Trouble Makes a Comeback by Stephanie Tromly

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trouble makes a comebackTrouble Makes a Comeback by Stephanie Tromly
Kathy Dawson Books, November 2016.

This satisfying sequel to Trouble is a Friend of Mine (2015) picks up 5 months later. Zoe Webster, now at the end of her junior year, has settled into the social scene at River Heights, and even has a boyfriend, football team member Austin Shaeffer. But then Digby returns with new leads on the mystery of his sister’s abduction 9 years previously.

As with the previous book, there are several strands going at once. The overarching mystery of Sally Digby’s abduction spreads its net wider as it seems to become more than just a missing girl case. There is a secondary, though interlinked, escapade, this time involving steroids and the football team. There are a few plot glitches, but I’ll put those down to reading this as an ARC

The hardboiled mysteries work well, but, for me, are really just a vehicle for the characters. The central twosome are just as charming, irritating, and sharp. Zoe’s narration shows her as the smartest and funniest high schooler around, and Digby continues to surprise with skills, self-doubt, and focus. And then there’s the crackling tension of their will they-won’t they romance, now complicated by Zoe’s relationship with Austin, and Digby’s with punk girl, Bill.

The support characters now have a bit of room to spread out and develop even more depth. Entitled rich girl Sloane shows more social intelligence and self-knowledge; Felix is still the stereotypically supersmart Asian kid and the only non-white character, but he has become the manager of, and something of a stud for, the girls’ soccer team. Adults are not just foils for the teens. Both Zoe’s and Digby’s mothers are complex, flawed, richly created human beings, and the father figures in Zoe’s life are a nicely contrasting pair.

The bad news is that we’re left on a pretty abrupt cliffhanger. The good news is that there’s more to come from River Heights.

Thanks to Kathy Dawson Books and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

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scorpion rulesThe Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2015.

400 years ago, the world collapsed into warring factions, and Talis, an Artificial Intelligence, imposed order by keeping the children of the political leaders hostage and under promise of death if their faction declared war. 16 year-old Greta is one of these Children of Peace, kept in a Prefecture in Saskatchewan. When a new alliance is formed that borders on her Federation, and their hostage Elian is brought to their Prefecture, Greta’s fear that she will soon be summoned to die for her mother’s decision seems about to be realized.

Bow (Plain Kate, Levine, 2010) has created an extraordinarily detailed and coherent world. Within a few pages, she answers all my ‘hang on, how does this work?’ questions, and though the logic of these hostages is quite horrible, it also actually makes sense. The decisions that Talis has taken on behalf of the world, in terms of peacekeeping, technology, and infrastructure, are brutally austere, and yet also something that could easily be in our future.

Greta is a challenging character and narrator. She is a rule abider, and follows what is expected of her as both a Princess (the world has gone rather feudal) and a Child of Peace. This makes her initially somewhat stiff and unlikeable, and it does appear that we are going to go down the well-trodden track of her only seeing the error of her ways when the defiant and rebellious Elian turns up. But Ms Bow is far too skilled a writer for that, and the second half of the book is full of thrilling twists and turns, as Greta takes hold of the power she did not realize she had.

The large cast of multicultural support characters, both human and AI, are vividly drawn and fit into the world with ease. Princess Xie, Greta’s roommate and best friend since she first arrived at the age of 5, is emotionally exquisite and is shown to have far greater understanding of the system than anybody else. And Talis, despite being the world-ruling AI, is also hilariously and scarily flippant about his power and decisions.

Talis’s rule is to ‘make it personal’, and Ms. Bow has written a very smart novel about the conviction and perception of those individuals who challenge the imposed solution despite the stupidity of the human race. This is the first book in a series, and fans of intelligent dystopian fiction will love it.

Replica by Lauren Oliver

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bookcover_replicaReplica by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2016.

With this very enjoyable first book in her new duology, which takes on the big theme of what it means to be human, Lauren Oliver returns to the sci fi/dystopia genre of her splendid Delirium trilogy.

Lyra and Gemma are both connected with the mysterious Haven Institute which is situated on a remote Florida island. Lyra, or 24, is one of the many replicas (or clones) that live there. Gemma’s father was one of the founders of Haven. When a bomb goes off on the island, Lyra escapes and Gemma makes her way down to Florida – from their different perspectives, they both want to find out who they are and what Haven’s purpose really is.

Told from the perspectives of Lyra and Gemma, the author has taken the interesting if not entirely successful decision to write this as two novellas rather than the usual interleaved chapters. I applaud trying new things, but I feel maybe it would have worked better in the traditional way. In the intro, Ms Oliver talks about the Rashomon effect, but it is much harder to detect this when you are not reading the two accounts side by side, particularly in an eBook.

The created world is thought-provoking and cohesive, and, as she did with Delirium, the author gradually drops in new information to build a fuller picture, but does this without ever leaving the reader frustrated or confused. The science of what is going on at Haven comes in a couple of big information dumps and I found it a bit confusing, though I suspect it’s not essential to follow precisely. Suffice to say that the scientists at Haven are Up To No Good.

