Beauty ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Title: Gorgeous Cover of Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick

Author: Paul Rudnick

Publisher & Release Date: Scholastic, April 2013

The Hook: This poignant, satirical and uproariously funny modern-day fairytale skewers our collective obsession with beauty and celebrity.

The Lowdown: Eighteen-year-old Becky’s life is going nowhere until the day her morbidly obese mother dies in the trailer that they share.  As she sorts through her mother’s things, the phantom ringing of her mother’s cellphone leads her to a card with a phone number printed on it.  When she calls the number, her life is turned upside down.  She is whisked away, first-class, to New York, to meet with Tom Kelly, the world’s most famous designer.  Tom shows her that her mother was once stunningly beautiful, one of his muses, and because of this connection, he offers to make Becky three dresses that will transform her into the most beautiful woman in the world.  She takes him up on his offer (who wouldn’t?!), and Tom and his team of sartorial magicians turn plain Becky into stunning, elusive Rebecca, a woman no one can resist.  Rebecca is perfect, and everyone wants a piece of her.  She poses for magazines, stars in a hit movie, and rubs elbows with the rich and famous.  When she meets Prince Gregory, the heir to the British throne, she begins to see a purpose for her staggering beauty.  But when the clock strikes midnight on the spell that keeps Rebecca beautiful, Becky is forced to face the truth about who and what she is.

Overall Impressions: I started laughing on page one, but the hilarity alternates with some pretty heart-wrenching sadness. I love love LOVE Becky’s voice; she’s snarky and vulnerable, scared but resilient, all things that make for a lovable heroine.  This was a fun, sparkling read that had a little bit of everything: satire, fairy-tale romance, even haute couture.

The Highs: Okay, this might be a buzzkill for some, but I got such a kick out of the swearing in this book.  The cursing is constant and creative.  Becky’s best friend Rocher puts together some compound swears that would put a sailor to shame.  Rocher herself is another high for me.  She’s the perfect sidekick: supportive, down for anything, and more than a tiny bit crazy.  I also loved the magic in this book.  It’s unexpected, touching, and rather lovely

Buzzkills: See above re: swearing.  If f-bombs bother you, you probably won’t make it past the first page.

The Source: Advance Reader Copy from publisher

Disclaimer: No chocolate or shiny things were provided by the publisher for this review.

Aliens and mayhem and fascism, oh my!

intheafter

Title: In the After

Author: Demitria Lunetta

Publisher & Release Date: Harper Teen, June 2013

The Hook: You had me at aliens, but it was the smartly-written dystopia that really won my heart.

The Lowdown: Amy is an average teenager until the day They arrive.  In the blink of an eye, she’s left all alone as humanity is decimated by monsters straight out of a nightmare.  Thanks to her parents’ foresight and her own intelligence, she has the skills and tools necessary for her survival, but it’s not till she rescues an abandoned toddler that she finds a reason to keep on living.  She and Baby, as she names the girl, live relatively comfortably in their little fortress until a stranger breaches their defenses.  Miraculously, they survive long enough to be picked up and taken to New Hope, a community that promises to beat back the invading horde and rebuild humanity.  But New Hope has its own dark corners, and Amy’s unanswered questions about her new home and those who control it lead her to a terrifying discovery.

Overall Impressions: Just when I was ready to give up on dystopias for awhile, this fabulous book came along and restored my faith in YA lit’s ability to imagine truly chilling futures for society.  This dystopia was written on a small scale, but it was sharp and frighteningly believable.  I found myself thinking, more than once, “This is EXACTLY what would happen in this situation!”.  I loved Lunetta’s descriptive-but-straightforward style, and while I didn’t always like Amy, I had a lot of respect for her by the end of the book.   I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting for the sequel.

The Highs: I’m a sucker for aliens, and Lunetta’s aliens were as creepy as could be.  The swiftness and brutality of their invasion was frighteningly realistic, as were the effects on humanity’s surviving members.

Buzzkills: It only enhanced the story for me, but be warned that the violence in this book is pretty graphic, and the descriptions of the invasion and its aftermath are brutal.

The Source: Advance Reader Copy from publisher

Disclaimer: No chocolate or shiny things were provided by the publisher for this review.

How much does your family history define you?

Title: girlchild: [a novel]  Cover artwork for Girlchild

Author: Tupelo Hassman

Publisher & Release Date: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

The Hook: A cover with an old-style library check out card* and a 2013 Alex Award winner. (The Alex Awards recognize “ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults.”) The Girl Scout angle didn’t hurt either.

