuries ago by Hernan Cortes. The Golden Jaguar, conservatively estimated at $100,000,000. With his original crew unavailable, Alvarez cons Annie and her companions into helping him dive for the first clue in uncovering the resting place of the Golden Jaguar.

When Annie’s success is followed immediately by someone trying to kill her, she realizes that she’s on the right path.  But unable to trust Alvarez or anyone besides Josh, what she’s to do? Easy: round up her friends, call in some favors, and use every bit of her own resourcefulness and expertise to find the Golden Jaguar before the bad guys do. In a jetsetting adventure that takes her from Mexico, to Hawaii, to California and more, she embarks on a thrilling series of diving escapades.  And along the way, she even finds a little time to romance Josh…

I absolutely loved In Too Deep. Annie is resourceful, clever, determined, geeky, and adorable. Her combination of book smarts and survival instincts makes her a plucky, admirable heroine, the sort who could totally front an ongoing series. Coert Voorhees likewise surrounds her with a cast of engaging, entertaining friends, avoiding all of the usual annoying stereotypes one might expect from a teen drama.  By setting Annie and her peers at a school for the Hollywood elite—the sons and daughters of the rich and famous—it opens up doors to all sorts of opportunities.  You end up with Mimi Soto, former child actress who remains relatively grounded despite her fame and fortune, and Gracia Berg, daughter of a producer, who, rather refreshingly, combines looks and a hidden talent for computer games and programming.  (Say what you want, but it’s nice to see a character who’s not afraid to be pretty –and- let her geek flag fly, or a character who’s rich and confident and not a total jerk.)  Josh, son of an award-winning actress, proves to be complex and interesting in his own right.

The plot itself has just the right mixture of mystery, action, and exotic settings, lending it a cinematic feel which would be perfect should Hollywood ever decide to reboot the National Treasure franchise to star teenagers instead of Nicholas Cage. It’s fast-paced, yet episodic as Annie and friends follow the clues from one location to the next, giving them the chance to delve into more history and up the tension.  The way they utilize all their resources turns out to be pretty darn clever.

I may not know much about scuba diving, but Voorhees certainly makes it feel authentic, bringing the details and atmosphere with each trip beneath the water’s surface.

I don’t know if Voorhees has any sequels in mind, but I’d love to see more of Annie Fleet and her intrepid band of treasure hunters.  The seeds for future installments were laid down in this story, so one can only hope.  But even if this is a standalone, it’s a damned fine one, and one well worth checking out.

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

Ten years ago, Justine was one of five six-year-olds chosen to star in a documentary, aptly titled Five at Six.  Five years ago, she and her costars returned for Five at Eleven. Lance and Leslie, the directors of the first two movies have just shown up, ready to put together Five at Sixteen.

 Only five years is a long time when you’re a teenager, and the six-year-olds that used to be friends once upon a time have grown up and gone in very different ways, some barely speaking to each other. They have new friends, new interests, and varying desire to put themselves in the spotlight yet again.

 Justine, the oddball, the funny one, who some called the breakout star, has turned out painfully average.

 Felix, talented yet always in the background, has embraced his dramatic side, and looks forward to being the center of attention.

 Keira, the confident, beautiful one, is hiding the pain of her family’s breakup.

 Nate, the quiet, down-to-Earth one, mostly keeps to himself.

 Rory, the weird one, has embraced her autism, and gotten over the way Justine abandoned their friendship.

 Despite initial reservations, the five agree to do this movie, but nothing goes according to plan.  As six and eleven-year-olds, they were easy to shepherd and inspire and push into interesting paths, perfect for a documentary designed to play off their differences and commonalities.  As teens, nothing comes easy, especially when it’s so hard to get them in the same room.  But as their paths cross more and more often, they find themselves having the awkward questions raised by five years of estrangement.  Can Lance and Leslie salvage a movie out of this rag-tag band of misfits?

 Well, things take a turn for the strange when Keira skips out on the film to find her mother, who left years ago.  Justine, Nate, Rory ad Felix follow her to New York City, and that’s when they get down to the business of being themselves, bridging gaps and healing old wounds.  At long last, they can talk to one another, and maybe even admit some of the hurts and secrets that have festered for so long.  And with a borrowed camera in hand to document their adventure, Justine may just find her own calling. 

