Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Clara in Washington by Penny Tangey

Clara in Washington by Penny Tangey
Reviewed by Maggie: September 27, 2012
Published June 27, 2011 by University of Queensland Press
Goodreads • Buy at FishpondKobo
Kobo 30% off code: win_g7om1n1

When I first started teaching, I thought I was down with the students... until they asked me if I’d seen High School Musical.

Me: “No, what’s it called?”
Kid: “… High School Musical.”
Me, looking at the student like she’s special: “Your high school musical is called ‘High School Musical’?”
Kid, looking at me like I’m special: “Are you serious right now?”

One week later, after I’d bought and watched BOTH High School Musicals (because there are TWO of them!), I was leading the kids in “We’re all in this together...”

I think it’s pretty easy to find common ground with kids. Their High School Musical is my Newsies. However, one thing that differentiates 80s babies from this generation is that we never grew up with the constant fear of terrorism. Sure, we had Stranger Danger and Chester the Molester (and fear of rhymes apparently), and there were acts like the Oklahoma City bombing, but we didn’t live with a palpable threat. A fear of flying often carried the descriptor "irrational". 

Clara has just finished taking her Year 12 exams in Melbourne and decides to accompany her mom to Washington, DC over summer break. Rather than feeling excited, Clara is anxious and scared. She’s scared of being attacked – by muggers, by terrorists. She prefers to stay in the apartment watching Gilmore Girls and The West Wing (me on a normal day), but when she does venture out, she makes sure her cell is pre-dialed to 911 in one hand and her keys are sticking out of her fist in the other (me on a normal night). When not watching TV, she’s checking up on her friends back home on Facebook. After her mother suggests she volunteer and do something productive with her time, Clara signs up to volunteer at a soup kitchen and Reading Beyond Bars, an organization that sends books to prisoners. While working, she meets a guy, aka a REAL incentive to get out of the house. Over talks about life and politics, she finds herself leaving her comfort zone both physically and ideologically. This is a coming of age story set on the eve of Obama's inauguration. 

Clara in Washington was such a fresh and unique read. For starters, it tackles a topic that I think is too often avoided: politics. Each chapter starts with a quote from a president or a political figure. It's crazy to me that incest (INCEST!) is fair game in YA, while politics seems taboo. I feel like I was more politically aware in high school, with Speech & Debate, JSA, etc, than I am now. Clara has political opinions. Of Obama versus McCain, she says,
"Obama is inspiring and McCain is just blah."
Before you think this is a purely pro-Obama book, the group of anarchists that Clara befriends through volunteering are vociferously anti-Obama. It's interesting that some of the complaints the anarchists have of Obama are issues that are being raised in the current election cycle.

Regardless of your opinion of Obama, his election had an impact beyond the United States. It's fascinating to view the election through the eyes of an Australian, and Penny Tangey describes the celebratory atmosphere the day he won the presidency. Likewise, I loved looking at our nation's capital from the viewpoint of a foreigner. I mean, if you think about it, what is it with our need to take pictures in front of phallic monuments?

While the topic of this book is something I gravitate towards, the tone is different from my usual reads. A lot of the story takes place in Clara's head. She's working through fears, guilt from her fears, doubts about herself and her future. Clara's voice reminded me a lot of Bindy Mackenzie -- they're both straightforward with a dry sense of humor -- but Clara isn't as sure of herself as Bindy. She's always wanted to study law, but she doesn't know if that's what she wants anymore. Whereas I had issues with Bindy, I really liked Clara. She's struggling with a lot in between random TV marathons and Facebook stalking, but her voice is so authentic.

This book made me think of Good Oil and The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie, but while I gave both of those books 3 stars, I'm giving Clara in Washington 4.5. The tone, the characters, the setting, the story just worked for me. I loved seeing Clara's development, which was gradual and full of mistakes. I loved lines like this:
"I don't have anything revolutionary but perhaps if I wear all black people will think I'm well-read."
I think this is a timely, thoughtful, bold book. I would've absolutely loved reading this in high school. Having said that, this book is not for everybody. If the word "unpatriotic" is in your daily vocabulary, you will not like this book. If the words "unpatriotic" and "birther" are in your daily vocabulary, you will definitely not like this book. Seriously though, there are a lot of quiet moments where Clara is just thinking. I'm usually the first to roll my eyes when a book is described as being quiet, ie BORING, but this story wasn't boring for me. Clara in Washington is a fresh take on a girl discovering her place in the world during the time of school results, election results, and Facebook.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Review: The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay by Rebecca Sparrow

The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay
by Rebecca Sparrow
Reviewed by Maggie: September 19, 2012
Published April 8, 2008 by Knopf Books for Young Readers
Goodreads • Buy at AmazonKindleFishpond

It's always harder for me to talk about books I love, but basically, I was so utterly charmed by this book that I haven't been able to finish a book since. Yes, people, it's that serious.

