A review of The Sky Always Hears Me: And the Hills Don’t Mind, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills

READ DECEMBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “Sixteen-year-old Morgan lives in a hick town in the middle of Nebraska. College is two years away. Her mom was killed in a car accident when she was three, her dad drinks, and her stepmom is a non-entity. Her boyfriend Derek is boring and her coworker Rob has a very cute butt that she can’t stop staring at. Then there’s the kiss she shared with her classmate Tessa…

But when Morgan discovers that the one person in the world she trusted most has kept a devastating secret from her, Morgan must redefine her life and herself”

MY REVIEW: For some reason, of late, I’ve been reading more YA than is my usual habit; I suppose it just makes a really nice buffer between somewhat grittier murder mysteries and  UF. Whatever the case, I’ve been really lucky — or just damned clever (buffs nails on chest) — in my choices. To wit: Kirstin Cronn-Mills The Sky Always Hears Me: And the Hills Don’t Mind, a novel that succeeds on many levels, and which I can’t seem to find anything major to complain about. (Dammit. I mean, what fun is that?) While I couldn’t call the voice of our narrator, Morgan, unique, exactly, it’s definitely one of the book’s highlights. One hallmark of good writing, not just in this genre, is creating a novel that can be appreciated by a lot of different audiences; that definitely applies here, too.

Back to Morgan: Really smart, quirky (she writes and collects fortune-cookie style fortunes), wickedly sharp-tongued, and confident in academics, but not about the $64,000 question: How can you tell if it’s love or just sex? I’ll let you read her grandma’s answer for yourselves. There are times in our lives, and not just as teens, when we want to scream. Scream, in fact, til we’re so hoarse we can’t scream any more. Morgan actually gets to do this, though she does drive out of town rather than do it in homeroom or at a basketball game. She’s also a  dreamer, wanting to go anywhere in the world as long as it’s somewhere away from the unspecified setting of Central Nowhere, Nebraska, there to write Great American Novel. She loves her grandma more than anything, and is devastated when she receives new knowledge about her past. There’s a bit of inconsistency in that she is furious with some of her friends for being judgmental, but is a bit judgmental herself. She’s not exactly role model material, but that only makes her more real and complex.  As a rule, role model types aren’t nearly as interesting, anyway.

There are a lot of things going on in Morgan’s life: The boring sex with her BF, Derek, cos of his “Little Derek”; obsessing about the really cute ass of Rob, a guy she works with (one of the things she screams from her hill is “I’m a secret sex fiend;” the awesome kiss from Tessa, the girl next door; the junior prom; her dad’s alcoholism; her grandma’s stroke; revelations about her mom’s death; processing what her dad tells her about his childhood (the reader can see this one coming from miles away, but it’s still effective). In other words, she’s got a full plate. A lot of YA lit is filled with angst; there’s plenty of that here, but it’s balanced by a equal dose of wit, humor, and snarkiness.

There are plenty of clichés in the novel, largely in the characters, but somehow, Mrs. Cronn-Mills is able to give most of them just enough depth to avoid the completely banal or prosaic. Morgan, the “walking dictionary” is much, much more than that, for example. Grandma is not just a doting relative, but Morgan’s primary means of escape, and her past makes her character much more complex. Admittedly, Morgan’s two BF’s don’t escape cliché status, but, in a way, that has a positive effect on the story. Tessa, the lesbian crushing hard on the straight Morgan, is interesting enough to not become a caricature.

As I mentioned, Morgan’s voice is one of the treasures of the novel. In addition, there are some truly great individual scenes that stand out and make the book special: Morgan telling off Jessica, the goody-goody girl who’s been taunting Tessa; and the prom: a perfect moment, maybe my favorite in the entire book. I also liked the fact that the lesbian aspect was a tangential, though important aspect, rather than the focus. I have no problem with purely lesbian novels — there are many I’ve greatly enjoyed — but I doubt this book would have worked as well if it were that, rather than a YA novel with a lesbian character.

