Monday, December 26, 2011

Good for You, by Tammara Webber

Good For You (Between the Lines #3)Good For You by Tammara Webber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review won't contain any "spoilers," with respect to this book, but it does assume familiarity with the characters and events of the two previous books in the series, so it may be mildly spoilerish with respect to them.

This third book picks up where "Where You Are" leaves off. Reid is at somewhat of a personal nadir after the unsettling events on the night of the premiere of School Pride. He even gets uncharacteristically introspective, wondering what makes Emma think there's something more to him. Fortunately(?), his loyal friend John is there to steer him back to his "pointless, pleasure-driven life," with foreseeably disastrous results. When he's sentenced to community service at a Habitat for Humanity site as part of his punishment for a catastrophic drunk driving incident, he meets Dori, the volunteer assigned to "baby-sit" Reid while he fulfills his obligation. Dori, short for Dorcas, is there because she's committed to making the world a better place for others. She not only volunteers at Habitat, she helps with VBS, Sunday School and other programs at her dad's church, does meals on wheels, and is headed to Ecuador for a mission trip in just a few weeks. Reid and Dori come from two different worlds and world views, that's for sure, and their initial impressions of each other are not favorable, to say the least. But each feels drawn to the other as the summer progresses, and they begin to find something of value, something they need, in each other.

I loved the previous books in this series, and I really didn't expect this one to surpass them in reading and emotional enjoyment and intensity. I was always an ambivalent Reid supporter at best. Yes, it's been clear from the start that he had potential and character that lay fallow, awaiting some kind of awakening. But as Emma said at one point, it wasn't enough for me that he could be good, given the right motivation. He had to want to be, he had to do something about it, and he never seemed to have the gumption to do that. So, I sort of expected this to be about Reid finding a good girl who could sort of "convert" him, to "change" him to someone better behaved, the way that girls always seem to think they can do to bad boys. But this is a much deeper story, a story about choices, and growth and becoming a human being.

Dori is an amazing character, revealed slowly over the course of the book. You think you know her at the beginning of the book, that she's a classic do-gooder type, with values and strengths that motivate and drive her commitments. And all that is true, but there's so much more depth to her. As it turns out, when these two strangers meet in a modest little half built house, both of them are there under some kind of compulsion, one the no less strong for being self imposed. Both Reid and Dori have built themselves worlds of self-sufficiency, in different way and for different reasons. What happens when those constructions fall apart is what makes this book so powerful and affecting.

Some final random thoughts:

Do things happen for a reason? Dori spends a great deal of emotional energy denying that, at one point saying, "if I believed for two seconds that there was a reason behind some of the awful thing that occur in this life, I wouldn't be able to stand it." Exploring that idea, through some pretty horrific events, is a really interesting theme of this book, and while it's left unresolved (can it ever be resolved?), good does come from some terrible things in this story.

The name Dorcas. Whew, tough name for a kid, no wonder she goes by Dori. In the Bible, Dorcas was a woman known for her good deeds. She was also brought back from death by Peter, a guy who spent most of him time messing things up until he finally got it right. I'm not saying this is an allegory or anything, but I love how that story kind of resonates.

Alison Krauss. What an achingly pure and sweet voice she has. It seems so simple, and yet conveys such emotional power and depth. So it totally makes sense that when Dori sings, it's one of her songs. A particularly ambiguously heart-breaking one, too.

So, all in all, a wonderful book, a powerful read that will stick with you long after you finish, wishing and begging for more. I love how Brooke comes (briefly) back into things, and how parental relationships are such an important part of this story. Thanks so much, Tammara, for creating such a richly imagined world, that has such creatures in it.

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Five Flavors of Dumb, by Antony John

Five Flavors of DumbFive Flavors of Dumb by Antony John

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read quite a few books recently that revolved around bands and rock music - Amplified by Tara Kelly and June of Rock by Elisa Ludwig were two that this one reminded me of most, and all three were great. This one even has a blurb on the cover from The Philadelphia Inquirer that calls it "A love letter to rock music." And I guess that is true, as far as it goes, because there is a lot of discussion of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain (this book takes place in Seattle), their history, their impact and their significance. And it's really well done, too, it's not just a lesson-y dry recitation of facts. It gets thoughtful and passionate about exploring their legacies as seen through the eyes of some contemporary teens to whom these relics of my generation still resonate and reverberate.