I really like the two narrators and the voices that Ms Oliver has created for them. Lyra is precise and a little cold. Ms Oliver is largely successful in creating a character that knows nothing about the outside world, except what she has occasionally seen on TV or overheard from the Haven staff, and then to convey her wonder and confusion as she encounters it. Gemma becomes more intriguing as we get to know her and her family background.

Both girls have love interests (and all main characters appear to be white). Lyra flees from Haven with hunky 72, who is of the silent brooding but “beautiful” type, and Gemma’s ride to Florida is Pete, who is of the fresh-faced, handsome, nice, and inexplicably drawn to the outcast girl type. Neither really develops much beyond that. As the young women dig deeper into who they are, their beaux’ responses add new dimensions when the idea of love as a marker of humanity is explored.

The plot rattles along, with twist following twist, and the two accounts add developments without being repetitious. Unfortunately, the novel just sort of ends on an incomplete note, so we’ll have to wait for the concluding sequel, though yay for dropping the treading water middle book of a trilogy!

Ms Oliver’s books are always worth reading, whether realistic or speculative. Fans of her previous novels won’t be disappointed, and Replica could well attract some new readers.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

As I Descended by Robin Talley

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AsIDescended-highresAs I Descended by Robin Talley
HarperTeen, September 2016

I have really enjoyed Ms Talley’s two previous books, particularly What We Left Behind  (2015), one of my top books of 2016. Both those books were about, among other things, young women coming to terms with their gender and sexuality. In her latest, many of her characters just happen to be gay and lesbian, and none of them have any issues with this (though their parents might have), and the author has ventured into genre territory – an exceedingly chilling modern day retelling of Macbeth, setting in a Virginia boarding school.

When spirits tell brown-skinned Maria, through a Ouija board, that she will have what she most desires, she decides to take matters into her own hands, goaded on by her white girlfriend Lily. The prize is the prestigious Cawdor Kingsley scholarship, and once the spirits offer it, Maria can’t stop wanting it, and will let nothing get in her way, beginning with deposing Queen Bee, Delilah.

Though this isn’t a completely faithful rendition of Macbeth – none of the characters have children, for example – it is surprisingly close and works extremely well. Some of it is a little forced – the football field is rather clunkily called Dunsinane – but the characters and their motivations and arcs are remarkably faithful. It will work just fine for readers unfamiliar with the Scottish play, but for those who do know it, there are some clever nods and reimaginings.

The story is told from the point of view of several characters, and they are mostly well-developed despite being players in a melodramatic story. However, Maria/Macbeth starts off well, but as she gets further into the web woven for her by the malignant forces, l lost the feel of her and she seemed to become more of a chess piece to get through a plot. However, Lily/Lady Macbeth and Brandon/Banquo avoid this, and are heartbreaking in their roles.

Because it’s based on a Shakespearean tragedy, there is a lot of Gothic drama and the writing becomes very feverish and a little overwrought. However, Ms Talley brings a creepiness that kept me awake and a little nervous in my holiday cottage in Ireland, and which will appeal to fans of Maggie Stiefvater.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan

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you know me wellYou Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan
St Martin’s Griffin, 2016.

Two YA heavyweights – Nina LaCour (The Disenchantments, 2012) and David Levithan (Every Day, 2012) – have co-written this glossy and highly romanticized gay teen love story that is, sadly, just not quite as good as I’d hoped for from these major talents.

Mark just can’t get out of the friend zone with Ryan, and Kate is in love with a girl she has never met. Over the course of San Francisco’s Pride week, these two high schoolers from the East Bay work out their relationship problems, though not necessarily as they might have planned, and come to appreciate their new “rainbow alliance” with each other.

Mark and Kate alternate narration, and though I’m assuming each author wrote as one of the characters, to be honest, I find their voices a bit interchangeable. As they make their way through the week they get to know both themselves and each other, and can start seeing the shape of the future.

The main characters are attractive, though a little too precious, and it is noteworthy that nearly all their friends are gay and lesbian, though pretty much everyone is white and middle class. As you would expect, parents and other adults are in the background, and all are tolerant and supportive.

Art, and the creation and inspiration/source for it, is a key theme. Kate paints and there are some descriptions of her work, as well as a whole (unlikely) plot thread about her having an exhibition at a small San Francisco gallery. There is also a pivotal young queer poetry slam, with several of the poems written out in full – I have to say this does not work for me as well as it might do as spoken word.

I’m not the audience for this book; as Kate says “We grow up and we lose ourselves.” I’m no longer a teenager, and I find some of this yearning and feeling a bit eyerollingly silly, even as Kate predicts I will. Though I have enjoyed individual novels by the two authors much more and this feels like a bit of a tossed off effort, I think fans of smart YA romances will enjoy it.

Thanks to St Martin’s Griffin and Edelweiss for the eARC.

Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb

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every single secondEvery Single Second by Tricia Springstubb
Balzer + Bray, 2016

I reviewed this from an eARC, and while I don’t normally highlight that at the top of a review, in this case I think it’s quite important, as this book still seems rather unfinished. I really loved Ms Springstubb’s Moonpenny Island, and I’m just not seeing quite the same tightness in this writing as I did there, so I’m assuming (hoping!) that further editing will polish this up to the level of the author’s previous gem. But I got what I got, and here is a review of that, please just bear in mind that caveat.

The passage of time threads through this realistic middle grade story of ‘what might have been’, and how a mere second can devastatingly divert a life. Italian-American Nella’s life is changing: her school is about to close and she’s uncertain how she’ll fit in with the mostly black kids in the neighborhood middle school she’ll probably go to. And her friendships are shifting: she has always been close to Angela – secret sisters close – but a new girl, Clem, exposes their differences and they drift apart.

The book moves between Now (the end of 7th grade) and Then (from kindergarten onwards), and is driven by a tragic shooting that exposes the neighborhood racial tensions. Family secrets that have been buried, and whose corrosive effects have spread wide, are finally brought to light. The author also alludes to the passing of time in brief interspersed chapters with the thoughts of a neighborhood statue, though personally I didn’t think this added much.

The strength of the novel is its central trio. The three girls are all delicately drawn, thoroughly authentic and believable, teetering on the border between childhood and young adulthood. Their relationships with each other, and with their family members, grow and change as they navigate that tricky crossing.

In the writing itself, I felt there was rather too much telling, not showing. Nella suddenly realizes many things and then expounds on what she’s realized, without letting the reader work that out for themselves. I also found the resolution a bit too neat for a novel that was realistically sprawling.

So what can I say? The book has now been published, so I’ll look at it before I pass a definitive opinion. I feel it’s likely to have been sharpened up considerably, and will have all that I’ve come to expect from this author of excellent realistic novels.

Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall

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space hostagesSpace Hostages by Sophia McDougall
HarperCollins, 2016.

I enjoyed Mars Evacuees (2015) very much, it was a Cybils finalist, and it made a great read for the 5th/6th grade book club at my son’s school. So I was excited to get the eARC for the sequel, Space Hostages (which was published in the UK in 2015), though it has taken me quite a while to get round to reading it.

The intrepid band of Plucky Kids of Mars, as Alice, Josephine, Carl, Noel, and Thsaaa are now known on Earth, are once again heading off into space, along with Goldfish, the “undaunted, floating, blue-eyed American robot fish, on a mission to educate youth.” This time it’s a pleasant vacation trip for a ceremony to inaugurate the Morrors’ new home planet. But on the way, their spaceship, Helen, is captured by the giant lobster-like Krakkiluks, who believe that the humans and Morrors have occupied a territory belonging to their Great Expanse.

Once again, the plot has a leisurely start, in which we find out, in a meta-twist, that the previous book was, in fact, Alice’s memoirs published in this fictional world. There is a slightly sagging middle when the Plucky Kids are separated. Alice, Josephine, Carl, and Goldfish end up on a different planet, and their exciting adventures here are rather slowed down by their, to me, tedious efforts to communicate with the indigenous Eemala (though fair play to Ms MacDougall for not having the aliens all speak English). Noel and Thsaaa have their own adventures back on the Krakkiluk ship, but both narratives felt longer than they needed to be.

I also found the characters from the previous books a bit less fresh and striking than before. Josephine is more withdrawn since Mars Evacuees was published and is duct tapeless. Carl is also rather gloomy, and Noel gets little airtime. However, Goldfish continues to entertain: “We’re going to need teamwork, and imagination, and heavy duty weaponry to handle this!”, and Helen, the wistful, sentient, poetry writing, AI spaceship in love with her captain, is an excellent addition.

Alice’s narration is as drily and self-deprecatingly witty as before – “First contact is incredibly socially awkward” – and this lightness, together with our knowledge that these are her memoirs, keep the novel from being too scary, even though some of the situations are very intense.

McDougall makes considerable effort to keep the alien species non-humanoid and diverse. Not only do they look different from us, but they have different values: the warrior Krakkiluks are obsessed with married love, but have no time at all for children. The Eemala are less original, as they feel a little like furry, flying, humans.

There is a theme of colonization, which is delicately woven in, much like the first book looked at the idea of reactions to the other. The most obvious proponents are the Krakkiluks, and McDougall spins in subtle ideas about the social and cultural implications for both oppressors and oppressed, as well as bringing it home by having Carl makes a tart comment on the colonized caring for the colonizers’ children. And the humans are not entirely innocent with their captain proclaiming “The stars belong to us.”

Space Hostages can stand alone as there is a quick catch up at the beginning, but readers would be missing out if they started here. Overall, this is a very entertaining, intelligent, and imaginative sequel but, though satisfying, is just not quite as good as Mars Evacuees.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.