 You Look Different In Real Life is a fascinating, wonderfully thoughtful, complex study of five different people who have grown up together, who know each other in intimate ways, and yet who don’t necessarily understand one another.  Jennifer Castle adeptly chronicles their stories through Justine’s point of view, providing a powerful look at the paths they’ve taken as they matured.  It’s also a nice look at how the spotlight affected them as kids and how they’ve dealt with it along the way.

Two character arcs really stood out for me.  The first, of course, was Justine’s.  As the “character” who stole the show in the first two films, she’s almost crushed under the weight of expectations this time around.  But she’s not sure she remembers how to be that kind of quirky, that sort of funny, that in-control.  She’s the one least likely to come back, and the one who does it for the sake of her friends.  But as she mends fences with Rory and gets closer to Nate, and reassures Felix when things seem bleak, as she discovers how good the camera feels in her hands, she visibly grows and matures.  She reminds me a lot of Mark, from Rent, the one who stands apart from the others with only his camera to keep him company, who ultimately finds his connection with his pseudo-family.

Rory is another character worth following. In her, Castle offers up a nuanced and sympathetic look at someone living with a form of autism.  What came off as quirky and cute as a kid turned into something more offputting and alienating as a teen.  However, Rory doesn’t let it define her, instead flourishing as she finds a passion in studying and recreating history.  When she challenges her own limitations and attempts to step outside her comfort zone, it’s both beautiful and painful.

This isn’t to say that Nate, Felix, and Keira don’t have their own stories, and their own roles to play.  On the contrary, they’re important pieces to the larger puzzle.  It’s just that Keira’s desire to reunite with her mother is easier to understand and less complicated than the other stories, while Nate’s story is quiet, less intrusive, more…well, understated.  And as for Felix, he goes through a lot of growth, forced to confront something he’s never really considered, and that takes its own courage.

The strength of these intertwined stories and the rich characterization drives this story, with Castle slowly revealing just what happened between eleven and sixteen to drive the five friends apart and send them on their separate orbits.  If you ask me, this book didn’t even need the mild romantic subplot that simmered through most of the story, only coming to a head at the very end.  It almost felt out of place, like something thrown in to appease those who expect every YA to include a romance of some sort.  If none of these characters had hooked up with anyone else, if they’d just continued to pursue their paths, that would have worked just as well.

Normally, I’m not a fan of sequels to stories like this.  You know when the story’s over and when it comes to move on.  I’m even less a fan of sequels that take place years later, because the characters are frozen in time and you don’t really want to think of them growing up and turning into adults with adult problems.  However, I’d happily pay to see a sequel that followed the Five at Twenty-One, just to see where these characters ended one last time. 

You Look Different In Real Life is a heck of a book, filled with awkward conversations and honest emotions.  Between the cast and some wonderfully-rendered supporting characters, it also offers up a fair amount of diversity, which is always welcome.  Frankly, this is the sort of book where I just can’t find anything worthwhile to complain about, and that makes me very happy indeed.

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

The girl currently known as Megan Jones has been through half a dozen identities in under a year, as have her parents and little sister.  Constantly uprooted, forced to live in obscurity, never daring to draw attention to themselves, they’re a family in hiding, a family on the run from killers and criminals.  They’re in Witness Protection, and Meg is sure she’ll never get her life back.

So sure, by this point, that she’s vowed to stop trying to make a new life.  Why bother with friends, relationships, putting down roots, when chances are good she’ll just leave it all behind again in a matter of weeks? She’s taken to carrying her “go bag” with her at all times, a duffel containing the essentials for staying sane from identity to identity, just in case the move comes as suddenly as it did previously.  All she wants is to know why her family is constantly being dragged from town to town, forced to adopt new names and backgrounds.  She knows her father must have done something, but he’s not talking. The constant change has taken its toll on her family as well: her mother’s drinking is out of control, and her little sister has withdrawn from the world.

When Meg and her family are reassigned to the small town of Natchitoches, Louisiana, she figures she’ll lay low and do her best to stay aloof from the locals, kill time until the next move.  She has her Rules. No clubs. No friends.  No teams. She’ll discover the truth no matter what. Instead, despite her best intentions, she finds reasons to get involved.  She picks up a part-time job at a local pizza parlor.  She makes enemies of the local mean girls. She develops a love/hate friendship with the handsome, infuriatingly charming Ethan.  And slowly, bit by bit, the mystery behind her family’s predicament reveals itself.

