Review: The Butterfly Clues

The Butterfly Clues by Kate Ellison. Egmont USA. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: In the year following the death of her brother, Oren, Penelope “Lo” Marin has been looking, searching, for something. She explores far from home, taking buses, going farther and farther away from her safe home and school. “Safe” — safe only in that her mother is a shadow of herself, since Oren died, and her father never comes home from work, and friends, what are they? Lo wouldn’t know. Lo is searching . . .

What Lo finds is a murder. Sapphire, nineteen year old stripper, has been killed, and Lo is drawn to the girl, to finding out who killed her, and she cannot explain why or stop. Just like she cannot stop knocking a certain number of times before entering a room, or having numbers that are good or bad, or collecting / taking items that then need to be set up just so in her room. Sapphire, a girl Lo has never met, is dead, and Lo cannot let it go.

A butterfly charm owned by Sapphire, a street artist named Flynt who may or may not know Sapphire, clues upon clues, as Lo finds out more about Sapphire, her brother, and herself.

The Good: I adore mysteries. Just adore them. The challenge faced by most YA writers is, how to get the teen into the mystery? Especially a murder mystery?

Lo is wandering around Cleveland when shots are fired. She runs, discovering later that she has overheard the murder of Sapphire. This, then, is what starts her obsession with finding out more about Sapphire, finding out who killed her.

Lo is alone and lonely, with several barriers set up between her and her classmates: her father’s job means the family moved frequently; Oren’s death; and Lo’s own obsessive-compulsiveness. I hesitate to label Lo, when The Butterfly Clues is very careful to not use any labels. Certain numbers are good, others are not; Lo has to rap or knock certain sequences when nervous, or when entering a room or a car; she is compelled to take (yes, steal) certain items and collects many things. Her collections have to be in certain numbers, and certain groups, and certain sequences, and those requirements may change. Lo has no choice in doing these things. The Butterfly Clues is a bit vague as to whether Lo’s parents realize the extent of Lo’s compulsions. Her mother is in a fog since Oren’s death; her father seems to believe that Lo can just stop; therapists are mentioned, but did Lo go to them because of Oren’s death or her own problems?

What I love about The Butterfly Clues is that it is not about obsessive- compulsive disorder; it’s about a girl who happens to have it, and whose brother died, and who is now investigating a murder. Her OCD may be part of why she cannot quit the investigation, true; it may be why she pushes herself into risky situations, such as applying for a job at the strip-club where Sapphire worked; but it’s a part of Lo who she is, always, not something to be “fixed” and not the point of the story. At the same time, it is entirely the point of the story because most other people would not have taken the risks Lo ends up taking.

Other great things about The Butterfly Clues: the setting, Cleveland, including both the suburb Lo lives in as well as the gritty city she explores. Lo’s complicated family, from her distraught mother to her brother’s problems to their constant moving. Her deep sense of loss and guilt from Oren’s death. That Lo’s OCD is presented so matter-of-factly, a part of her. The group of artists that Lo meets, including Flynt, who she is both attracted to and afraid of, because what will he think about her compulsions? And what is his connection to Sapphire?

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Someday My Printz Will Come; Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Review: Kill Me Softly

Kill Me Softly by Sarah Cross. Egmont USA. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Mirabelle has been raised by her godmothers, Elsa and Bliss, since the death of her parents while she was still an infant. As Mira’s sixteenth birthday approaches, she decides that she wants to find out more about the place she was born and about how her parents died. Her godmothers won’t allow her to return to her birthplace, Beau Rivage, as strict about that as they are about Mira not being in a car with a teen driver, not getting her ears pierced, not being allowed to use a razor to shave her legs.

Mira’s plan is to get to Beau Rivage and then . . . . What? She planned for months to get there, but now that is there, what to do? She’s too young to rent a hotel room, doesn’t want to camp outside, and is drinking lemonade after lemonade to be able to stay in the cafe of the casino Wish when she meets Blue and Freddie, two local teens, and then Blue’s older brother Felix. Blue tries to scare her away; Felix offers her a room in the casino, no strings attached.

Almost like a fairy tale, Mira falls for Felix and falls into a friendship with Blue, Freddie, and their other friends. Except it’s not a fairy tale. Except it is. Beau Rivage has secrets, but not the secrets Mira was looking for. Instead, it turns out to be a place where fairy tales are real. People are cursed, to be villians and heroes and victims, and this happens again and again and again. Year after year after year. There are some modern twists and turns, but the people who are raised here are well aware of the fate of those cursed.