The Lowdown (From jacket copy): Rory Hendrix is the least likely of Girl Scouts. She hasn’t got a troop or even a badge to call her own. But she’s checked the Handbook out from the elementary school library so many times that her name fills all the lines on the card, and she pores over its surreal advice (Disposal of Outgrown Uniforms; The Right Use of Your Body; Finding Your Way When Lost) for tips to get off the Calle: that is, Calle de los Flores, the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop.

Rory’s been told she is “third generation in a line of apparent imbeciles, feeble-minded bastards surely on the road to whoredom.” But she’s determined to prove the County and her own family wrong. Brash, sassy, vulnerable, wise, and terrified, she struggles with her mother’s habit of trusting the wrong men, and the mixed blessing of being too smart for her own good. From diary entries, social worker’s reports, half-recalled memories, story problems, arrest records, family lore, Supreme Court opinions, and her grandmother’s letters, Rory crafts a devastating collage that shows us her world while she searches for the way out of it.

Overall Impressions: I want to quote endlessly from this book to show the vivid storytelling and the different tools utilized. I want you to meet Rory, who leaps off the page as she alternately puzzles through and rages at the life that is and eventually defies it for a life that could be.

Two-thirds of the way through girlchild, Rory receives an assignment to write a paper on the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection before the law. And here she encounters Buck vs. Bell, a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court ruling wherein the court essentially affirmed state governments having the right to sterilize “feeble-minded” and “socially inadequate” people without their consent.

“…[Chief Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes was so concerned about the importance of good breeding even the Fourteenth Amendment didn’t give him pause. He well understood the amendment’s notion of one’s right to one’s own body and to one’s own plans, and hopes, and dreams for that body, but he just couldn’t see what that unalienable human right had to do with the obvious defective before him.”

“Since Mr. Justice had no problem bringing his gavel down on Carrie, if he could swing that thing so blind in her case, it’s hard for me to believe he would have had any problem hammering it home in the case of Hendrix v., had we been in her position.” (p. 174)

This, I think, is where the rage comes into Rory’s story. She tells it in pieces and out of order, through weird story problems with uncomfortable multiple choice answers, and through selections of her mother’s story in recollections and case worker files, for that is part of her own story. Some chapters, dealing with Rory’s molestation by a neighbor, are entirely blacked out and all the more chilling for it. Her rage, controlled and lit, comes out toward the end.

I feel as if girlchild doesn’t really come to an end, just the close of this part of Rory’s story.

This would be an excellent choice for a book club. I plan to suggest it to mine.

The Highs: Rory Dawn Hendrix and her raw and compelling voice.

The fervent hope and desire that Rory’s mother and grandmother have for her to make it out of all the things that trapped them. “…Grandma had these words to say, quietly, over coffee and oatmeal, over RC and bologna sandwiches, ‘Someone’s got to make it and it has to be you,’ her sweet, sick Grandma smell mixing with the smoke of her cigarettes, the cold breeze from the Calle, and the sage-and-sandpaper sound of her voice, pushing me to do it, to take my chance, to make belief.” (p. 251)

The writing.

Buzzkills: This is more of a warning for possible triggers, but child molestation and parental alcoholism.

The Source: Borrowed (and overdue) from public library

Disclaimer: No chocolate or playing cards were provided by the publisher for this review.

*The trade paperback has a different cover, no library check-out slip.

Love is a battlefield

Title: The TestingCover of The Testing

Author: Joelle Charbonneau

Publisher & Release Date: Houghton Mifflin, June 2013

The Hook: Post-apocalyptic battle for survival where nothing is what is seems? Yes, please!

The Lowdown: Graduation day for sixteen-year-old Malencia Vale: she finally finds out whether she’ll be chosen for the Testing, a program to select the new leaders of a world still struggling to recover from chemical and biological destruction. But that night, her father warns her of the true nature of the Testing – a vicious competition where the penalties for wrong answers are deadly. At least she has Tomas, the one person she can trust on the field… she hopes.

Overall Impressions: This is very similar to the Hunger Games and the Maze Runner, with environmental and interpersonal landmines, real and figurative. Cia and her reactions to the brutal regime of tests draw a lot of sympathy from the reader, and a strong romantic thread with Tomas pulls the story along. Issues of trust, secrecy and Big Brother surveillance present interesting challenges to their relationship and to Cia’s view of the world and of her fellow human beings.

