Fangirl; or, Why I want Rainbow Rowell to be my BFF.

Title: Fangirl

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Publisher & Release Date: St. Martin’s Griffin, September 2013

The Hook: Everything Rainbow Rowell writes is gold.  Seriously, her grocery lists are probably magical.  She’s quickly becoming my favorite YA author; I’ve been calling her “the girl John Green” for awhile now.  Strong words, I know, but she’s just that great.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Cath doesn’t think she’s good at life – but she’s really good at being a fan.  She’s been writing fanfiction since she was twelve, and she’s gotten kind of famous in that world.  But college is another “story”.  She’s got a mean roommate (with a too-friendly boyfriend), her twin sister’s ignoring her, her dad’s a mess, her writing professor is pushing her too hard… She keeps having to rise to the occasion, but all she really wants to do is stay in her room and write.  Is Cath ready to live her own life, write her own stories, and open her heart to someone?  Or will she just go on living insider her fictional world?”

Overall Impressions:  Based on the description of this book, I went in with low expectations.  Sure, “Eleanor & Park” was amazing, but I wasn’t sure that the “awkward girl who writes fanfiction” storyline was going to work for me.  Silly me.  I should have known that in Rainbow Rowell’s capable hands, even the most banal plot could become something poignant, raw, and funny.  As with all of Rowell’s books, “Fangirl” is painful, exhilarating, and impossible to put down.

The Highs: I would say “everything”, but that would make this a short review, so I’ll elaborate:

I love Cath.  I expected to find her irritating (she writes homoerotic fanfiction about a Harry Potter-esque character, for Pete’s sake), but she was written with such honesty and depth that I couldn’t help but feel for her.  Her social anxiety and obsessive behaviors were incredibly realistic and heartbreakingly familiar.

Levi.  Oh, Levi.  He might just be my newest fictional boyfriend.  Kind, genuine, enthusiastic, flawed in the most endearing ways… and the way he calls Cath “Cather”?  I die.  Every time.

Regan, Cath’s hard-as-nails-with-a-heart-of-gold roommate (and also Levi’s BFF) is probably my favorite character in the book.  She’s the friend we should all have, the person who will give it to you straight in any situation and defend you to the death.  I adore her.

I also loved Cath’s dad, and his own struggles with mental imbalances.  Again, Rowell approaches mental illness with honesty and sensitivity, never caricaturing the behaviors but portraying characters holistically, with their mental quirks, however debilitating, being simply a part of the whole person.

Buzzkills:  For me, there wasn’t a whole lot not to like here.  The characters who were less than sympathetic (Cath’s twin Wren, a certain boy with whom Cath collaborates on a project) were believable and nuanced enough to make me forgive them their flaws (well, not the boy’s, but he doesn’t deserve my forgiveness, damn it).  There was also a scene with one of Cath’s professors that was absolutely mortifying to read, but again, this is how Rowell writes.   The agony is part of the ecstasy.

The Source: Advance Reading Copy from the publisher.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or invites to college parties were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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Out of the Woods

Title: If You Find Me If You Find me

Author:  Emily Murdoch

Publisher & Release Date: St. Martin’s Griffin, March 2013

The Hook: This has been flying off the shelf at my library, as well as getting some buzz around the teen lit community.

The Lowdown (from Amazon): “A broken-down camper hidden deep in a national forest is the only home fifteen year-old Carey can remember. The trees keep guard over her threadbare existence, with the one bright spot being Carey’s younger sister, Jenessa, who depends on Carey for her very survival. All they have is each other, as their mentally ill mother comes and goes with greater frequency – until that one fateful day their mother disappears for good, and two strangers arrive. Suddenly, the girls are taken from the woods and thrust into a bright and perplexing new world of high school, clothes and boys.”

Overall Impressions: Fans of “Where the Stars Still Shine” by Trish Doller and “The Rules of Survival” by Nancy Werlin, not to mention “A Child Called It”, will be in love with Carey’s story. To be honest, this is not my favorite kind of story, but Murdoch did a great job of sucking the reader in and not letting go.