The Sky Always Hears Me: And the Hills Don’t Mind is not quite a perfect novel: a bit too much drooling over Rob’s tush; one of the “revelations” about Morgan’s grandma seems too obvious, though it does explain her dad’s character; the relationships with her BF’s are based entirely on the physical, though given that both guys are real dorks, that’s maybe a good thing; sometimes, though not often, it’s a little too cute. Also, I’d like to have seen Morgan’s friendship with Tessa — after Morgan explained she wasn’t interested in Tessa in a sexual way — developed more; it could have been a lot more interesting than that with either guy. Still, the positive aspects far outweigh these issues, and I highly recommend this book for teens and adults.

 

A review of I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls #1) by Ally Carter

READ OCTOBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “Cammie Morgan is a student at the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women, a fairly typical all-girls school-that is, if every school taught advanced martial arts in PE and the latest in chemical warfare in science, and students received extra credit for breaking CIA codes in computer class. The Gallagher Academy might claim to be a school for geniuses but it’s really a school for spies. Even though Cammie is fluent in fourteen languages and capable of killing a man in seven different ways, she has no idea what to do when she meets an ordinary boy who thinks she’s an ordinary girl. Sure, she can tap his phone, hack into his computer, or track him through town with the skill of a real “pavement artist”-but can she maneuver a relationship with someone who can never know the truth about her?

Cammie Morgan may be an elite spy-in-training, but in her sophomore year, she’s on her most dangerous mission-falling in love.”

MY REVIEW: No doubt, given the popularity of Bond flics for over four decades now, and TV shows like Alias, most of us, whether tweens, teens, or (putative) adults have daydreamed about being a spy. Those daydreams come to life in Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls series, beginning with I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You. Protagonist Cammie Morgan aces her studies related to espionage, but, unfortunately, doesn’t have much experience in being a girl. As the blurb says, she speaks fourteen languages; unfortunately, “boy” isn’t one of them, and that’s the story in a nutshell.

If book one is any indication, Gallagher Girls is played more for fun than Carter’s Heist Society series. The incidents are much more tongue-in-cheek, and over-the-top, but I think that’s by intent. The improbable gets piled onto the improbable. Yeah, it’s interesting that the founder of Gallagher Academy supposedly saved President Lincoln’s life in an assassination attempt prior to Booth’s successful one, an attempt we’ve never heard of and it’s cool that Amelia Erhart was a Gallagher Girl. But…by the time we’re told that Velcro was invented at Gallagher Academy, the long series of unlikely events, which started out being cute, has simply become too much. In my review of Heist Society I wrote “This would be an easy book to let get out of hand as far is realism is concerned.” This is what happens in I’d Tell You I Love You… yet it doesn’t make the book less enjoyable as much as it makes you shake your head wondering “What next?” And not necessarily in a good way.

The characters here are pretty much stereotypes, almost to the point of caricature, but, despite that, Carter somehow manages to make them very likable and we actually come to care about what happens to them. I think that’s because, although we have a computer geek/science nerd, a gorgeous femme fatale, a rich, spoiled brat who’s also an outsider, and our protag, the girl nobody notices, literally, there’s still enough character development and depth to make them more than just “types.”

As I said, I’d Tell You I Love You… is, by design, not nearly as serious as Heist Society. It is, however, an awful lot of fun, and the engaging, sometimes confident, sometimes out-of-her-depth voice of Cammie as the first person narrator seems just right, as a mid-teen with a unique lifestyle who falls in love for the first time. Unfortunately, she hides that unique lifestyle, and the deception eventually blows up in her face. What makes this even more interesting is that her situation is really a Catch-22: She pretends to be a normal girl because Josh is a normal boy, and she assumes that being “normal” will make him like her. On the other hand, if she were to be herself, she would jeopardize the Academy’s security. Though the moral seems to be “be true to who you are,” the school’s security protocol makes that impossible. It adds a nice element of extra tension to the usual teen-angst of a first romance.

While a lot of this review may seem negative, I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You is a light, very enjoyable reading experience, a nice, sweet romance, mixed with some not quite believable spy stuff, and plenty of well-delivered humor. Despite it’s shortcomings, it’s a fast, extremely fun read, and recommended as such. The overall humor, Cammie’s engaging voice, which is the book’s greatest strength, and a cast of strong, smart female characters make it worth your time.