It wasn’t something her father did.  It was something Meg herself witnessed and blocked out of her conscious memory. It’s all her fault.  What’s worse, it seems as though the mere act of her digging for answers may have stirred up the wrong sort of interest, and put the bad guys on her trail once more.  With Ethan as her only true friend and confidant, and the mysterious Agent Thomas from Witness Protection to occasionally point her in the right direction, Meg uncovers the full truth.  The night when someone died.  The things she saw.  The things only she knows.  If she can get home to Phoenix, maybe she can fix everything before it’s too late. But with authorities and bad guys alike looking for her, it’s going to be one heck of an adventure.

Right from the start, I was drawn into Meg’s story.  The full truth of what’s happened, and just how much she’s already gone through, is revealed slowly throughout the course of the book; it’s not until late in the story when we grasp the full extent of the situation, when we actually learn her real name, and it makes for an interesting parallel to her slowly returning memory.  We see her and her family dropped into yet another unfamiliar situation and forced to memorize new names and backgrounds, and at first, it looks as though she’ll keep her head down and muddle through.  However, that quickly changes as she breaks several of her own self-imposed rules almost by accident.  Or rather, Ethan’s constant and intrusive presence in her new life convinces her to maybe, just maybe, take a chance, even though she knows it to be a bad idea.

It’s almost funny to watch her deal with the mean girls/cheerleaders, knowing that she’s already dealt with far worse, and that since she considers this to be a temporary assignment, she has little reason to play nice or care who likes or dislikes her.

Observant and well-informed readers will undoubtedly point at any number of things in this book and argue how the author got it wrong.  “That’s not precisely how Witness Protection works,” they’ll say.  “That’s not standard operating procedure for the U.S. Marshal Service,” they’ll claim. Well, I will note that this isn’t a case of the author not doing her research, but instead setting up some purposeful anomalies and incongruities which pay off along the way.  It helps that our point of view character, Meg, isn’t entirely familiar with standard procedure either, despite being part of the Witness Protection Program. Apparently, they don’t always bother to explain themselves to teenagers…

The Rules for Disappearing is an entertaining, well-layered story.  In Meg, Elston’s created a sympathetic and resourceful character who just wants to understand why her life is in a constant state of upheaval. She offers an accurate, if painful, vision of what such change might do to people unused to the rapid and unsettling change in circumstances, from the mother’s alcoholism to the sister’s own mental issues.  And when the story changes from something of a high school drama with elements of intrigue to a romantic-edged road trip, to a full-blown thriller, she makes the transitions fairly seamless.

Is it a perfect story?  No.  There are some fairly hard-to-swallow moments regarding Meg and Ethan’s quest for the truth and ultimate journey across country.  And one character definitely seems too good to be true, too competent and versatile, like a shadowy deus ex machina. (It’s honestly as though we’re reading the flip side of a spy novel, where some guy comes in, does his mysterious Bondian spy stuff and gets out, and we’re seeing everything from the viewpoint of the baffled bystanders.)  The very ending drops hints that we’re not done with this otherwise done-in-one story, and I’m not sure how I feel.  I do like Elston’s style and want to see more, but Meg’s story is brought to a satisfying stop point here. (Research indicates that this was a two book deal, so I guess we’ll get some answers in the sequel.) I guess time will tell.

As it stands, The Rules for Disappearing is a strong debut for Ashley Elston, and I look forward to her future offerings.

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

Cricket Thompson is psyched when she gets invited to spend the summer on Nantucket Island with her best friend, Jules.  After all, ever since Cricket’s parents divorced and her mother sunk into a cloud of depression while her father found a girlfriend and adopted a kid, she’s pretty much adopted Jules’ family as her own.  It’s going to be a summer of parties, tanning, and maybe getting her crush, Jay Logan, to return the attraction. 

Everything changes when Jules’ mother, Nina, suddenly dies from an aneurysm. The grieving family goes to Nantucket, but Cricket is most definitely uninvited.  Looks like it’s a summer of hanging around home with her gloom-and-doom mother, babysitting for spending money, and no friends or Jay in sight.  Unless….

Cricket decides to go to Nantucket anyway, on her own.  Unfortunately, the job she originally lines up doesn’t pan out as intended.  Rather than head home with her tail between her legs, she finds a job as chambermaid for a small bed and breakfast, which offers her room and board.  It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.  But Jules doesn’t seem to want her around at all.  How did their friendship sour so quickly, when Cricket wasn’t even looking?  Fine.  Cricket finds other ways to distract herself…by accidentally falling for Jules’ brother, Zack, who, at sixteen, is two years younger and really, quite off-limits when you think about it from a friend-and-family point of view. 