Mira is not. Mira didn’t read many fairy tales growing up and has just a vague knowledge of them. She’s about to find out: fairy tales are more than princesses and princes. Fairy tales are dark and dangerous. Mira was born in Beau Rivage and now that’s back — what tale is hers? What role is hers?

The Good: Kill Me Softly had me at fairy tale. I was the type of child reader that read fairy tales, and as a teen delighted in discovering the real, original fairy tales. I have to say, I don’t remember there being many teen versions of fairy tales, the way there are so many nowadays. (Note how I don’t say that they didn’t exist — just that I don’t remember them!) I adore how many there are now, and I especially like how Kill Me Softly uses so many fairy tales. I also like how it works for two different types of readers: those, like me, who are familiar with the tales being referenced, and those who, like Mira herself, don’t known much beyond a general Disney-level familiarity.

As someone familiar with fairy tales, it’s fun to play “guess the story” with a side of “oh, this has to be a story but which one?” Then, to consider what it means to be born under a fairy curse, for good or bad — and to know it. To know your fate. Is it better to be protected from it, to be kept ignorant of it, like Mira? Or is it best to know from a young age your fate, like the friends she meets in Beau Rivage?

Ignorance: Mira’s godparents don’t tell her about her true history or Beau Rivage. Even when Mira starts learning things, there is so much to know, too much, that just finding out “fairy tales and curses are real” is not enough to grant knowledge. Even when it is, some fairy tales are specifically about questions and answers, about asking or not asking, knowing or not knowing.

Fairy tales often contain some romance; and here, I kept wanting to call this “Kiss Me Softly” because of the love triangle involved. Mira is attracted to Felix, and those feelings are strong, but she also feels something for his younger brother, Blue. Part of the reason I enjoyed this triangle was because of how true Mira’s feelings are; part is because it made me wonder how much was “real” and how much was a fated tale; and because it raised the question, can one outrun their fate?

I have a soft spot for stories about fate, in part because I don’t believe in it. So what I like best about stories about so-called fate, even when, as here, something is really, truly fated, is how there are loopholes. How things don’t always end up the way you think, even though it seems to be spelled out a certain way. Fate is like prophecies, and as the Master told Buffy, “prophecies are tricky creatures. They don’t tell you everything.” Once Mira realizes what her fate is, what can she do about it?

There are some flaws here — The Book Smugglers review, below, point them out — but I was still entertained by Kill Me Softly; and the world of Beau Rivage stayed with me after I left this book behind. I like that type of stickiness from a book.

Other reviews: Writing YA; The Book Smugglers; Book-A-Holic.

Review: One Moment

One Moment by Kristina McBride. Egmont USA. 2012. Reviewed from eARC.

The Plot: If you could change one moment in your life . . .  That’s how Maggie feels. She wants to change one moment so that it doesn’t end with her boyfriend Joey dead, floating in the water below the cliff. Only thing is, she doesn’t remember what happened at the top of the cliff; she remembers agreeing to jump off the cliff into the cool water below, something Joey and her other friends have done countless times over countless summers. But after that, she remembers nothing.

So what is the one moment to change? Something at the top of the cliff? Earlier, when she agreed to jump? If they all hadn’t gone to the party the night before, would things have ended up differently?

The Good: Maggie and Joey are high school sweethearts about to finish up their junior year of high school. They are part of a tight knit group of friends that have been close since kindergarten: Maggie, Joey, Adam, Tanna, Shannon, Pete. The incident at the cliff happens at the beginning of One Moment. After that happens, after Joey dies, Maggie tries to figure out what happened, and why. She flashes back to her relationship with Joey and her friendships with the others. Up until Joey’s death, Maggie and her friends were living a golden life, a page out of “classic high school life in America, early 21st century.” Some casual drinking, but nothing serious; their lives were parties, concerts, dances.

Dances. When Maggie learns that Joey didn’t go home the night before he died, didn’t do what he told her he had done, she begins to look closer at all her memories. She begins to question things she didn’t question before. Like how Joey didn’t take her to homecoming because of his grandfather’s stroke. Or the time he was supposed to pick her up and never did. Other things, too. Maybe their relationship wasn’t as perfect as she thought. As One Moment progresses, Joey becomes more nuanced a character than how Maggie initially saw him. What, though, does this have to do with his death? What does this have to do with why Joey fell?

Part of why I liked One Moment is not just the story being told (the death of a friend, the impact that has on those around him, what led to his death and Maggie’s role in it, if any) but how it is told. It begins the afternoon Joey dies; we follow Joey and Maggie up the trail to the cliff, preparing to jump. It cuts out in the handful of minutes (or seconds) before Joey’s death, but, still, it shares with the reader more than Maggie initially remembers. From the start, the reader knows more than Maggie. The reader is supposed to be making connections and conclusions well before Maggie grasps it herself, because we have knowledge she has suppressed.