 

A review of Heist Society (Heist Society #1), by Ally Carter

READ OCTOBER 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “When Katarina Bishop was three, her parents took her on a trip to the Louvre…to case it. For her seventh birthday, Katarina and her Uncle Eddie traveled to Austria…to steal the crown jewels. When Kat turned fifteen, she planned a con of her own—scamming her way into the best boarding school in the country, determined to leave the family business behind. Unfortunately, leaving “the life” for a normal life proves harder than she’d expected.

Soon, Kat’s friend and former co-conspirator, Hale, appears out of nowhere to bring Kat back into the world she tried so hard to escape. But he has a good reason: a powerful mobster has been robbed of his priceless art collection and wants to retrieve it. Only a master thief could have pulled this job, and Kat’s father isn’t just on the suspect list, he is the list. Caught between Interpol and a far more deadly enemy, Kat’s dad needs her help.

For Kat, there is only one solution: track down the paintings and steal them back. So what if it’s a spectacularly impossible job? She’s got two weeks, a teenage crew, and hopefully just enough talent to pull off the biggest heist in her family’s history–and, with any luck, steal her life back along the way. ”

MY REVIEW: A few years ago, when I’d just gotten my Kindle, I was reading a lot of YA paranormal indie novel. The YA aspect is, I imagine, why the amazonians kept throwing out Heist Society as a recommendation. Well, I hadn’t read any YA in a long time, and happened to remember that rec. My local library had it, so, I figured, why not? I’m happy to say it was a good choice.

Not having read a ton of YA literature, and being in the age bracket where most YA readers would call me “Gramps” or worse, I’m not 100% sure how to approach a review of Heist Society. My instincts, though, say that it should be judged by the same standards by which one judges any other book: Mechanical aspects (grammar, etc.), plot, characters, credibility…feel free to add your own.

There’s absolutely nothing at all wrong here from a mechanical aspect. Plenty of writers who aim at adult audiences fall considerably below the standard Carter sets here. The writing is crisp and in no way does the author seem to be writing “down” to a younger audience.

The plot is well constructed and more than interesting enough to keep you turning pages. Yes, it does require a healthy dollop of “willing suspension of disbelief,” given that the heroine is a 15 year-old master thief. Carter overcomes that objection by making everything else solidly grounded in fact (within the terms of the novel) and by Kat’s smooth, down-to-earth narrative voice which suggests “This may not be the sort of thing that happens in your world, but it is in mine.” A scenario like this could become far too over-the-top in a hurry, and the characters become comic book-like. Carter does a great job avoiding these pitfalls, and making the (frankly) unbelievable quite credible and realistic.

The principal characters are quite likable, and pretty well fleshed-out. That sketching out is accomplished through their actions and words, not in dry descriptions; Carter definitely does a good job showing rather than telling. Kat’s wry humor adds a great deal to her appeal. Her loyalty to her dad is admirable; although she has been trying to break from the family “business”, she puts that aside because her father needs her. Her glamorous cousin, Gabrielle forms a nice, flashy contrast to Kat’s more mundane character. Hale, her (sort of) romantic interest, is a solid BFF (at least at this point in the series.) Simon is the inevitable computer geek. I’ve seen some objections that the characters seem older than their specified ages. Seems to me, if one accepts their lifestyle, then it’s not to far a reach that they’ve grown up a little faster than the average teen.

I’ve already touched on issues of credibility, but it’s worth mentioning again: This would be an easy book to let get out of hand as far is realism is concerned. After all, we have a bunch of mid-teens planning to rob the most secure museum in the world. However, Carter is able to make things seem normal, even if, by our standards, they aren’t. The matter-of-fact narrative style and the avoidance of truly outlandish, Bond-like scenes help keep the unlikely plot within the realm of the plausible.

If there’s one short-coming, it’s that the villain is just not nasty enough. He seems more like a cantakerous uncle who just happens to be a gangster type, than someone as thoroughly evil Hale describes. I just can’t take his threats against Kat’s dad seriously. It’s possible Carter softened his character to make it more palatable to prospective tween and early teen readers. Pshaw! The Internet and video games have made that age-group far more worldly and accepting of such things than some of us were at thirty. So, a bad guy with a lot more bite would have added a lot.