But can hard work and a newfound, illicit relationship satisfy Cricket?  Will this be the best summer ever, or a crashing disaster?  Sooner or later, she’s going to find her breaking point.

I really enjoyed Nantucket Blue. It’s a beautifully-told tale of love and loss and trying to find one’s way in the world.  Cricket’s a great character—feisty, resourceful, and loyal to a fault.  Which is why Jules’ betrayal hits so hard.  Cricket’s done nothing but try to be there for her friend at one of the worst possible times of her life, only to experience a cruel, unworthy rejection…even though she’s hurting as well, having lost the woman she all but calls mother as well. 

I love that Cricket’s first thoughts are to help her friend, to be there for her, to support her even if it means taking a job she doesn’t like in a strange place.  I love that Cricket’s the sort of girl who stands up for herself and tackles rough jobs and doesn’t wilt under pressure.  I love that her name is Cricket.  She’s definitely not perfect; her emotional blowup when dealing with her family late in the book demonstrates that.  The fact that she’s hooking up with her best friend’s younger brother at a time when she’s supposed to be giving them space is likewise proof, as is the moment when she and her long-time crush Jay finally have a chance to act on those feelings.  Unwise decisions and rash moments, yes, but she’s understandably pushed to that point.

So why don’t I like this book more than I do?  I mean, it was a fun read, kind of breezy, packed with genuine emotions and a likeable heroine and an awkwardly real romance. There’s a terrific subplot where Cricket finds her mother’s diary and gains new and interesting insights into her mother’s own sordid teenage past, and uses it to try and spark new life and emotion.  There’s another fun subplot where Cricket makes friends with, and semi-interns for, a writer doing a piece on a local celebrity, which gives her a chance to see some interesting corners of the island and its inhabitants.

Maybe the book feels a little too breezy, a little too shallow and to-the-point.  While we can understand that Jules is hurting, her anger towards, and rejection of, Cricket just seems a little too sudden and sharp, even mean.  From the depth of the friendship they supposedly had, this development is hard to swallow, that Jules would shut her out so viciously and display a never-before-seen side.  But teenage girls are a strange and treacherous species, I’m told.

The ending feels somewhat abrupt.  While there’s the sensation that the book’s been moving towards a certain point all along, it arrives with a surprising quickness, and then it’s all over.  I daresay a little bit more cushion to soften the stop would have been nice.

But really, this is a lovely, well-written, highly-enjoyable story about finding love and healing, and finding that perfect, calming state of mind, the “Nantucket blue.”  This marks a strong debut for Leila Howland, and I look forward to seeing what else she can do, as I expect she’ll only get better.

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

When Audrey McCarthy sees an opportunity to change her family’s fortunes and win a college scholarship for herself by developing the next great mobile app, she accidentally sets off a firestorm of confusion and not-so-wacky hijinks.

Her idea is simple: create an app which will find each user the perfect partner based on complicated algorithms and detailed profiles.  She enlists the aid of her fashion-obsessed cousin and her fellow tech geeks (collectively nicknamed the “troglodytes” by the popular clique) to put things into motion.  And for a while, things look promising.  A few early love matches, a celebrity tweet or two, and she’s on the fast track to winning the contest.

And then things go…wrong. Because love isn’t something you can guarantee just because a computer or smartphone or mobile app tells you so. Frustrated and desperate, Audrey takes advantage of a chance discovery to retool her app.  The Boyfriend App 2.0, now with guaranteed love.  That’s when it all blows up in her face.  Can she find a way to get out of this situation?

The Boyfriend App is a strange story, and one might well accuse it of multiple personalities.  It starts off as a fairly innocent romantic comedy, one of those slice-of-life teenage tales, where the plucky geek heroine uses her technological expertise to create the award-winning app which will win her the scholarship, the fame and fortune, and the boyfriend.  At last, she’ll show her ex-best friend and queen bee of the mean girls, her true worth.  Cue slow clap and maybe an speech at graduation.

Sise, however, puts some subtle clues into play along the way, and halfway through she yanks the rug out from under the readers with some strange and interesting twists.  The story goes from “romantic comedy for the technophile” to “evil corporation using technology just shy of science fiction to do nefarious things, and only our heroine is aware.”  It goes from awkward tale of redemption  to something reminiscent of Cory Doctorow’s YA work, with the clever hacker teens fighting the system.  Cue dirty secrets, blackmail, industrial espionage, revenge.