This is scheduled to be the first in a trilogy, and has seeded some intriguing elements for future world exploration. I look forward to seeing more about the world outside the very structured Commonwealth, both the twisted humans in the contaminated wilds and the rebels we caught a brief glimpse of in this first novel.

The Highs: Fast-paced, with believable characters and an interesting look at the results of a biological, chemical and nuclear world war. I appreciated that Cia is a very intelligent and strongly moral character, who still has lessons to learn through the book.

Buzzkills: The writing felt overly simplistic at times. There’s about as much gore as the Hunger Games, if that bothers readers.

The Source: ALA Midwinter Exhibits.

Disclaimer: No chocolate or other survival gear was provided by the publisher for this review.

Edited to add author’s name. Whoops!

Robots are a girl’s best friend

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong coverTitle: Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Authors: Prudence Shen and Faith Erin Hicks

Publisher & Release Date: First Second (:01), May 2013

The Hook: This book was definitely on my radar because of the creators but it jumped to the top of the pile when I saw their Unshelved guest strip. Main characters Nate and Charlie rec’d Gordon Korman’s awesome MacDonald Hall series and I wanted more of their narration right away.

Originally published as a webcomic.

The Lowdown (from the jacket): “Charlie is the laid-back captain of the basketball team. Nate is the neurotic, scheming president of the robotics club. Their unlikely friendship nearly bites the dust when Nate declares war on the cheerleaders and the cheerleaders retaliate by making Charlie their figurehead in the ugliest class election campaign the school has ever seen. At stake? Student group funding that will either cover a robotics competition or new cheerleading uniforms – but not both.”

Overall Impressions: Shen and Hicks created a contemporary, rather zany story that left a big grin on my face. Poor Charlie and the members of the Robotics Club get dragged along into ever escalating warfare between Club President Nate and the terrifying cheerleaders; the principal is unimpressed with everyone’s behavior. And then they have to work together in a Plan R. R for Robot Rumble.  The story felt a bit like an homage to Bruno and Boots and their adventures at MacDonald Hall -I have deep, intense love for them-  but it also felt like its own thing. Shen really appreciates the genre she’s working in and has some fun with clique and geek tropes.

Charlie’s also dealing with divorced parents – a geographically distant mother he doesn’t want to talk to and a father who’s often gone.

Hicks’ art is energetic and pulls you into the story – I was especially impressed with the basketball game, the Robot Rumble, and Charlie’s phone call while he’s jogging. The characters look like real people, not superheroes, and wear realistic clothing. The drawings are black, white and shades of gray, crisp and nuanced. She draws excellent puppy dog eyes and excellent intimidation eyes. I’d be kind of curious to see her do a Western.

Romance, unless it involves robots, is very low-key – refreshing! But what there is is sweet.

The Highs: The party that gets thrown at Charlie’s house. Please note, Charlie does not do the throwing.

Joanna. Joanna, Joanna, Joanna. Her eyes are clear, her fingers are deft, her love for robots (specifically, The Beast) is pure. And her fellow Robotics Club members respect her skills, knowledge and righteous anger. She’s the awesomest. She’s comfortable in her own skin.

The racially diverse student body.

The Robot Rumble itself.

Buzzkills: None.

Source: Bought at my local indie bookstore.

No chocolate or cash was exchanged for this review.

Antici… pation (June 2013)

A few titles coming out this month that we can’t wait to get our hands on:

Title: Oathbreaker’s Shadow

Author: Amy McCullogh

Publisher & Release Date: June 2013 (Canadian/UK release only)

The Hook: In a world where promises are symbolized by knotted string and breaking an oath casts you out of society, Raim doesn’t know what promise the knot around his wrist symbolizes. He only knows when he breaks it.

Title: Seige and Storm (Grsisha Trilogy #2)

Author: Leigh Bardugo

Publisher & Release Date: Henry Holt, June 2013

The Hook: The first book, Shadow and Bone, was amazing and gorgeous. Yes please for number two!

Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publisher & Release Date: William Morrow, June 2013

The Hook: Gaiman’s adult works such as Anasi Boys are highly allusionary and dark tales, beautifully told.

Title: The Apprentices

Author: Maile Meloy

Publisher & Release Date: Putnam Juvenile, June 2013

The Hook: This is the sequel to Meloy’s beautiful, bittersweet middle-grade debut, The Apothecary.  The first book wrapped up nicely enough that it didn’t absolutely scream for a sequel, but I’m glad that she wrote one.

Cover for The Oathbreaker's Shadow    Cover of Siege and Storm     Cover of The Ocean at the End of the Lane    apprentices