Short review: ‘Counting by 7s’ by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Counting by 7sCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantastic middle grade with a genius middle schooler whose world is turned upside down when her parents are killed in a car accident. This is one of those stories where an unlikely cast of characters come together to make things right, characters get enlightened along the way, bonds form and the ending is hopeful. Lots of books try to do this; Counting by 7s nails it. It’s being compared to Sharon Draper’s “Out of My Mind.” It made me also think of Susan Patron’s “Higher Power of Lucky” and Joan Bauer’s “Almost Home,” mixed with Lisa Yee’s “Millicent Min.” Humor, heart, and you learn a ton through 12-year-old Willow Chance’s observations. Another bonus, that I wish we didn’t have to still call out: Diverse group of characters in terms of ethnicities (Vietnamese, Spanish, unnamed) and personalities — just the way life and friendship is in most of our communities. Love this one!

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Short review: ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A YA novel with the characters in college is the first big draw on this one. Cather and her twin sister Wren are freshmen at University of Nebraska, struggling to establish their own identities and pushing each other away in the process. Great voice throughout this novel, with a fascinating look at the world of fanfiction. I loved everything about this book and have already been recommending it to John Green fans. What a great year 2013 is with two books (Eleanor & Park published earlier) from Rainbow Rowell!

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Short review: “Prep School Confidential”

Prep School ConfidentialPrep School Confidential by Kara Taylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well-plotted YA mystery with attitude (publisher says “Twin Peaks meets Revenge” — and that’s not far off….). After Anne is expelled from a prep school on the Upper Eastside, her dad buys her a way into an exclusive boarding school outside of Boston. A murder on campus, an administration that buries secrets, and no one believing Anne means she’s on her own to track the murderer. A couple of red herrings AND steam tunnels!!! (All campuses and mysteries should have steam tunnels.) Recommended for fans of Ally Carter’s “Heist Society” series.

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Short Review: ‘Flower Children’ by Maxine Swann

Maxine Swann’s story “Flower Children” won both an O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize, and was included in The Best American Short Stories. Nearly a decade later, that story forms the first chapter of her lyrical novel, Flower Children, about four siblings raised by their living-off-the-land hippie parents in the 1970s. Everything about this short novel is beautiful, from the occasional and (successful) experimental plural third person protagonist to the stunning descriptions of how children with unlimited freedom yearn to conform.

Consider this passage from when the children first go to school and learn penmanship and rules:

“They learn not to swear. They get prizes for obedience, for following the rules down to the last detail. They’re delighted by these rules, these arbitrary lines that regulate behavior and mark off forbidden things and they examine them closely and exhaust their teachers with questions about the mechanical functioning and the hidden intricacies of these beings, the rules …”

Gosh, you know, that whole section was delightful when I first read it. The problem with posting it here, out of context, is that it might not actually entice you into reading this book. That’s always a problem with excerpts, though.

This is the kind of writing I used to revel in. Too often these days, I read for a different kind of escape, where I want to get whisked into a story or involved with the characters. Now, don’t get me wrong – I cared a lot for the four kids in this book. But it was the writing that I most looked forward to each time I opened the book, the way that Swann let me in to observe this family and their friends, never making a judgment. I think this would be an exceptional fictional companion read for The Glass Castle, a memoir by Jeanette Walls.

‘The Year of Fog’ by Michelle Richmond

Photographer Abby Mason and her fiance’s daughter, six-year-old Emma, are enjoying the day at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Abby stops to photograph a dead baby seal, a diversion that lasts maybe 20 or 40 seconds – seconds that will replay endlessly in Abby’s mind during the next year; a few seconds that were long enough for Emma to disappear. When Emma isn’t immediately found, the assumption is that she must have drowned in the unpredictable currents. Most people give up, but Abby continues to believe that Emma is out there – she just needs to be found.

Memory plays a big part in this story, as Abby examines how we remember things, confabulation (filling in gaps in memory with fabrications that one believes to be facts) and how memories disappear. Abby struggles to find Emma, struggles to keep her relationship with Emma’s father and struggles to understand why Emma’s mother, who has been absent from the little girl’s life for three years, is back in a picture that has no Emma.

The plot recalls Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Deep End of the Ocean, but I think this book does much more on a literary level. The writing is spare, managing to be more vivid and emotional than you assume. My friend Susan said it’s “underwritten,” and that is a perfect description. Emotion, too, is off the pages, as if hiding in the margins and waiting to unfold in your head. The Year of Fog has a perfect balance of story and underlying philosophical ideas.