 Things I like about this story:  The cast is diverse and multi-dimensional.  One of Audrey’s friends is Indian, and pretty cool in his own geeky way.  (Kind of like a much more confident Raj from the Big Bang Theory, without the racial stereotyping.)  Another is Hispanic with a speech disorder, and she’s played straight, not for laughs or as an object of pity or derision (save by the mean girls, who hate everyone.)  When Audrey creates her app, she acknowledges that it can be for “girls wanting girlfriends, girls wanting boyfriends, boys wanting boyfriends, and boys wanting girlfriends.”  In short, everyone.  And later, we see the app bringing same-sex couples together.  It’s not even something to remark upon in the story, it’s accepted and they all move on. 

 I also like the oddly parallel nature of the setting to our own world.  Google and YouTube and Twitter all exist, but instead of Apple, we get the ubiquitous Public Corporation, with its social networking site (Public Party), music download platform (buyJams) media deice (buyPlayer) and smartphone (buyPhone). With the reach, versatility, and power of a vastly less ethical Apple, they pretty much rule the roost, with an especially strong presence in South Bend, Indiana, where the story is set (in the shadow of Notre Dame).  It grants the book an extra step of remove from our own world, which comes in handy when trying to swallow some of what goes down.

 I like that Sise doesn’t shy away from the nuts and bolts of the technological side of things.  Her protagonist and mainly of the secondary characters are computer experts, programmers, hackers, and geeks, and it shows.  The story as a whole treats them with a fair amount of respect and honesty, and it’s easy to root for the good guys.  This really is a book for the hackers and programmers and gadget lovers, the ones who’re comfortable with HTTP and backdoors and coding.  Sise either knows her stuff, or has at least done her research.  (A quick glance at her bio informs me that she’s a jewelry designer and television host, and a fashion consultant.  So she at least made a stab at making her techno babble sound realistic.)

 So far, I’ve said some very nice things about a book I rather enjoyed.  Now, however, I have to address the things I found problematic.  Beyond this point, there be spoilers, because one cannot speak of them otherwise.

 Audrey’s first app is designed so that everyone fills out a profile, and then the app uses GPS and other features to seek out all compatible profiles within five miles.  If a compatible profile is within a certain range, say one hundred yards, the app will play a sound and give the female user an arrow and GSP directions to their love match.  (No explanation on how it works if same sex couples are involved, or who gets designated the girl for the purposes at hand.) So theoretically, the power is in the hands of the girl to seek out their love match… the unsuspecting guy who may or may not want anything to do with the girl with whom he’s been matched. 

 I’m pretty sure there have been apps along those lines in the past.  Maybe not specifically dating apps, more like data aggregation programs for smartphones, but they all led to the exact same issue I have here, one that’s never addressed: the potential for stalking and abuse.  After all, these profiles rely on honest answers, and they allow you to surrender a lot of privacy without fully realizing the consequences. It’s almost a relief when this app goes down in flames.  For every genuine match, there had to have been dozens of misfires.  As Audrey herself realizes, you can’t necessarily trust technology where matters of the heart are concerned.  But the Stalker App is right out….

 The Boyfriend App 2.0 is downright terrifying.  Audrey develops it after learning that Public is using an inaudible sound frequency through their products to essentially control teenagers and get them to buy more stuff.  She reworks the technology to hijack the frequency and create an app that literally makes the target fall in love with the user.

 I’ll pause.  I’ll let that sink in. 

 Audrey creates an app that makes the target fall in love with the user.  And keys it to only work for female profiles. 

 And then she not only uses it, she releases it into the wild.

 Do I really need to explain why this is a spectacularly bad idea?  The only reason the idea isn’t both terrifying and repugnant is because it’s being fielded by a teenage girl in what’s supposed to be a semi-comic manner.  Because she wants to win a contest and save her family and get back at the big evil exploitive corporation which smeared her dead father’s reputation, it’s all hand waved as good fun.  I still think of this as the Rape App, and I started twitching the moment Audrey honestly thought it was a good idea.