The Highs: Nicely paced, flipping between camper/meth!Mom flashbacks and present-day adjusting with a hint of foreshadowing to carry the story.  The focus is (rightly) on the development of Carey’s relationships with family and friends, with just a touch of romance; given the backstory, it was nice to see her take that very cautiously. The ending was a twist for a couple of reasons – I think most readers will guess the main reveal, but there was a little extra that set a new lens over the previous story.

Buzzkills:  Scenes of rape and abuse are grim, although not overly graphic. Her mother’s diagnosis seemed a little thin to me – but I’m not well-versed in mental conditions, which it’s possible the author is counting on. Carey’s education is suspiciously deep in some areas and incredibly shallow in others – she can quote Bronte and tests out as a sophomore, but doesn’t know what a locker or a cell phone is.  (I suppose it’s possible none of the books she picked up were set in present-day.) Jenessa can read, but there’s a whole host of other skills that are prerequisites for joining first grade that she would never have developed. Also, some of Carey’s reactions were out of proportion to the issue – after everything her mother did, and much of it was truly horrible, getting her birthday wrong made Casey physically ill. And finally, her step-sister called a truce because of something pretty major… and that was the end of it, no consequences. An interesting choice.

The Source: public library

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or bedazzled jeans were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Looking for that one good man…

Cover art for Charming by Elliott JamesTitle: Charming

Author: Elliott James

Publisher & Release Date: Orbit, September 2013

The Hook: An order of Charmings -how could so many princes have the same name?- protecting the world from paranormal and supernatural danger.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “John Charming isn’t your average Prince…

 “He comes from a line of Charmings — an illustrious family of dragon slayers, witch-finders and killers dating back to before the fall of Rome. Trained by a modern day version of the Knights Templar, monster hunters who have updated their methods from chain mail and crossbows to Kevlar and shotguns, John Charming was one of the best–until a curse made him one of the abominations the Knights were sworn to hunt.
“That was a lifetime ago. Now, John tends bar under an assumed name in rural Virginia and leads a peaceful, quiet life. That is, until a vampire and a blonde walked into his bar…”
Overall Impressions: Awesome premise, fast-paced and interesting plot, unexpected twists, compelling world-building and main character, but the in-your-faceness of the love interest got on my nerves.
The world-building is fascinating – all the pieces of different mythologies getting pulled together under the umbrella of the Pax Arcana. In a nutshell, elves and fairies are/were real, and when they decided to leave this world, they made a superspell (the Pax Arcana) that makes it very, very, very hard for normal people to notice supernatural things (such as their descendants) and strong-armed a bunch of secret organizations (such as the Charmings) with a geas to keep supernatural beings from doing anything that pushed past the notice of the spell. And if death is required to stop said supernatural beings, so be it.

John’s a likable character and enjoyable narrator, with a layer of snark covering his inner pain, as per urban fantasy rules. He definitely has reasons for that pain – he’s been marked for death by his speciest knight family because he’s part werewolf and in their pursuit they killed the woman he loved. He’s been on the run and laying low when he gets inadvertently pulled into an unofficial investigation: Some vampires are up to something *very* bad, and really, rather clever.

Sig (the “blonde” from the jacket copy) is portrayed as a smart, strong, extremely capable individual with her own issues but she’s put together an eclectic team to deal with certain supernatural threats and she’s very obviously a good leader who sees people’s potential and directs them well. She has strong beliefs about men taking advantage of women and acts on them. But she’s also very obviously the love interest, to the extent that practically every member of the team tells John he should pursue her because her current long-term lover (decades) is no-good and she’ll never leave him on her own because loyalty, but she is interested in John. Balancing the Sig as person and Sig as love interest is tricky, and I don’t know that’s always achieved. At times I was tempted to just walk away.

But then I’d get sucked back into the story, and the ending is earned. Not a happily ever after, but honest and a good set-up for the series.

I think this would appeal to fans of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher and Patricia Briggs’ books. I’d like to read the sequel and see how the balance and pacing matures.

