November 21, 2014

Review: Chasing Before

Chasing Before Book two of the Memory Chronicles
By Lenore Appelhans
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy
Read my review of The Memory of After

Note: I know Lenore Appelhans.

It's been awhile since I read THE MEMORY OF AFTER (published in hardcover as LEVEL 2), so it took several chapters before I readjusted to the mythology of the series and remembered what had happened before.  Felicia and her boyfriend Neil have both moved on to Level 3, the second level of the afterlife.  Unfortunately, the Morati (a group of rogue angels) have moved into Level 3 too. 

There were several things I liked about CHASING BEFORE and several things that frustrated me.  I liked that we got to meet Felicia's best friend Autumn, who had been murdered before the events of THE MEMORY OF AFTER.  Autumn is still working through her afterlife, and though she says she's forgiven Felicia for stealing her boyfriend, there is still an obvious friction between the girls.  They also run into Neil's older brother Nate, which felt like a bit much.  Maybe if he'd died many years after, but it sure feels like a lot of their peer group conveniently died off.  Nate, however, does provide one big revelation: Felicia and Neil didn't die in the car crash like they thought.  They're both missing months of memories.

CHASING BEFORE is full of neat twists like that, and they keep coming though the climax of the book.  The end of CHASING BEFORE can serve as a conclusion, but I'm excited to see Level 4 and find out what's next.  Unfortunately, the exciting twists and things blowing up keep getting bogged down by relationship drama.  The issues between Felicia and Neil are very realistic.  She wants to have sex; he still wants to keep to his ideal of no sex before marriage.  She's prone to jealousy and he's stubborn.  But their fights didn't endear me to Neil, who I've never found that swoonworthy.

Level 3 itself is also a mix of good and bad.  I liked the character development Felicia goes through as she learns to let go of her life on Earth, even as she's desperate to recover her lost memories and the whole of herself.  At the same time, Level 3 is apparently where you learn your afterlife career.  Thankfully we don't have to spend too much time in class.  There are less flashbacks in CHASING BEFORE than in THE MEMORY OF AFTER, if you're one of the readers that was bothered by those.  The past continues to be helpful to discovering what's happening, but it is no longer a focus.

CHASING BEFORE is a breezy read with an intriguing take on the afterlife and a heroine who is both brave and determined.  There is a love triangle, for those who hate that, but it is very much in the background.  It's probably best if you read THE MEMORY OF AFTER first, but I think CHASING BEFORE can stand on its own.

November 20, 2014

Review: Gracefully Grayson

Gracefully Grayson By Ami Polonsky
Available now from Disney-Hyperion
Review copy

Note: I am using male pronouns throughout this review.  The book is unambiguous that Grayson is a girl, but she is identified as male throughout the story.

First of all, GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is notable from being a middle grade (or tween) novel that deals with trans* issues.  There aren't stories that deal with this issue for that age group filling the shelves, so this fills a very important gap.

I was a bit disappointed at first.  There seemed to be nothing happening in the novel except for Grayson's discomfort with his gender role, and then a tentative relationship with a new girl.  I felt rather sorry for the kid as he seemed to think that becoming a girl would be all skirts, dresses, and princesses.

Things really pick up when Grayson tries out for the school play -- as the female lead.  It's an important step in Grayson stepping out of his shell and reaching for the person that he wants to be, but not all of the adults around him recognize it as such.  I liked that there were no true villains.  Some of the adults come close, but only because they're trying to protect Grayson from bullying (that reaches the extent of bodily harm).  Yes, sometimes adults have to overrule a child's wishes to keep them safe.  It's a difficult conundrum, even if Grayson much prefers one side of the battle.

GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is a fairly slight story that leans a bit too heavily on the issue and too light on plot, especially at first.  However, that doesn't make it a dull issue novel of the eighties.  Ami Polonsky's writing is quite sweet, and she has a good knack for character.  I particularly liked the various girls who reach out and become friends with Grayson.  There's also a brief appearance by a progressive mom that I really enjoyed.

One day, LGBTQ books will be widely available for all age groups, and kids will be able to find themselves and their troubles reflected in the stories around them.  GRACEFULLY GRAYSON is a good step in the right direction.  Grayson's struggle is sympathetically drawn and very suitable for younger readers.

November 18, 2014

Review: Love Is the Drug

Love Is the Drug By Alaya Dawn Johnson
Available now from Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic)
Review copy
Read my review of The Summer Prince

Emily Bird - Emily to most, Bird to the best - is a senior at one of the most prestigious high schools in the country.  She doesn't entirely fit in, being one of the few black kids.  She also doesn't fit in because she might be going along with her mother's plan to go to college (and thinking of Stanford for herself), but her real goal is to run a small shop.  (Not that having a business degree wouldn't help with that, but it never comes up.)