 Now, perhaps I’m overdrinking things a little.  Who wouldn’t love an app that tells you when a potential love match is close by? Imagine how easy it would be to meet people if your phone could tell you when they’re in the vicinity?  (And how awkward it would be to find them in the restroom, or with their current girlfriend, or doing any one of a thousand private or embarrassing things…)  Who wouldn’t love an app that lets you control the emotions and desires of anyone you desire (provided they fulfill certain criteria as set out in the story).  Because teenagers can be trusted with that sort of power, right?  (I was a teenager.  The answer is Oh HELL No.)

 So there’s the problem.  Here we have a lively, entertaining, thoughtful comedy for the techies and geeks and trogs, and it’s wrapped around some profoundly disturbing issues that undermine a lot of the goodwill otherwise inspired by the colorful cast of characters and worthwhile plot.  I mean, I like Audrey and her friends.  I love how they interact with one another.  I like some of the couples that come together as a result of the story.  I wanted to root for Audrey and company to find happiness and success…and yet I was expecting the NSA to “vanish” her at the end of the book.

 Clearly, Sise has a lot of potential as a YA author.  There’s a measure of depth and complexity to what could have been a total fluff piece, and there was plenty to love here. I just hope that the themes and decisions made as part of the story spark some genuine discussion as well.

 

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

In this lively teen comedy, the Devil turns in her Prada for a crown and a magic mirror.

It was supposed to be the summer of awesomeness, the opportunity of a lifetime.  Zoe Kiefer and her cousin Jess have been selected as summer interns for Fairytale Kingdom, a New Jersey theme park.  As cast members, they’ll presumably get to play the role of princesses, flirt with their male opposite numbers, promote a certain Wow! spirit, and maybe have a shot at winning the Dream and Do grant, a prize consisting of $25,000 and a shot at moving up in the corporation.

Only, Jess is assigned to play Red Riding Hood #2, instead of the Cinderella she was born to portray. And Zoe isn’t even a cast member.  She’s been appointed lady-in-waiting to the Queen, the woman who runs the kingdom with a firm, fickle, unwavering, unforgiving hand. Now Zoe’s on call 24/7, required to follow every rule to the letter, forced to walk the Queen’s obnoxious dog, obligated to fulfill a thousand and one minor and exacting tasks.  She’s the Queen’s right hand minion, her mouthpiece, the harbinger of doom.  Instead of partying with the cast members, she’s on the fringes.

Things take a turn for the dramatic when Zoe ends up with the only evidence which can identify just which cast member took a midnight stroll into the so-called Forbidden Zone, a section of New Jersey swampland absolutely off-limits to unauthorized personnel. Now she has to find the prince in question…but is it to save him out of the goodness of her heart, or turn him in for a better chance at winning the Dream and Do?

As the summer progresses and the mysteries of Fairytale Kingdom deepen, Zoe’s life gets more and more complicated. Not only does she have a rule-breaking prince to track down, she has to watch out for disgruntled princesses, corporate espionage, the Queen’s mercurial moods, Jess’ own unhappy status as a second-rate character, and the overwhelming demands of a spoiled pop icon who’s come to visit for the day.  Oh, and she may be falling for Ian, a Puss In Boots who’s either a total scumbag or her own Prince Charming—she hasn’t decided yet.

There’s something undeniable cute and entertaining about this fast-paced romantic comedy. The Fairytale Kingdom, while clearly inspired by places like Disney, has a certain breath of life all its own, possessing that extra blend of kitschy and seedy which comes from being second or third place. It sounds like a fun, if slightly deranged, place to visit, with its eccentric cast of wannabes and opportunists.  It helps that the Queen rules over her kingdom with the tyrannical ruthlessness of a Miranda Priestly and the capricious whims of Alice’s Queen of Hearts…with all the charm and warm fuzziness that likewise implies.

Strohmeyer does a good job of infusing her point of view character, Zoe, with plenty of likeable qualities, and enough backbone and versatility to put up with her boss’s demands and the job’s ridiculous requirements.  Zoe’s a good person in what seems like a bad situation, determined to do what’s right, for her cousin and for herself…and she’s even willing to do what she can for those unlikely to notice or care, as when she tries to help out the cast members most likely to sab her in the back.

However, what could have been a fairly standard journal of personal growth becomes something even more amazing when we get to the end and Strohmeyer pulls back the wizard’s curtain to reveal the larger story that was taking place all along.  It’s a masterful reveal, one that adds an entire new dimension to the events of the summer, and that’s what bumps the book up a notch in my opinion.  All I can say is well-played.  Well-played indeed.