What I also liked about One Moment is how it addresses the things we do, and don’t; the things we say, and don’t; and the impact that has. Who we really are and who we pretend to be. While One Moment may appear to be a mystery (what happened to Joey), it’s really a classic coming of age as Maggie is forced to confront that the world is a complex place.

Alert for book clubs: this book inspired many great book club questions. What do they think of Maggie and Joey? About what happened at the top of the cliff? If these were their friends, how would they react, both after Joey’s death and after all the secrets were revealed?

Other reviews: GalleySmith; Rather Be Reading.

Review: Ashes

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick. Egmont USA. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Review copies from publisher. Listened to audio. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

The Plot: One minute, Alex is hiking, trying to figure out her future and deal with her past. Sounds typical for a seventeen year old, but her future is complicated by an inoperable brain tumor and her past by the death of her parents four years before.

An electromagnetic pulse changes that.

Suddenly, the world changes.

No electronics are working. Alex find herself responsible for Ellie, an angry eight year old who just saw her grandfather die from the pulse. At first, they think the dangers they face are low supplies, a rough trek to the ranger’s station, and wild dogs.

Then they return into two teenagers. Unlike Alex and Ellie, these kids are changed. They eat flesh. Human flesh.

Alex and Ellie find another survivor, Tom, who hasn’t changed, and band together to figure out what happened and what to do next. Along the way, the encounter other survivors and discover that most teens have become wild flesh-eaters. In response, the surviving seniors are not welcoming towards kids they suspect may change any moment.

Should they head to a big city? Somewhere with less people? Would a military base be safe? Or have any towns survived?

Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, which appears to offer safety. She discovers flesh-eating teens and armed bandits aren’t the only things to worry about.

The Good: So many things!

There is Alex. Her father was a police officer; her mother, a doctor; and both enjoyed camping. The type of camping that meant teaching their only daughter survivalist-type skills: she knows how to make a debris shelter, what to do to make water drinkable, can read maps and knows her way around a gun. If anyone can survive the end of the world as we know it, it’s Alex.

One of the things I liked about at Alex? At times, I didn’t like her. She’s in a hurt, bitter, selfish place at the beginning of the story. Her parents are dead, she’s taken their ashes, her own future is bleak because of the brain tumor, she’s gone through years of treatment, she doesn’t even have a sense of smell anymore. There is more than a hint that she brought her father’s gun with her for more than protection.

When the pulse happens, Alex is thinking of herself, not Ellie, and acts accordingly. Keep in mind, at this point Ellie is challenging her fear, anger and grief into stubborness and whining. In short: she’s a brat. Honestly? At this stage, Alex is so caught up in herself that she doesn’t handle the situation well. That’s OK; she’s only seventeen. An important part of the story is Alex’s own progress from an understandably self-centered teen to someone who thinks about others. It’ s not just that, of course. Whether by her own hand or not, Alex was preparing for death. Now, she’s fighting to stay alive/

Alex and Ellie meet Tom, a young soldier on leave. The situation means Alex begins to think about others: hey, there’s nothing like fighting for survival to bond people together.

Alex’s brain tumor had affected her physically. After the pulse? Those symptoms go away. Not only can she smell; she has a super sense of smell. Is that why she wasn’t turned into a flesh-eater? Why wasn’t Tom? Alex tries to figure it out, based on what she knows of the handful of teens who didn’t change. Tom had nightmares from his time in the middle east; does that mean anything?

About halfway through, the book changes from one of adventurist survival to a different type of survival. Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, a place that has survived fairly intact and safe. She finds out it’s not as safe as it appears to be. I’ll be honest, for some reason I had an easier time believing in the flesh-eating teens than I did in Rule. I understand that society would change because of the pulse, the deaths, the flesh eaters; but it seems like Rule had always been — different. Controlled by a handful of families. Religious, but not quite like any traditional religion. It didn’t help that the story is told from Alex’s point of view, so all I know about Rule is what Alex knows or what she guesses.

The narration is terrific! Kellgren kept me on the edge of my seat. I listen to audiobooks during my commute (roughly an hour each way), and sometimes I had to just sit for a few minutes to calm down.

Ashes is the first book in a trilogy. It ends with a shocking reveal and a “how are you going to get out of this one” cliffhanger. I have a feeling that some of the things that frustrate or confuse me about Rule will be revealed. I can’t wait to read the next book!