When LOVE IS THE DRUG opens, Bird is at a party with her boyfriend.  She meets a man who works with her parents and drops the name of a lab she once saw in the trash.  What follows is a nightmare as the man stalks her, threatens her friends and family, and messes with her life in an attempt to get her to confess what she knows.  It just makes Bird determined to find the truth, and to discover whether she really did find out a national secret that night.

This thriller plays out against a widespread plague, the worst since the Spanish flu.  The v-flu, as it is known, is being held back by a quarantine.  Bird is as safe as can be in her high-class school full of politician's kids.  But how is the country ensuring that those kids stay so safe?  And, of course, does the flu have anything to do with what Bird might know?  Unrealistic diseases are a pet peeve of mine, so I like that this flu plays out like a real disease.  There's no killing everyone over 25 or anything silly like that.

I loved the paranoid atmosphere of LOVE IS THE DRUG, although I felt the plot faltered at the end.  There were a lot of ideas but nowhere for them to go.  And the romance dragged the whole thing down.  Bird falls for Coffee, the one guy who really gets her.  He's also a drug dealer, and the story never really convinced me to get over it.  He's just the cliche soulful, smart bad boy.  Now, Marella, Blue's lesbian friend, is where it's at.  Their friendship blooms throughout the pages, starting warily and growing as they're stuck in quarantine together.  I think they spend more time together than Blue and Coffee, and honestly have better chemistry.  I wished I were reading a more inventive lesbian romance instead of what the book actually was.

LOVE IS THE DRUG has its high points.  I loved Bird's relationship with her uncle, the disappointment of her family.  I loved the way LOVE IS THE DRUG tackled social issues, from being black to being foreign to being LGBTQ.  Alaya Dawn Johnson really brought the diversity of DC to life.  There are strong characters, a compelling atmosphere, and beautiful writing, but a boring romance and a plot that never has any steam.  Johnson has written better.

November 17, 2014

Review: Wild Rover No More: Being the Last Recorded Account of the Life & Times of Jacky Faber

Wild Rover No More Book twelve of the Bloody Jack Adventures
By L.A. Meyer
Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt BFYR
Review copy
Read my Bloody Jack tag

When I read BOSTON JACKY, I noted that it felt like the "same old, same old, and the new elements introduced never go as far as they might."  When I saw that WILD ROVER NO MORE was going to be the final book in the Bloody Jack Adventures, I felt relief.  It was a fun ride, but it ran out of new ideas a few books ago.

(Then I learned that author L.A. Meyer died in July and was quite sad, but I am happy he managed to finish this series as he wanted.)

WILD ROVER NO MORE follows the usual pattern.  Jacky gets in trouble, Jacky runs and hides in a new identity, flirts with a new man, eventually reunites with old friends just as the danger is greatest.  I did particularly enjoy the stretch where Jacky hides as a governess since it required her to use more of her respectable skills, too often unemployed.  I was very confused by the section where she disguises herself as a red-haired Russian named Natasha Romanoff.  Was that a deliberate reference to The Avengers or did everyone involved in the book somehow miss that?

I enjoyed WILD ROVER NO MORE much more than BOSTON JACKY.  The early reunion didn't entirely reconcile me to Jaimy, but I accepted that it worked for Jacky.  I do always enjoy spending time with Jacky as she wreaks havoc through nineteenth century history.

If you've been following this series, do yourself a favor and pick up the conclusion.  Meyer concludes most of the major strands of the story and provides a finish that does Bloody Jack Faber proud.  If you haven't read this series, give it a whirl if you're into adventurous girls, age of sail, and hijinks in wacky disguises.

November 13, 2014

Review: Off Pointe

Off Pointe By Leanne Lieberman
Available now from Orca Limelights
Review copy

Ocra Limelights are a series of hi-lo books from Orca Books.  Hi-lo books are books that are high in interest and low in effort.  They're especially good for struggling readers.  As such, OFF POINTE is short, to the point, and very easy to read.

Meg is a ballerina.  She lives and breathes ballet, and hopes to do it professionally.  However, there is something holding her back.  So when her ballet camp plans fall through, her teacher advises her to go to a different dance camp, one that will expose her to other disciplines.  Meg decides to focus on contemporary thanks to Nio, the boy she set next to on the bus.  But she's deeply unhappy to not be doing ballet, and finds contemporary somewhat embarrassing.  She doesn't like improving dancing like a tree and such.

There's two storylines.  One is about Meg's dance, learning to stretch herself and develop a comfortable stage presences.  The second has to do with her rivalry with Logan, the star of the contemporary class and Nio's usual partner.  The two girls are jealous of each other and the other's friendship with Nio.  It's all very platonic as the book dances around the fact that Nio is probably gay.  (Obviously, not all male dancers are gay, but Nio certainly doesn't seem interested in the girls around him, even when they are having catfights over his attention.)

The brief page count means there isn't time for OFF POINTE to go off into unpredictable directions.  But that's fine.  Sometimes a standard plot executed well is enough.  OFF POINTE is well suited to the targeted group, and it is perfect for dance-crazy young readers.

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