My only regret is that there doesn’t seem to be much room for diversity in Fairytale Kingdom.  One of the plot points is that there needs to be consistency between character portrayals, so no one gets confused by multiple Cinderellas, for instance, but it’s a shame nonetheless. 

So yeah, if you’ve ever wanted to read a mystery-laced romantic teen comedy set in a theme park that’s not The Mouse, I’ve got just the one for you.  

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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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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.

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.

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.

michaelmjones: (Default)

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.

michaelmjones: (Default)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. You can comment here or there.

What happens when a mean girl goes a step too far through carelessness, not malevolence, and ends up experiencing a self-imposed penance?

Just ask Chelsea Knot, generally regarded as a major blabbermouth who’ll do anything to stay in the good graces of her best friend, Kristin, the ruthless queen bee of the school. She’s not even above the occasional spot of blackmail, to help the cause. But things go horribly wrong when she attends a party and accidentally discovers that one of her classmates, Noah Beckett, is gay. Naturally, she immediately announces the news to Kristin and friends.

That same night, Noah and his boyfriend are the subjects of a brutal gay-bashing, courtesy of several jocks, including Kristin’s boyfriend. Racked with guilt, Chelsea immediately tells her parents, who tell the cops. Result: the perpetrators are arrested and expelled.

Result: Chelsea is personal non grata with Kristin, and by extension, everyone who wants to stay in the queen of mean’s good graces. From popular girl to outcast. From harmless gossip to snitch.

(Oh, and lest we forget. Result: Noah Beckett, in hospital after being savagely beaten just for being gay. But this is not his story.)

Chelsea decides that since her mouth got her in trouble, it’s time to take speech out of the equation, and she adopts a vow of silence. Her classmates can mock and ignore and pick on her all they want. She’ll keep quiet. Her teachers can give her detention for not participating. She’ll hold her tongue. Her parents can despair. She’ll zip her lips.

And thus begins Chelsea’s slow but inevitable redemption, as she’s befriended by the school’s outcasts and loners, the sort of people she’d never even have given the time of day before everything happened. One is Asha, a freshman who seems to take on Chelsea as her own personal project, part math tutor and part sympathetic shoulder. Another is Sam Weston, Noah’s best friend, and Chelsea’s new partner in art class.

As Chelsea gets to know these new friends, she gains a better understanding of her true nature and experiences a great deal of personal growth, both academically and emotionally. Free of the toxic influence of her former friends, she’s able to grow into a decent person striving to make up for past mistakes. Sure, she has to deal with persistent bullying from those who refuse to give her a break, and yeah, there are those who still don’t trust that she’s changed (like Noah’s boyfriend, who totally blames her), but at least she’s on the right path. The big question is: what will she say when she finally chooses to speak again? Will it be a slip of the tongue? A profession of love towards the increasingly irresistible Sam? An apology to those she accidentally wronged? Or will the right moment come at an unexpected time?

Speechless is a fascinating study of the high school ecosystem. When she voluntarily tanks her own reputation and social standing in order to make good on something she knows is wrong, Chelsea undergoes a powerful journey. It’s only after she becomes a loner that she realizes how badly she’d been influenced by Kristin. (“For instances, why is there so much pink here? I don’t like the color pink. I don’t look good in the color pink. But a third of my closest is devoted to pink sweaters and blouses and skirts. All because Kristin always insisted it was “my color.””) Now an outsider looking in, Chelsea can recognize how poisonous her previous circle of friends was, even as they bully or ignore her. She’s free to make friends with more interesting, more genuine people, like Asha and Sam, the sort who accept her and encourage her to be an individual.

And yet, we’ve seen this story before in a hundred different ways. The mighty brought low, forced to associate with freaks and geeks, only to accept the change in status quo and come out of the ordeal as a better person. It’s a popular story.

Luckily, Chelsea is a fairly sympathetic character. Misguided at first, careless, short-sighted, but not intentionally mean. And it’s her willingness to do the right thing and make amends which propels her particular story, as she hits rock bottom and claws back out as a changed individual. She’s surrounded by those who are, if not always understanding, at least sympathetic and willing to extend a measure of benefit of the doubt. That helps cushion her during the worst times.