The Highs: These are not undeniably attractive and sexually magnetic vampires. Well, there’s a glamour but since John sees through it, and he’s telling the story, so do we. And the book has some fun poking at the trope. However, they are darn effective vampires as bad guys and some of them as smart bad guys.

Molly, Molly, Molly. She was the reason I kept reading when I got annoyed. Her worldview got turned on her head when she accompanied Chauncey (another team member, originally an exterminator) to a haunted house for an exorcism and she struggled with that before coming to the decision to express her faith in a different way. She’s reasonably terrified by things such as vampires and has her own ways of coping. Including playing Christmas music in April because Christmas makes her happy. She instantly became my favorite with that scene.

Sig wears practical clothing for fighting! Who knows how she would be rendered on the cover, but in the first fight with vampires she’s described as wearing cargo pants and a military commando-style dark sweater. That paragraph is my favorite description of her physical appearance in the book.

That the characters respect what each other bring to the battlefield. Even when they don’t like each other.

Buzzkills:  There were a lot of fighting scenes, which I often skim. (Did a major character die / suffer great injury / reveal new power and/or ability? Okay, moving on.)  One sequence in particular seemed unnecessary other than to have an action scene before important exposition.

In John’s second meeting with Sig, he strips naked after the fight so she can burn his blood from the scene and his clothing. Parts of the discussion felt as it their purpose was to say “Look! Sexual attraction! Notice it! Don’t you want them to get together?”

The Source: e-galley from publisher through NetGalley

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or a hand-crafted sword was provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Antici……………….pation: November 2013

InkBridge  FiddleheadF It List The-Naturals

Title: The Ink Bridge

Author: Neil Grant

Publisher & Release Date: Allen & Unwin, November 2013

The Hook: “This compelling story of two young men introduces Omed, an Afghani refugee who, after his father is murdered by the Taliban, undertakes a perilous journey through Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia to seek asylum in Australia; and Hector, an Australian boy consumed by grief, who has given up on school and retreated into silence. Their paths meet at a candle factory where they both find work, and secrets fester behind the monotonous routine: secrets with terrible consequences. These two silent boys-one born in a land of great beauty and great violence, the other unable to escape the past-are tied together by words, and silenced by tragedy. The hardest bridge that Hector will ever build is the one that leads to Omed.”

Title: Fiddlehead

Author: Cherie Priest

Publisher & Release Date: Tor, November 12, 2013

The Hook:  Belle Boyd, tarnished southern spy and now Pinkerton Agent, is tapped to assist the man she spied against for years – Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s friend Gideon Bardsley has invented a calculating machine that could finally clinch the war for the North, called Fiddlehead. But there are warhawks on both sides that would rather the war continue, and Gideon and Belle are in the cross-hairs.

Title: The F- It List

Author: Julie Halpern

Publisher & Release Date: Feiwel & Friends, November, 12, 2013

The Hook:  I just read the first chapter excerpt on edelweiss and it sounds amazing – the voice and the history between the two friends. The summary:

“Alex’s father recently died in a car accident. And on the night of his funeral, her best friend Becca slept with Alex’s boyfriend. So things aren’t great. Alex steps away from her friendship with Becca and focuses on her family. But when Alex finally decides to forgive Becca, she finds out something that will change her world again–Becca has cancer. So what do you do when your best friend has cancer? You help her shave her head. And then you take her bucket list and try to fulfill it on her behalf. Because if that’s all you can do to help your ailing friend–you do it.”

Title: The Naturals

Author: Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Publisher & Release Date: Disney-Hyperion, Nov 5

The Hook: “Seventeen-year-old Cassie is a natural at reading people. Piecing together the tiniest details, she can tell you who you are and what you want. But, it’s not a skill that she’s ever taken seriously. That is, until the FBI come knocking: they’ve begun a classified program that uses exceptional teenagers to crack infamous cold cases, and they need Cassie. Soon, it becomes clear that no one in the Naturals program is what they seem. Caught in a lethal game of cat and mouse with a killer, the Naturals are going to have to use all of their gifts just to survive.”