Other reviews: Presenting Lenore and GalleySmith Joint Discussion; S. Krishna’s Books; Stacked; The Book Smugglers

Review: You Are My Only

You Are My Only by Beth Kephart. Egmont USA. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sophie, 14, is protected by her mother: home-schooled, cautioned against leaving the house, moving often go keep themselves away from the No Good. In their latest rented home, Sophie looks out the attic window and sees a boy and his dog. Sophie leaves the house to say hello, and meets Joey. Her first friend.

Emmy’s four month old baby daughter is missing. She put Baby in a swing, realized she needed a blanket, went into the house to get one: 28 steps to the house, 13 steps upstairs to get the blanket, 13 steps down, back outside, and Baby is gone, one yellow sock left behind.

Two stories entwined, Sophie and Emmy, as Sophie searches for the answers to her odd peripatetic life and Emmy searches for Baby.

The Good: Emmy is a girl searching for her lost Baby. Her husband, immature, selfish, and accusing, and the police, cold and distant, interpret her desperate, intuitive search for her child as being a sign that she is not right in the head. Emmy is committed to an asylum. The reader knows only the Emmy who has lost her child, her Baby, a young mother with no resources, no friends, no family except for a resentful husband. Why did Emmy even marry him? “Mama died, and Daddy went heartbroke, and heartbreak kills you just as sure as cancer does, and I didn’t have choices, and there was Peter, and there is Baby out there waiting.” Emmy’s choice is to search for Baby and it lands her in a mental institute.

The Emmy the reader meets is fragile and frantic, and whether it’s from Baby being taken, her husband abandoning her, or the lingering grief over the loss of her parents, it’s hard to tell. She has no one, no one to speak for her, and ends up trapped in a mental institute, just as she was trapped in her marriage to Peter.

Sophie, too, is trapped: trapped by her mother, confined to a house, kept from school, moving to prevent ties and relationships from forming. Emmy struggles, adjusting to life within the asylum, making friends and thinking of escape, while Sophie slowly realizes she has options outside the control of her mother. She, too, can make friends and escape. Sophie’s acts of autonomy and steps towards independence are small, yet enormous to her. She befriends the boy next door, Joey boy her age who is nice and plays ball with her, and spends time with him and his two aunts instead of doing her homework. Her rebellion is afternoons with him and his aunts, Miss Helen and Miss Cloris, drinking lemonade and reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. No, I’m serious.

As these dual stories unwind, Emmy has to survive an institution while Sophie begins to look for answers. Obviously, these stories are related, and the reader knows that, given Sophie’s story, it will be years before Baby is found. This changes the tension of the Emmy’s story from “when will she find Baby” to “how will she survive long enough to find Baby.”

I’ll be honest. Sophie is a sweet, brave kid and her journey towards truth, no matter the cost, is brave and admirable. But it’s Emmy, broken, lost Emmy, who broke my heart. Sophie will be fine: she has Miss Helen and Miss Cloris and Joey and her whole future ahead of her. It is Emmy I’m scared for: scared because she was committed for having a realistic, appropriate reaction to her stolen child and denied her grief and rage and loss. Scared, because she’s young and poor with no one. It was so easy for her to be committed, a problem to be taken care of by getting rid of her. Her soft cries of “someone has my baby” is met with medication rather than hugs and love.

Miss Helen and Miss Cloris, Joey’s aunts, took him in after a car accident killed his parents and sister. They put aside their lives to take this child into their home. At first, Sophie assumes that the two women are sisters; she finds out that instead they are partners. Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray asks, “So, I asked the room, in terms of diversity but keeping in mind how to best serve this teen novel, do I mention that Cloris and Helen are lesbians in my review?” I look at it a bit differently. On the one hand, from the perspective of someone doing readers advisory, I want to know as much about a book as possible so that I know what books to recommend. Because Miss Helen and Miss Cloris aren’t major characters, I’m not sure if cataloguers would include them in the subject listing; readers wanting books with a range of GLBTQ characters may not find this one based on typical cataloging. This, then, is one of the benefits of blogs and of tags and the like: more information on the book. Look at how many paragraphs I have going here! But, on the other hand, despite how long my reviews may be, I don’t address everything in a book. I liked what Joey’s aunts brought to Sophie’s life, the love, support, stability, hope; but, as you can see, what really captured my attention is Emmy. By the way, Colleen’s review at her blog shows I’m not the only one who found Emmy’s story compelling; more at her Bookslut column. My Friend Amy has a guest post by Kephart about Miss Helen and Miss Cloris.

Review: Family

Family by Micol Ostow. Egmont USA. 2011. Reviewed from ARC picked up at ALA.