But I remember a while ago reading (ok, skimming) Lance Armstrong's autobiography It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. To me, this book is not about the music - it's more of a family drama, albeit one that takes place in the context of a small-time rock band on the cusp of breaking out. MC Piper is struggling with some big changes in her life. Her only other deaf friend has moved away and seems to be distancing herself emotionally as well. Her new baby sister has just received a cochlear implant, courtesy of Piper's thereby depleted college fund, leaving Piper the only deaf one in her family. She's torn by jealousy (and guilt over that) and a feeling of deepening isolation. She also feels betrayed by her parent's seeming financial favoritism and hurt by the deeper implication that her "unfixable" deafness makes her "disabled," a notion she rejects. It's against this backdrop that Piper stumbles across the winner of the local battle of the bands, Dumb, performing on the steps of her high school. She's kind of fascinated by their performance, and sees an opportunity to make some cash on their coattails. She negotiates a deal to become their manager if she can land them a paying gig in thirty days.

It's against this backdrop that Piper finds strength to confront perceptions that she's less than capable, the notion that she's always going to be the compliant good girl who's so nice she won't even take her own side in a fight, and comes to realize that other people have depths, issues and their own struggles that are far from apparent on the surface. Piper is not always a perfect paragon - she can be resentful, sometimes has anger management issues, and, until our story begins in earnest, doesn't always express or acknowledge her emotions very effectively. But as her role as manager requires her to step up and begin to do so, she finds that other other people have their own frailties and struggles, giving her new perspective regarding her own problems, and a realization that she can have an impact for the good on theirs.

So maybe that makes this all seem like it would be heavy and angsty and all. And whoa! there is plenty of emotion to be felt, plenty. But it unfolds and reveals itself through a series of situations and characters that are funny, crazy, interesting and cleverly written. This is a story of healing and, yes, growing up. A recognition that parents can be flawed but still loving, that friends are hard to find and worth fighting for. I give the author special kudos for portraying a dad who seems sucky, but is willing to hang in there when he realizes he's messed things up. Piper is an awesome character, it is way worth getting to know her, and joining her journey.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Her and Me and You, by Lauren Strasnick

Her and Me and YouHer and Me and You by Lauren Strasnick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book very much - it's an odd and unique mix of themes and feelings. There are many traditional YA elements - MC Alex's parents messily divorce (when beloved dad's affair with a paralegal is discovered, oops), and she is wrenched away from her familiar school, and close friend Eve, to her mom's childhood home, where mom sinks quietly into a bad relationship with her new boyfriend, alcohol, making her moody and sometimes mean. As if that weren't enough to deal with, Alex's integration into her new school is sidetracked by her attraction to the Bishop twins, Fred and Adina. They are quite frankly weirdos, and everyone in the school knows that. Alex's one friend/frenemy (her mom's friend's daughter) is pretty explicit about what happened to the last girl who got too close to Fred, and how crazy Adina can be. This is where the unusual elements creep in. Fred and Adina (well, especially Adina, Fred can seem pretty nice, if utterly under Adina's thumb) live in the old family mansion, now crumbling and abandoned feeling, while their widowed dad travels the world and is otherwise absent. They spend their time drinking, cooking elaborate meals which anorexic Adina never eats, and sending Alex confusing, sometimes scary, but always intense mixed messages about Fred's feelings for her, and Adina's response to that. This reminded me a little of a wonderful book I read a long time ago Love for Lydia. The gloomy old mansion, the obsessive love for a very odd character who seemingly can't be trusted to do the right thing with your emotions, and the ambiguity and bewilderment experienced by the MC - very impactful. You, the reader, are kept off balance emotionally, just as Alex is, by the maddening antics of these two Addams-family-esque characters. It creates a cool, jittery, what's going to happen next feeling that gives the book a haunting and slightly dreamy vibe. But the traditional YA elements are not overshadowed by the gothic-y parts. Alex's relationship with her dad, and her encounter with the "slutty paralegal" are real feeling and create an empathy for even the "bad guy" characters. Like Holly in Nothing Like You Alex is such a lonely character. My heart went out to her so much. This is a good, albeit short read, with echoes of The Turn of the Screw, the castle scene from Cabaret, and the aforementioned Love for Lydia (I remember crying so hard at the end of that one!). But it stands on it own feet, and brings on the real emotions for a real feeling girl, as she takes on not the exotic and esoteric ghosts of Quinton and Miss Jessel, but of her own messy, broken feelings, and decides how to face them, and the future.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Lipstick Apology, by Jennifer Jabaley