In short, I can’t find much of anything to quibble with in Heist Society. The majority of my reading is in adult mysteries (everything from Sara Paretsky to J.M. Redmann), hard science-fiction (Melissa Scott, Joanna Russ, James M. Tiptree, Jr,, Nicola Griffith), and urban fantasy (Kim Harrison, Jes Battis, Devon Monk, Seanan McGuire). As a piece of genre fiction aimed at a different market, I’d compare Carter’s book favorably with those as exemplars of their own genres. More than anything, Heist Society is a quick, fun, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m pretty sure that’s just what Carter intended, and, judging it in those terms, I find it very successful. There’s absolutely no reason that it can’t be appreciated by any reader, no matter his or her age bracket.

A review of The Year They Burned the Books, by Nancy Garden

READ JUNE 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “When Wilson High Telegraph editor Jamie Crawford writes an opinion piece in support of the new sex-ed curriculum, which includes making condoms available to high school students, she has no idea that a huge controversy is brewing. Lisa Buel, a school board member, is trying to get rid of the health program, which she considers morally flawed, from its textbooks to its recommendations for outside reading. The newspaper staff find themselves in the center of the storm, and things are complicated by the fact that Jamie is in the process of coming to terms with being gay, and her best friend, Terry, also gay, has fallen in love with a boy whose parents are anti-homosexual. As Jamie’s and Terry’s sexual orientation becomes more obvious to other studetns, it looks as if the paper they’re fighting to keep alive and honest is going to be taken away from them. Nancy Garden has depicted a contemporary battleground in a novel that probes deep into issues of censorship, prejudice, and ethics.”

MY REVIEW: There’s a scene in the superb baseball film Bull Durham where the players are meeting on the pitcher’s mound. The discussion shows no signs of ending, so the team’s manager sends a coach out to break it up. When he asks what’s going on, Kevin Costner replies “We’re dealing with a lot of shit.” He could’ve been talking about Nancy Garden’s fine YA novel, The Year They Burned the Books. Censorship, coming-of-age, am I or aren’t I (and is she or isn’t she), coming out, bullying, friendship, free speech, sex ed, homophobia, stealth politics, and a few more things are dealt with. Garden, though, skillfully blends them all into a comfortable mélange whose ultimate message is a hopeful one, where the disparate elements combine to support her conclusions.

Concerning topics with the potential to become preachy, Garden’s natural, easy-going style avoids the pitfalls of pedantry. Her point of view is clear, but it never feels forced upon us, as is so often the case with works from the opposing point of view. Our protagonist’s views are strongly held, but they are reasoned, as well. There’s conviction, but without shrillness.

The Year They Burned the Books is not nearly so well known as the author’s other, more relationship-oriented novels, and that’s really too bad. Its themes are not only important ones, but timely, as well. Not only are the dangers of which Garden’s cautionary tale warns us still in existence, they are, in an era of Tea Party demagoguery, thriving. That makes stories like this one all the more important. There are lessons here to be learned not just by young adults, but by adults, too. This is the sort of book which <i>needs</i> to be widely read.

This is an action- or perhaps, issue-driven novel. However, the action also serves as a means of character development. The major characters are considerably changed by the end of the story, thanks to their encounters with the events which impel the drama. Jamie is not stronger in the end so much as she is more able to recognize her strength.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the auctorial decision not to have Jamie and Tessa become a couple, which would have shifted focus from the points Garden is trying to make: Only when we have access to all the available information can we wisely make decisions which will affect the rest of our lives; it is possible to agree to disagree, and, though very difficult, it’s also possible for friends to remain friends despite holding diametrically opposing viewpoints; what begins as seemingly innocuous verbal taunting can easily escalate into violence, especially in a atmosphere of divisiveness fostered by ignorance; true family values are not moral judgments, but, rather, intelligent guidance, love, support, and the freedom to be who we are. The family values exemplified by Lisa Buel in this novel are stifling rather than nurturing.

The points Garden makes here are important ones, and The Year They Burned the Books deserves and demands a wider readership than I fear it is likely to get. It’s nearly fifteen years old, now, but the perils of which Garden warns are as real as today’s headlines. One need only turn on Fox News or open the paper to an Ann Coulter diatribe to realize how prevalent are the reactionary views which threaten to control our thoughts. That the author packages her message(s) in an extremely enjoyable and interesting narrative with a very likable and admirable lead character is an added bonus.