The Plot: Melinda Jensen is seventeen, lost and broken, looking to be healed. She goes to San Francisco where she is found and made whole by Henry. He is her answer, her salvation, a promise. He brings her into his family, a family of people whose bonds are created not by blood but by wanting to be together. What is more beautiful, what is more healing, what is more hopeful than that?

But blood will come. Because Henry is both more and less than what Mel wants and needs. Eventually she will realize that Henry is broken, that Henry is not giving but taking. What she sees as beauty and healing is a lie. By that time, though, there will be blood and it may be too late.  

The Good: Melinda, Henry, the family. As the publisher’s website explains, Family is a “fictionalized exploration of cult dynamics, loosely based on the Manson Family murders of 1969.”  Ostow uses fiction, verse, repetition and a fractured timeline to help the reader understand  how and why someone could fall under another’s spell so completely that they do things they otherwise wouldn’t. It may use the broad bones of the summer of 1969, but it could any cult, any guru, any strong personality who captivates and betrays.

When Mel meets Henry, she has fled “uncle Jack” and his abuse, and she hasn’t eaten in days. Henry offers coffee, understanding, and shelter as well as drugs and sex. “Henry says there is no before, and He knows how to bring me to the now. He is magic, alchemy. chemistry. soothing serum, an elixir. He offers potions, medicines to break down inside my body, invade my cells. my mind sparks and my limbs loosen.” Already, Henry is “He”. Already, he knows just how to connect to this broken girl.

Make no doubt, Mel is already broken. Upon her arrival in San Francisco, “I was tired, the sort of tired that creeps into your spine. I wanted to sit. no, I wanted more than that: I wanted some sort of infinity.” Henry does not break her, he just takes and gives her what she wants (belonging) while hiding that he is using her and her pain. My own heart breaks for Mel, for how she has been shattered, and knowing how the people she turns to for infinity — Henry and his girls, Leila and Shelly and the others — will betray her, just like her uncle Jack and her mother.

The reader only ever knows Mel’s story. Hints of Henry’s is also given, a story of being sold for a beer — “you wouldn’t believe the sorts of things that some people throw away.” Henry, Mel, all the others, have been thrown away. Shelly had been a stripper when she met Henry. Leila’s smile is “closed and mysterious, like she’d read your diary or visited you in  your dreams at night. like she knew your dirty secrets.” Mel doesn’t know Junior’s story but knows that if he is with the family, with Henry, “he is broken. must be broken.”

On page one, Mel says “I have always been broken,” and on page two “my hands are streaked with blood that is not my own. my hands are streaked with blood, and there is screaming.” Pages are turned with the question not being whether there will be an upcoming slaughter (it will happen, the blood is not her own) but whether Mel will ever be complete enough to stop betraying herself.

When I was younger, I read an excerpt of Child of Satan, Child of God by Susan Atkins in my grandparent’s Readers’ Digest. What I remember most is feeling horror, horror not just at what was done but also the fear of somehow being caught up in such a nightmare as the person doing it, dipping a towel in blood. The terror of losing oneself so completely, and finding oneself doing the unthinkable. Family explores just how a person gets to that point in a way that is devastating.

The book jumps in time, repeating words and paragraphs, reflecting Mel’s own sense of being fractured and trying to make her self and her story complete and whole. Mel at age six, Mel at 12, Mel meeting Henry, Mel and Shelly, Mel and blood, all is jumbled and mixed and twisted and turned, sometimes repeated. Even knowing what is happening, what will happen, what has happened — the blood — the reader hopes against hope that it will not end in blood.

The reader familiar with the Manson Family will no doubt try to see parallels to that story. Henry, of course, is Charlie; is Junior Tex? Is Shelly Sadie or Squeaky or a little of both? Who is Melinda and how far will she go? Fictionalizing the story of the girls who joined the Manson family allows Ostow to look at the greater truth of why someone would voluntarily join such a group, rather than be caught up in the individual stories of the real life young women who lost their futures by following Charlie.  Ultimately, in Family, the answers given are the ones for Mel. Personally, it is hard for me to think of Charles Manson as anything other than Charles Manson. I can look at a photo of Ted Bundy and think, “yes, he was attractive,” but Manson —  no. All I see is someone scary and frightening. Ostow’s Family allows a reader like me to not have a knee-jerk “no” reaction to Henry, because the book, and Mel’s actions, hinge entirely on the reader believing that Mel would believe in Henry. And yes… I believed. I believed Mel would believe.

Because the language is deceptively simple. Because phrases haunt me. Because I want, so desperately, for Mel to find herself. Because I found sympathy for the most unsympathetic actions. Family is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.