Lipstick ApologyLipstick Apology by Jennifer Jabaley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. It's intense, poignant, bittersweet, wise and funny. It's also beautifully and subtly crafted, with all the elements - story, characters, style - combining to create a richly rewarding reading and emotional experience.

MC Emily's life is catastrophically and irreparably torn apart when her vacationing parents' flight goes down with no survivors. The discovery in the crash debris of a mysterious message from her mother - "Emily, please forgive me," insures that she will suffer the intrusive attention of the tabloids, as well as her more private feelings of loss, pain, grief and bewilderment over the meaning of that haunting lipstick apology. And as if that weren't enough to be getting on with, she is wrenched from her leafy suburban home, school and friends to live with her mother's younger sister Jolie, a Manhattan-based upscale makeup maven who, despite her veneer of sophistication and style, can hardly cope herself with her sister's death, let alone live up to being the adult in Emily's life. Emily is torn between her desire to be the new, made-over, over it and moving on girl, fitting into her sophisticated new prep school, and the haunting reality of her overwhelming feelings of abandonment, guilt and loss. And above all, she continues to be tormented by the need to understand why her seemingly perfect mother would beg her for forgiveness with her very last words.

I loved the way Emily's struggles are echoed in so many elements of the story. The contrast between the placid, pastoral river that flowed past her childhood home and the turbulent urban Hudson overlooked by Jolie's sleek but somewhat sterile apartment. The whole makeup/makeover motif, starting with the apology itself being written in lipstick, then showing up again with Jolie's business and the multiple makeovers Jolie gives Emily and her new friends - echoes Emily's attempts to cover, conceal and carry on behind a facade of normalcy. Then there's the theme of homemade food and baked goods (Jolie's kitchen is just a "closet for take-out menu's," with only Emily's mom's old apron gracing it with any warmth) as being a way of expressing feelings and representing home, family and authenticity. Even the two boys in the story seem to represent these poles of Emily's conflicting desires to confront or conceal, to paper over or to archeologize her grief.

Before it's all over secrets and lies will show their awesome and awful power. Emily will be tested, cruelly, and for me at least, almost beyond endurance. Things will never, ever be the same. But as Emily comes to acknowledge, life "is about crawling out from under the wreckage and rebuilding after disaster - making new memories and new families with people who fill our voids and make us laugh." Interestingly ,the word "wreckage" appears in the book only twice - once when the message is found, and once here when Emily begins, not necessarily to heal, but to perceive that healing might someday be possible (gotta love that search feature on the Nook!).

Emily ... my heart went out to her so much. She is not a perfect, wise beyond her years paragon - she's a real girl, sometimes superficial, sometimes hurtful and selfish, but so, so vulnerable, fragile but possessed of an inner strength that makes her struggles all the more affecting. Jolie is an awesomely realized character too, and it's impossible not to empathize and agonize with her in the weird and unexpected role and dilemmas she finds herself thrust into. The boys didn't do that much for me, but maybe that's a guy thing. And of course, the powerful presence of Jill, Emily's mom, looms large over the story. Even though she's absent you get a feel for her hurt, her humanity and her deep love for her daughter and husband. The city of New York is a character here, too, and despite my general lack of love for it, I acknowledge that here it adds to Emily's journey and growth. The recurring motif of When Harry Met Sally is fun, and provides a counterpoint commentary to Emily's boy-related feelings.