Nick McGowan was the perfect all-around guy, good looking, popular, and the top of his class. Then something happened over the summer and he dropped his classes and started acting out. Rumors are swirling about what happened, but no one knows the cause. He's a boarder at his school and after his last stunt pulling the fire alarms, he's on the verge of getting kicked out. In steps Rachel Hill's family.

Rachel Hill is a driven overachiever. She has set hours for study, work, and school. She works as a clown at a children's party place, and she even takes her clowning seriously. She has a clown archrival. She lives with her adorable parents who, to her chagrin, can't help but offer to take in Nick McGowan.

I loved all the characters. Nick reminded me of Heath Ledger's character in 10 Things I Hate About You.
Like with Patrick Verona, everyone has some crazy theory about what happened to Nick over the summer. And Rachel? I loved her goody goody ass from the moment she went to the cool record store in the city to buy some Ramones albums after finding out they're Nick's favorite band. When the sales guy asks if she's a Ramones fan, she replies, "Fuck yeah." Cut to the next chapter after she listens to her very first Ramones albums: "I hate the Ramones." I cracked up and remembered the time a really hot French boy told me about his favorite band, Louise Attaque. I went to FNAC feeling all proud and badass, ready to buy some hot French boy music. Now I don't know what I expected hot French boy music to sound like, but French hillbilly fiddle fuckery was not it. My favorite character, though, was Rachel's wacky, loyal best friend, Zoe Budd. When Zoe finds out Nick is moving in, her response is, "This is great. You get to have sex with him!"

I loved how high school this book felt. Rachel is just so busy with all her work and can't believe her parents would risk derailing her academic career by asking her to the dishes. The nerve. Rachel is anal retentive and a perfectionist but she doesn't fall into the unlikable category because she is so endearingly dorky. I mean, she has Kirk Cameron and Huey Lewis posters on her wall! The way Nick and Rachel's friendship developed felt natural as well. It's the inside jokes and little moments that come from sharing a space and constantly bumping into one other whether you want to or not.

When I first got this book, I set it aside after finding out it was set in 1989. Another 80s YA? But it totally works here. The story itself doesn't feel dated at all and the 80s references (acid washed jeans! cassettes!) are amusing rather than annoying. It's funny that I worried pre-read about whether this book would be a ripoff of Megan Meade's Guide to the McGowan Boys. This book is so much better that there's really no comparison.

Just read this book. It's actually available in the States! Rebecca Sparrow writes with such charm and humor that she may temporarily ruin all other books for you, but you'll be cracking up before you know it. You may also find yourself singing, You're just too good to be true...

Rating: 5/5 stars.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield

Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield
Review by Noelle: September 17, 2012
Noelle received a copy for review from the publishers.
Published August 22, 2012 by Text Publishing
Goodreads • Buy at TextFishpond

What makes a person who they are? Is it some magical combination of experiences, memories and family? What happens when those things are stripped away, are proven false or leave you behind?  Who are you then?  And do you actually have any say in the matter?

Friday Brown has spent her entire life traveling from town to town with her mother Vivienne.  Never in one spot long enough to know anyone.  Never needing anyone else but her mother to know her.  But then Vivienne dies.  Left alone with a grandfather that's a stranger, Friday is lost.  Vivienne not only physically created Friday, she mentally shaped her as well.  Vivienne's stories built her up but now the truth is breaking down.  Friday doesn't know who she is without Vivienne... but it's time to find out.

Reverting to her nomadic instincts, Friday runs away to the streets and finds herself a part of a new kind of family--broken people fitting their jagged edges together trying to become whole.   But is Friday finding herself or merely letting the next charismatic mother figure mold her into someone else?  Sometimes it's just easier to allow yourself to be swept away with the current than exhaust yourself struggling to swim against it.  And no one knows they are caught in a riptide until it's too late.

Friday Brown has a more subdued style than All I Ever Wanted but the story is just as intense. Wakefield's prose is as beautiful as ever with an exquisite tension thrumming throughout.  When the setting switches to an abandoned, isolated town in the Outback, the stress fractures formed by the effort of keeping the family together begin to strain, crumbling apart to chilling results.  Friday's journey and portrayal are painfully honest and once again, Wakefield's characters are so vividly drawn their strength reverberates off the page.  From devotion to desperation to horror, every emotion rings true.

