Ghost Medicine ( by Andrew Smith)

16 10 2013

GhostMedicinePBAndrew Smith never disappoints. And there are some very good reasons for that: Andrew Smith never plays it safe and never compromises on what he thinks his story needs. His debut novel, Ghost Medicine sets this unflinching tone already.  And that’s exactly why he is an Author to admire: authenticity and integrity!

Ghost Medicine tells the story of 16-year-old Troy Stotts. After his mother died, he and his father have drifted apart. Troy turns to his horses, and to the mountains, for solace. Luz, the girl he’s always been in love with, manages to track him down up in a cabin in the mountains, and brings him back. Luckily, Troy also has two best friends, Gabe – the son of the rancher that Troy works for, and Luz’s sister – and Tom Buller, who can help him cope with the loss and together they go through the summer that will make them into who they are. But as with any Smith story, there’s an evil and brutal truth lurking, one that will mark the boys forever.

Andrew Smith’s fundamental love for the natural world and horses is an asset here, as the setting of Ghost Medicine is what makes this an almost transcendental experience to read. This is contemporary Western done at its very very best! Added to that is a most intriguing and tragic story of 3 boys who each deal with their own personal damages.

Story of a Girl (by Sara Zarr)

5 06 2013

variousszarrThe cat’s been hearing great things about Sara Zarr’s recent novel The Lucy Variations. Because I usually like to read books chronologically, I ordered both The Lucy Variations and Story of a Girl. And man, if Story of a Girl is anything to go by, The Lucy Variations is going to be such a great book! Because I loved Story of a Girl a lot, a lot, a lot! This is a “quick” read (seems almost deceptively easy), but it’s one of the most powerful little novels I’ve read in a while, and one that I will remember for a long time.

It’s about an uncomfortable topic, for sure: a 13-year-old (Deanna) caught in a car of a senior, both with their pants down, by her father… only to be called the school slut forever after. If this were the only thing Story of a Girl were about, it would already be hard to take in, but Zarr throws in a main character who – despite not wanting to be defined by her past – never really becomes an entirely lovable character either (and there’s a thing or two to be said about writing unlikable characters, right?).  Deanna is 16 now, and ever since that event she’s wanted to escape her past and the stamp she was given. That didn’t quite work out for her, though. At school she’s still that girl and her dad hasn’t even so much as looked at her since that evening.

Oh man, this book is such a punch in the face. I really really loved it! Deanna made a mistake when she was still just a kid… 13 she was, and messed up, and yes, taken advantage of… and of course she wasn’t responsible , but she sure as hell thinks she was. And now, 3 years later, she’s in love with the (only) friend who stood by her since then, but who happens to have a girlfriend who happens to be Deanna’s only other friend… Things get ugly and complicated, and Deanna doesn’t know how to respond to it all, and she acts the ways she acts, and… but it’s so incredibly honest and real that it’s hard to see fault in the way Deanna acts now, to me. It’s not that I feel sorry for her, it’s that I get why she is the way she is.

Compassion, selfishness, redemption, loyalty, truth. It’s about all of these things and more. If I love The Lucy Variations half as much as I love this book, it’s going to be one hell of a book!

Something Like Normal (by Trish Doller)

4 01 2013

sthlikenormalTrish Doller’s 2012 debut Something Like Normal deals with a pretty sensitive issue: a young Marine (19 years old) who’s just got back from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. Travis may have left Afghanistan physically in one piece, he’s definitely suffering mentally – from PTSD – after he witnessed his best friend getting killed. Coming back home, though, has never felt so alien to Travis: his ex-girlfriend has hooked up with his brother Ryan who’s pretty much also confiscated his car; his father still thinks he’s worthless and it seems that his parents’ marriage is going the way of the dinosaur too. Mixed in with dealing with the effects that Charlie’s death has on him – Travis sees Charlie all through the book – and his changing family dynamics, is a romance, that of Travis and Harper, the girl he pretty much humiliated when they were both 14.