 

I’m a stranger here myself.

Cover art for Ungifted

Title: Ungifted

Author: Gordon Korman

Publisher & Release Date: Balzer + Bray, 2012

The Hook: Honesty, for me the hook was Gordon Korman. Also robots. (Just look at him – isn’t he adorable?)

The Lowdown (from jacket): “When Donovan Curtis pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he’s finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a special program for gifted and talented students.

“Although it wasn’t exactly what Donovan had intended, the ASD couldn’t be a more perfectly unexpected hideout for someone like him. But as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything), he shows that his gifts may be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.”

Overall Impressions: Confession: I’ve been reading Gordon Korman’s books for about 25 years now. He is, in fact, one of the authors I imprinted on – reading “I Want to Go Home!”wen I was in third or fourth grade and laughing until my stomach ached. I haven’t gotten into his sports or action-adventure series but I think I’ve read pretty much all his other books. And read a bunch of them aloud to my younger sisters. So, I am pre-disposed to enjoy his work.

Ungifted follows a common Gordon Korman theme: Ordinary person(s) and oddball(s) meet and after some initial conflict and/or bewilderment they become friends and/or a team. Often they get up to wacky hijinks while helping each other with various personal issues. The thing is, though, that they’re just so likable! Even the characters set up as bad guys usually turn out okay.

In this case, regular joe Donovan “Donnie” Curtis, in one of his regular moments of poor impulse control, accidentally breaks a statue of Atlas and the giant world rolls right into the school gym, disrupting the big basketball game with their arch rivals, sending kids and adults fleeing, and ultimately causing a great deal of expensive damage. Donnie ends up in the superintendent’s office but through a series of accidents gets sent to the gifted school.

Just by being himself, Donnie helps the robotics class become a team. He gives their robot personality. And when the school realizes the class somehow missed taking Human Growth and Development and will have to make it up in summer school (horrors!), Donnie comes up with a “hands-on” alternative: blackmailing his sister Katie into sharing the last several weeks of her pregnancy with the class! He becomes friends with most of the robotics students and does some re-evaluating, though not abandoning, of his old friendships. Chloe and Noah at the ASD are fantastic, and Daniel and Daniel, Donnie’s doofy friends, grow on you by the end of the book.

The alternating points of view work well to show all the different story threads, from Donnie’s growing enjoyment of and struggle to stay in the gifted academy, to the teachers’ bafflement, to the robotics’ students’ acceptance of Donnie, to the district superintendent’s ongoing search for the hooligan whose name he can’t remember.

The one major qualm I have about “Ungifted” is the same I’ve seen in other reviews. Namely, gifted kids being portrayed as uniformly socially awkward and innocent, though each in different ways. Think “The Big Bang Theory” with middle schoolers, but less science fiction and comics geeky. They don’t think of naming their robot, they don’t cohere as a team, they don’t know about YouTube, and they don’t know how to behave around students from the non-gifted middle school. Chloe forms hypotheses and longs to experience normalcy; Abigail is focused on academic success to the extent that she could give herself an ulcer; Noah becomes obsessed with YouTube and professional wrestling. Another girl blurts out random facts when asked to speak. The gifted kids I remember from school were no more socially awkward than the other students.

In some ways, this book is the flip version of Mr. Korman’s earlier fish-out-water novel “Schooled,” wherein a home-schooled boy who lives with his hippie grandmother on an isolated commune has to temporarily move in with a social worker and her family and attend public school when his grandmother is badly injured in a fall. Of these two, I think I prefer “Schooled.”

That said, Ungifted is a solid, enjoyable middle-grade novel. People who normally wouldn’t interact with one another -mostly different social groups- learn they can get along and in so doing, make each other better. And make awesome robots.

The Highs: The interrogation transcript chapters.

Noah’s WWE obsession and ongoing attempts to fail at school.

The relationship Katie and the robotics class form during the Human Growth and Development project.

Donnie’s dad. ❤

Buzzkills: See above re: portrayal of gifted kids.

The Source: ebook purchase.