Now, you may have noticed that I haven’t spent much time talking about poor Noah, who’s been stuck in the hospital for most of the book. Like I said, it’s not his story. It’s about the girl who accidentally brought trouble down upon him. It’s about his best friend, who’s afraid to go visit him. It’s about his boyfriend, who has his own issues of guilt to work through. And if you ask me, there’s something offputting about a story that uses a gay bashing to fuel the redemptive journey for a thoughtless straight girl. It’s bothersome that the person who suffered the most, from being inadvertently outted to being beaten within an inch of his life, has such a little part to play. There’s a lovely scene near the end involving Noah which made me choke up a little, a moment of victory which I didn’t see coming, but it’s still incidental compared to Chelsea’s story.

I guess that, in an era where authors and readers are striving to give queer characters ever more voice and exposure, it feels backwards to use an event like this as a catalyst. It may have fueled Chelsea’s rise and fall, and given Asha and Sam and Andy (the boyfriend) things to do and worry about, but still….

Speechless is a lovely book, with a valid and powerful message. Words hurt. Carelessness can do a lot of damage. It’s never okay to out someone without their permission, and obviously, it’s never acceptable to attack someone for their sexual preferences. Actions have consequences. Bullying and harassment are wrong. And staying silent isn’t always the best answer. But the catalyst at the heart of the plot still bugs me, for all that Harrington presents her queer characters as sympathetic, vibrant people. The book could have been just that much better if Harrington had chosen a different incident with less subtext at play. Or maybe if she’d given Noah a little more agency of his own.

I’ll still recommend this book, but with those mild reservations, as otherwise, Harrington’s story is solid and provocative.

michaelmjones: (Default)

Originally published at Schrodinger's Bookshelf. You can comment here or there.

 

Seventeen-year-old Carmen Bianchi is a violin prodigy, a world-class, Grammy-winning, Stradivarius-wielding musician at the top of her game. She’s on track to compete in, and quite possibly win, the prestigious Guarneri competition, which would catapult her to a new level of fame and fortune. Her life should be perfect.

It’s not. Her mother is a control freak, a former singer now living vicariously through her daughter’s career. Carmen’s stage fright is so bad, she’s now hooked on anti-anxiety meds. She’s seventeen but has never had a “real life.” And she’s obsessed with her competition, the flamboyant, handsome Jeremy King.

As the Guarneri draws closer, Carmen’s life takes an unpredictable turn. She meets Jeremy King face-to-face, and unexpectedly finds a kindred spirit. They should be enemies, but they develop a friendship blossoming into romance over stolen moments of baseball and Chicago pizza. But can two people competing for the same prize also be in a relationship?

To be honest, Virtuosity is fairly standard romantic fare in how it’s structured. It hits most of the usual beats like it’s playing from a music sheet: girl meets guy, they bond over their similarities, quarrel over the differences, have a huge fight when the tension gets to them both, and ultimately find a resolution. Furthermore, we’ve seen Carmen’s character arc numerous times before. Of course she’s going to yearn for a normal life, and break training to find a measure of happiness, and find out what it’s like to be a teenage girl in love. It’s a common arc for Character Driven To Excel In A Field, and she plays her part to perfection.

When prompted to make a moral choice near the end of the book, Carmen again plays along without missing a beat. It’s the dramatic twist that puts her entire life into perspective and we’d almost be disappointed if she didn’t take that course of action.

So we’ve established that Virtuosity is, regrettably, a fairly predictable coming-of-age romance. However, it’s a beautifully-written one. It starts off with, “Everything before me was perfectly still: a black starless sky over Lake Michigan, my bare arm jutting out between metal bars, and the burnt-orange scroll of my violin rising out of my clenched fist.” The entire book is full of these little bits of evocative imagery, which help to sell this as a story in a lovely evening gown, all gussied up for a more discerning crowd.

Martinez, herself a former student of the violin and classical music, uses that experience to good effect, bringing the performance scenes to life, balancing detail with suggestion. Few readers want to slog through the intricate specifics of performing a violin solo, they just want to understand why it was good, and so she obliges. “Tentative at first, the music began to flow, and then rush, and then soar. I was free, and everything else melted away.”

The romantic chemistry between Carmen and Jeremy is genuine and sweet, exactly what you’d expect from a pair of musical prodigies trying to carve out space for themselves against a backdrop of practices, performances, and high expectations.

So while Virtuosity may be a new iteration of an oft-played song, a YA romance that we’ve seen in dozens of other circumstances, it’s still a well-played one, done by a promising author. You could do a lot worse if you want a feel-good story set in the high-stakes, high-strung world of classical music.

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Michael M Jones

May 2015

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