Something Like Normal is well written, and Doller definitely has the voice of Travis down. It sounds honest, a little raw, but always realistic. So no qualms about Doller’s ability to write a decent character. There’s nothing really wrong with Something Like Normal. The only pity is that it’s not really a book that sticks… The romance is not exactly a necessary aspect of the novel, to be honest. It’s also the weakest element of this book, with Harper being a fairly unbelievable love interest (what girl would hook up with a guy who pretty much ruined her reputation, resulting in her being called a slut by everyone in town since she was 14?). In fact it sort of distracts of the real highlight of this book : the way a young soldier like Travis deals with PTSD, the guilt and the grief he feels.

The fact that lots of elements are sort of touched upon but not really explored to the full is due to the brevity of this novel. Although Something like Normal is a decent enough debut, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that with a bit more attention and fleshing out, it could have been so much more.

Gone, gone, gone (by Hannah Moskowitz)

30 12 2012

gonegonegoneIn times when the cat has to tell students that “No, 9/11 was not the day that Barack Obama was elected president of the USA for the first time”, a book like Hannah Moskowitz’s Gone Gone Gone may serve as a perfect way to connect that (this) generation of teens with a past that they only know from the History Channel or from a old(er) relative musing about “Where they were when they heard about the Twin Towers” (getting the one and only Ringo the Cat, btw).

That being said, Gone Gone Gone is not about 9/11. It’s also not really about the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. Both of these events do provide the story with the perfect eerie-sounding atmosphere, an atmosphere of not really know what exactly is happening with the world you’re living in. Instead, Gone Gone Gone is about two 15-year-old boys, Craig and Lio, who are trying to figure out what their place in the world is and what they mean to each other.

Gone Gone Gone is alternately told from Craig’s and Lio’s point of view. They first met online, because Craig is an ambassador for his school, the type of kid that shows new students around. Lio recently moved away from NYC to DC, where Craig lives. After sort-of-but-not-really breaking up with his ex-boyfriend Cory, Craig has totally lost himself in taking care of his 14 stray animals, animals that escape after a burglary at his house. So Craig has to deal with finding back his animals, but he’s also trying to juggle the emotions of losing Cory (or not quite) after an event that is never made entirely clear and finding Lio (or not quite) and figuring out what Lio might mean to him. Lio, from his part, is also one messed up kid, even his therapist Adelle agrees… When he was 7, Lio and his twin brother Theo got leukemia. Lio survived. Theo died. Not only does he have to deal with being “a cancer survivor”, there’s also his fragmented family life to consider.

Rather than focusing her attention on an intricate plot, Moskowitz is the mistress of voice and characterization,… 2 characters to be more precise. She deftly uses the alternating point of view of Craig and Lio, giving both of them distinct voices. A criticism here could be that the other characters, such as Craig’s parents, or Lio’s sisters or Adelle, are not as fleshed out as they could have been.  To Moskowitz’s credit, it’s definitely something that works here. Of the two the cat preferred Craig’s voice, which was often very stream-of-consciousness-like, with Craig losing himself in his long even melodramatic sentences (not the negative kind of melodrama, though!). Even though Craig is 15, at times you get the impression he’s a very young sort of 15 (or maybe that’s just his almost OCD type of behavior concerning his animals), while at other times, he’s clearly the voice of experience.  Even then, it’s obvious that it’s a vulnerable sort of experience. Contradictory, yes, but flowing from Moskowitz’s pen (or errr keyboard…) it sounds very convincing. Lio’s voice, on the other hand, was often a lot whinier (despite his not talking) – an authorial choice, btw, that the cat can get behind, it just made it a lot harder to ‘like’ Lio the way the cat immediately connected with Craig as a voice and character.

Truth be told, I hadn’t really expected it (there are so many “new” voices in YA-land), but Hannah Moskowitz’s writing  definitely has a freshness to it that shows talent, conviction and a heart for character. The cat loves authors with a heart for their characters. Writing a great and intricately plotted story is one thing, but if you manage to give a character a voice so unique and special and flawed and true, then it shows you’re willing to go there as an author, and that is the hallmark of a true author.