If I had to describe Vikki Wakefield's novels using one word it would be "fearless".  If I could choose two words they'd be "required reading".  Rating: 4.5/5 stars.

You'd have to pry our personal copies of All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown out of our dead cold hands, but if sharing is caring, sharing Vikki Wakefield is true love.  Don't ever say we don't love you, readers!  That's right, enter below to win a copy of your choice of All I Ever Wanted or Friday Brown. YA Anonymous will order you a copy from Text and send it straight to your doorstep.  International readers welcome to enter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Bookmark Binge: September 16, 2012

Can't get enough of...

Monstrous Beauty?
You can read the first chapter of Monstrous Beauty here!
Read the free short story Men Who Wish To Drown from the Monstrous Beauty universe.
Definitely check out the Photographic Tour of the world of Monstrous Beauty over at The Midnight Garden.  The history of the setting was one of my favorite parts of the book.
This art by runmonsterrun and  Elizabeth Sherry on tumblr reminded me of scenes in Monstrous Beauty.

Since Text Publishing is awesome they have posted the first three chapters for everyone waiting for Shadows to be published in your neck of the woods.
Text also posted Gaby's short story that started it all: Bloodsong.
Read an interview with Paula Weston over at ALPHA reader.
Stay updated on all the latest Rephraim news at Paula Weston's blog.

Look at all these links lying around...
Don't miss ALPHA reader's recap posts of the Melbourne Writers Festival.  Melina Marchetta! Vikki Wakefield! Aussie YA!
Publishing Crawl takes a look at how they use music in the writing process.
Have you ever thought about what If 90s Pop/Rock Lyrics Were Book Blurbs?
Impress this penguin and become the new Community Manager at Penguin Press. Awesome.
Rachel Hartman stopped by The Readventurer to share her inspirations for the setting of Seraphina.

For review this week: 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Review: Shadows by Paula Weston

Shadows by Paula Weston
The Rephraim #1
Reviewed by Noelle September 13, 2012
Published July 2, 2012 by Text Publishing
Goodreads • Buy at TextFishpond

You might not know this about me since I don't review them but I'm a huge Urban Fantasy fan--check that, a huge adult Urban Fantasy fan.  I've never found a YA Urban Fantasy that came close to what I considered belonging in the genre (or particularly enjoyed any of the ones that kind of sort of came close.)  Let's just say that before today, my Venn diagram of my love of Urban Fantasy and YA had no overlap.

Not anymore!  Shadows is the most successful Urban Fantasy** YA I've ever read and it might be because it's can barely be considered a YA novel.  It's like when you're watching True Blood and the viewer warnings come on the screen--the more extensive the warnings, the better the episode and Shadows has it all: graphic violence, language, steamy situations.  AND FUN.  Did I mention fun?

Gaby is just a normal 18 year old trying to live her life.  Sure she's grieving and recovering from the car accident that killed her beloved brother a year earlier but she has her friends, her job and her writing to get her through.  What else but an active imagination could explain the vivid nightmares she has every night beheading hell beasts and battling demons?  If she were honest with herself, there would be one aspect of her nightmares Gaby wouldn't mind being real--the intriguing (and hot) guy who fights by her side every night.  However, when mystery guy walks out of her dreams and into her bar speaking of a past history with her brother that Gaby can't remember, her whole world gets turned upside down.

Someone has gone to a lot of trouble making sure Gaby doesn't remember her true identity (or sword-wielding skills) and now Gaby is scrambling to catch up, unsure who her true allies are amidst all the hidden agendas and competing factions.  Who is the real Gaby? And what really happened that tragic night?

Despite being put in the weak position of knowing nothing about what is going on, Gaby still manages to be awesome.  It was fun discovering everything with her and ooh boy, is there a ton to discover.  No one is quite what they seem and there are no easy answers.  The ever unraveling mystery and action keeps you wanting more.  The pace was so excellent that I stayed up until 3am to finish which my love of sleep rarely allows to happen.  I can't wait to see what happens next.

If you like an action-packed book that keeps things moving (and swooning), Shadows is the book for you.  Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

** Despite the Goodreads blurb name-dropping that book, I would not call Shadows a paranormal romance.  I agree with Jeannie Holmes definition of urban fantasy vs. paranormal romance and Shadows definitely falls under the former.

Also! Shadows was picked up for North American publication so watch out for it stateside later this year!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: UnWholly by Neal Shusterman

UnWholly by Neal Shusterman
(Unwind #2)
Review by Maggie: September 6, 2012
Published: August 28, 2012
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Goodreads • Buy at AmazonKindleBook Depository

I felt about UnWholly the way I felt about this season of True Blood.