This is such a richly humane story of flaws, forgiveness and finding a way forward - really, I'm still kind of torn up. It's pretty rare for me to stay up late reading, unable to stop, anymore. This is that kind of book, and it kept me up way, way past any semblance of a sensible bed time (on a work night, yet!). It might keep me up again tonight, just thinking about it. This has been kind of a long review, but trust me, there's still much more to experience and enjoy here. Don't miss it.

"Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind"
Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Of Ghosts and Geeks, by Molly Ringle

Of Ghosts and GeeksOf Ghosts and Geeks by Molly Ringle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of Ghosts and Geeks is cute, funny, sweet and sexy. MC Gwen, one of the titular geeks (see, sounds titillating already, eh?), is a quirky and charming professor of literature at Girthmore College, sadly in danger of becoming the spinster some might mistakenly take her for. Then she makes an amazing, potentially life-changing purchase - a rare illustrated mythology book, right up her scholarly alley. Little does she know that it's a a BOGO, and the "get one" is the kooky, reckless and restless ghost of a victorian teenager, determined to experience (in death, vicariously) the paroxysms of passion she'd been denied in life. The self-named Violetta (her real name, Dorcas Schmelbeck, is just too prosaic, pedestrian and passionless for her - hey, true story, my mom wanted us to name our oldest daughter Dorcas, family name and all, back in the day. She professed to be mystified when we tried to explain the utter cruelty of inflicting that on an innocent child. Anyhoo...) Violetta has little in the way of real life experience (except for her death, which was a doozy) or impulse control, but makes up for it with her ability to control inaminate objects, which she uses to compel Gwen's compliance with her seductive schemes for experiencing second-hand romance of the voyeuristic kind. She's already selected a partner for Gwen to perform with, the luscious and likeable Paul Chang, the landscaper who mows Gwen's lawn. Paul's biceps and his appreciation for the intersection of comic book heroes and mythology (he's the other geek)have actually previously come to Gwen's fond attention, and when Violetta (pronounced "vi-o-lator?") insists that the two of them re-enact certain poses, postures and positions illustrated in the aformentioned book, the action, and Gwen and Paul's mutual attraction, come to a boil. Like I said, this is fun, and funny. The humor is pretty broad, and laugh out loud-a-licious. Violetta veers between ridiculous and scary, and there are twists and developments that keep things fresh and unforeseeable. Molly has a knack for creating relatable, real-feeling characters, and these two are no exception. Yes, you can see what's happening long before they do (I guess part of geekiness is the whole socially awkward thing, especially with the opposite sex), but that doesn't make their reluctant(?) and reticent compliance with Violetta's ever escalating demands any less entertaining or satisfying. Of course, no true geek tale would be complete without a bit of cosplay, and Molly manages to work in the holy grail of every geek guys fantasy, to sexy and funny effect. So, hopefully I've conveyed my enjoyment and appreciation of this warm and tenderly funny story. This reminded me a bit of Summer Term, only this is the funny version, not the romantic one - it's got that same campusy, academic vibe, and the feeling of a close (sometimes claustrophobically so) community of teachers and students. Indulge yourself by reading this when you need a break - trust me, your enjoyment will be disproportional to its length. Just one final question though - Girthmore? What's up with that?

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Crush Control by Jennifer Jabaley

Crush ControlCrush Control by Jennifer Jabaley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's not terribly difficult to forsee the various disasters that MC Willow inflicts on herself and others, nor is it hard to see how things will eventually work themselves out. But there's lots of fun to be had along the way. Willow is a charming MC, who could benefit from a good shake now and then, but has a sweet, sensitve and kind heart, although it is fraught with bad judgment and poor impulse control. There are several great supporting characters as well - her quirkster friend, Georgia; her single mom struggling with her own issues of identity and parental acceptance; the surface perfect but vulnerable cheerleader; and of course two hunky boys for Willow to obssess over. One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the way the author worked the themes of A Midsummer Night's Dream into the story. I love when authors introduce a book like that in a way that illuminates the action and also moves the plot forward - like Leaves of Grass in Paper Towns, or Pride and Prejudice in Between the Lines. This book also features a really great "meet cute" scene with one of the aforesaid boys on Willow's first day back in the small Georgia town they've returned to from Las Vegas. Believable emotions, if farfetched situations, and warmly portrayed lovable characters made this a pleasurable, quick read.

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