Let’s Get Lost (by Sarra Manning)

26 12 2012

letsgetlostFor some reason, Sarra Manning has been flying under the cat’s radar for years… Her2004sophomore book Diary of a Crush 1: French Kiss has been in our library for a while now, it gets checked out regularly, but for superficial reasons, the cat never felt like reading it (1. Title of the book is off-putting, and 2. The cover doesn’t promise a whole lot of good…).  Then suddenly not one, but 2 Sarra Manning books kept on being recommended, and the cat is starting to get the feeling she’s made a mistake the size of the whole Sarah Dessen debacle

Let’s Get Lost was published after the Diary of a Crush trilogy. In it we follow 16-year-old Isabel Clark who’s feared at her school for being your typical Mean Girl. She doesn’t have friends either, but she’s got a gang of (not so faithful) minions, who she has to keep in check. It’s a girl eat girl world at high school, and after being bullied when she was younger, Isabel is not going to let herself be the victim again, especially not now that her mother has died. One evening at a party she meets 20-year-old college student Smith – like her also named after a character in a book and attending the Uni where Isabel’s father teaches – and hooks up with him. She convinces him she’s older, a lie which is (of course) going to catch up with her later on.

Even if the story of Let’s Get Lost isn’t the most original of stories and even though the protagonists are very reminiscent of other protagonists in books of this genre (contemporary YA romance), Sarra Manning’s take on it sounds fresher than e.g. in a book like Kody Keplinger’s The DUFF.  There’s a case to be made for the fact that Isabel is also just escaping the reality of her world (not coping with her mother’s death, dysfunctional relationship with her father) and using Smith in the way that Bianca was using Wesley. But the interactions between Isabel and Smith on the one hand, and Isabel and e.g. Smith’s friends on the other hand, read more like the interactions between Sarah Dessen characters than anything the cat has read in a while. And even though Sarra Manning’s protagonists are sexually a lot bolder than Dessen’s for sure (but clearly not as bold as Keplinger’s!), the similarities lie in the situation the protagonists finds herself in: she’s caught up in a web of her own lies, and has to find a way out of it in order to work through her problems.  And that is something she clearly needs to do before she can move on with her life.

Another reason for the freshness is the very distinct British setting. Sarra Manning is British, and the school setting, the going out scene, etc. all of that is clearly British and this is including the sexual boldness, the drinking and the smoking, which is always just a tad more matter-of-fact than many American contemporary YA romance novels. Teen angst is clearly something universal, but there are obvious (geographical, in this case) variations, and Sarra Manning is a good case in point for readers who like their Sarah Dessen and Caroline Mackler but want to try something more errr… edgy? Also, Sarra Manning’s language feels authentic, unforced (and non-amateurish) and all of this makes for a very enjoyable reading experience.

Once again, here’s a book that’s proof that you should never judge an author by a single book cover. Let’s Get Lost is a fresh take on an almost beaten down YA genre. I know that Sarra Manning has a ton of other books, and who knows, the cat may even give Diary of a Crush 1: French Kiss a try…

Saving lives, tweeting and pushing limits

3 12 2012
tweet heartTweet Heart (by Elizabeth Rudnick)

Elizabeth Rudnick’s debut Tweet Heart is original in nothing except its ‘format’. Following four friends, Claire, Lottie, Will, and Bennett through their respective Tweets on Twitter, their blog posts and some emails, what we get is a fairly standard teenage romance novel. Much like Lauren Myracle’s TTYL-series the novelty is the set-up, rather than the plot.  There’s only so much you can do with this particular format, of course, and Rudnick explores that to the limits. Characterization is definitely there, but with a maximum of 140 characters per tweet, you can’t really expect the plot to get all Gravity’s Rainbow on you. So instead, we get girl crushes on hot boy. Best male friend crushes on girl, pretends to be said hot boy on Twitter, girl finds out, yadda yadda yadda. I mean, this is not the stuff of grand literary awards. But although this type of book probably doesn’t really have a lot of staying power (such is the nature of The Tweet, I guess), it does have instant appeal at the moment. The first day the cat put it in the library it was checked out. Also, considering it’s just one of those books that reluctant readers might pick up, it gets an additional bonus star.

3 stars

Pushing the Limits (by Katie McGarry)pushing the limits

There are only so many original plotlines. There’s  ‘good girl meets bad boy’; there’s ‘boy with the troubled past’; there’s ‘girl with the troubled past’. Katie McGarry’s debut novel Pushing the Limits combines all of these plotlines promising above all… a love story. Now, telling an unoriginal story is OK. Even Shakespeare wasn’t one to tell original stories, you know? The cat even digs teenage romance* as long as there’s something to convince you that what you are reading is something special, that somehow *this* is the book you’ve been waiting to read forever. Lots of books have come close, but none have ever really gotten *there*. Could be characterization. Could be the style. Could be the format. Pushing the Limits has none of these outstanding features.