I kid (and shamelessly take advantage of any opportunity to use an Alexander Skarsgard gif). But for the majority of the season, I was banging my head against the wall and yelling, "Stop trying to make Arlene happen!" And I'm pretty sure ifrit is Arabic for "waste of fucking time." But then just when I'm ready to wipe my hands of the show, it finally wraps up the extraneous storylines and gives me what I really care about -- Eric, Pam, Sookie. By the end of the season finale, I was completely reinvested in the story and anticipating next season.

Likewise with UnWholly...

Shusterman introduces three new characters who take up a good chunk of the novel with their background and development. While the characters weren't uninteresting, they felt like Unwind redux. Starkey is a less likable version of Roland, Miracolina is Lev 2.0 (or as I liked to call her, Tithe-1000), and Cam... Cam is a whole 'nother beast. Literally. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, "I came here for Lev. Bueller? Bueller?" The first half of the book felt like retread and what I did see of Connor, Risa, and Lev either annoyed me or wasn't enough. At one point, even Shusterman's writing started to grate on me. After he specifically mentioned Aquafina and Nike, I wrote in my notes, "WTF is this product placement? The most advanced technology exists and they still drink Aquafina's bottled sewer runoff?!" I actually like Shusterman's writing style but at this point in the story, I was so uninvested and detached that only nitpicking kept me engaged.

And then all the tedious groundwork came together and Connor, Risa, and Lev started acting like Connor, Risa, and Lev again. It's not that there was a lack of action earlier in the story, but this time, I actually cared and the tension increased tenfold. By the end of the book, I was sucked back into the story and eagerly awaiting Book 3.

Aside from the new characters, another aspect that may make-or-break UnWholly for you is the new development regarding the Unwind Accord. We learn more about how and why it came to be, which was a plot hole in Unwind. However, by filling that plot hole, it shifts the focus away from the abortion debate, which sets up a great storyline for Book 3 but also does a bit of a disservice to the issues raised in Book 1. For me, UnWholly lacked some of the heart and guts of the original, but still raised interesting questions and made me think. Shusterman also writes taut, tension-filled action scenes like few can. I'll definitely read the next book, but go in with modified expectations.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
Reviewed by Noelle: September 4, 2012
YAA received an ARC for review from the publishers
Published September 4, 2012 bby Farrar, Straus and Giroux
GoodreadsAmazonKindleBook Depository

 A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

The Mermaid by William Butler Yeats

Syrenka, an immortal creature of the sea has learned the hard way that loving a human can have catastrophic consequences but when she meets Ezra, a naturalist in 19th century Plymouth, Massachusetts, she dares to dream of a life shared together and is willing to sacrifice anything for the chance.  Hester, a 21st century teenager has begun to suspect that the affliction causing generations of mothers in her family to die within weeks of childbirth isn't so much a genetic defect as it is a curse.  When Hester begins to research her hunch, she uncovers much more than she could ever anticipate.

Yes, Monstrous Beauty is a story about mermaids, but it's also a story about love, sacrifice and the unexpected repercussions they create.  It's about how something beautiful can spawn something so wretchedly tragic that it echoes in time for centuries.  

There was a delicious undercurrent of creeeeeepy in Fama's writing, a feeling I described akin to listening to the Jaws theme.  You knew something was surfacing, but what? And would the damage be lost limbs and carnage or just peeing your pants in false alarm?  Fama doesn't shy away from darkness or violence and horrible things happen to characters in an nondiscriminatory manner.  No one is safe from tragedy or physical peril.

There were several times while reading that I wondered if the story could end happily for anyone involved.  It would be so easy to understand why Hester might be doomed to repeat Syrenka's calamitous mistakes because although some of the tragedies of Monstrous Beauty were perpetuated by hate, a majority of the destruction was motivated by love---sometimes short-sighted and selfish love, sure--but love nonetheless.  

The history-rich setting, including Burial Hill and the details of Hester's job as a historical reenactor added additional depth to the already dark mythology and almost tangibly oppressive atmosphere. However, the construct of the plot (Hester is not privy to the flashbacks to Syrenka's story) placed the reader several steps ahead of Hester for much of the book and it could be exceedingly frustrating when Hester unwittingly waltzed into dangerous situations or failed to pick up on things the reader has long since guessed.  But just when I was about to throw my hands in the air and plead, "Get with it already, Hester!" Fama added enough suspense and surprises to bring the story home with a satisfying smash.  

Rating: 3.5/5 stars.