But leaving aside that the plot is completely unoriginal and that the characters are flat and uninspired , what actually did make this novel stand out was the horrendous writing. McGarry ticked me off after a couple of pages when there’s this one line that just should have made me stop reading it. I knew this book would become a train wreck but when Noah started calling Echo ‘baby’ or ‘siren’ every five seconds, I knew we’d crossed over to fan fiction land and even trains get out of head-on collisions better than this book. Ugh, double ugh!

1.5 stars

* Anything by Sarah Dessen!

How to Save a Life (by Sara Zarr)howtosavealife

At least bad and melodramatic writing is not something you can accuse Sara Zarr of in How to Save a Life. Quite the opposite, because even though the topics at hand – the loss of a father and teen pregnancy – have melodrama plastered all over themselves, there’s nothing of the sort here. Instead, the writing is much like its main characters realistic, raw even.

The story is told in alternating voices.  First, the voice of Jill, who lost her father a while ago and has to come to terms with his death and the fact that her mother decided to adopt a baby, her own way to cope with losing her husband and a sure way to give the love she still feels for him… That baby will be provided by Mandy, the other voice of the story. Mandy’s is a completely different voice than Jill’s. While Jill comes off as haughty and bitchy – even though she’s more angry and sad than an actual outright bitch! – Mandy’s voice is so heartbreakingly honest, naïve even.. Mandy never knew her father and had an abusive stepfather, who was only the last one in a lost string of boyfriends her mother had. Both girls just don’t understand each other’s way of life and reasoning, but they both provide the necessary insight in each other for both the reader and themselves.

How to Save a Life is nothing sort of a touching and tender story that, yes, ends in the sweetest of ways. For some this ending may ultimately prove to be a bit too sugary, but all in all this is what you hope would happen for these characters.

4 stars

Second Chance Summer (by Morgan Matson)

21 08 2012

After her very engaging debut novel Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour, Morgan Matson is back for more! Second Chance Summer has many of the same ingredients that made Amy & Roger so endearing and such a great, great summer/beach read (and I use this term with the greatest respect possible!): there is a flawed yet likeable main character, there is a life-changing story about loss, yet there’s a sense of optimism that permeates every page of this excellent sophomore novel.

Taylor Edwards and her family used to spend every summer at their summer lake house in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. That is, until 5 summers ago, when something happened that made Taylor run away from things, which is what she always does when things get hot. This summer, however, she will no longer be able to escape conflict and she’ll have to face her past, as her family have decided to spend this summer at the house once more. Taylor will be forced to confront the reality of her family life, her past (ex-boyfriend Henry and ex-best friend Lucy) and hopefully come out the better and stronger person at the end of it.

The strength of Second Chance Summer does not lie in its original plot (yes, all of the inevitables do happen), but in the careful treatment of its characters. Matson takes her time introducing Taylor and the rest of her family. She switches back and forth between this summer and 5 summers earlier to show how an individual can change over the years (what you found oh so important at age 12 may seem petty at age 17!) and how it’s never too late to fix what’s wrong and it’s never too late to get to know the people you are close to. The way that Matson treats her characters and the hopeful optimism of her stories made me think of Sarah Dessen, with which she also has a certain earnestness in dealing with emotions in common. Moreover, she also has that natural flow in the use of language and a dash of humor interspersed in the novel now and again.  What is most important here, though, is that I believe Taylor when she says that she doesn’t know how to confront a problem. I also believe Taylor when she says she’s done something incredibly wrong and Henry and Lucy should hate her for it (even as an adult you can see that it’s a typical teen reaction of blowing things way out of proportion). And I also believe Taylor when she is forced to take that second chance yet doesn’t really know how to…

Matson is definitely a writer who understands how to write believably about grief, loss and falling in love all over again. Second Chance Summer is the type of book that the adjective heart-breaking was invented for. This is a story about a girl meeting a boy. It’s a story about a girl and her grief … and it’s also a story about a girl growing up … And, for the cat, Morgan Matson doesn’t even have to wait until next summer to publish another one of these!

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