Sunday, November 19, 2017

Grit, by Gillian French

Small town Maine is not much fun for a teenager with bigger dreams.  And spending the summer working a cranberry farm is grueling work.  It gives Darcy something to do when she isn't going crazy in the evenings.

That wild girl side has given her quite a reputation, but it's hardly deserved.  Still, everyone seems to have a pretty low opinion of her, including her aunt (who's convinced that Darcy is a bad influence on Nell, her cousin).  What no one realizes is that Darcy and Nell share a secret that is eating them up and losing themselves at mindless parties is how they cope.

This novels works best as a mood piece for me.  French brings lots of color and character to her rural Maine setting, but the story is muddled and I found the characters largely interchangeable.  The great shocking conclusion comes pretty much out of left field (or so it felt).  Truth be told, I just couldn't get into keeping up with all of the characters, so that probably made it hard to track the nuances of the story.  I do know that I enjoyed just reading it and letting the characters and the events float by me.  Sometimes, you just enjoy reading a book for the places it shows and the mood it gives you.  And that's pretty much how I ended up feeling about this story.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Bad Romance, by Heather Demetrios

When Grace gets Gavin to notice her after years of crushing on him, she is ecstatic.  Finally, there is a chance for something good in her life. Her home life is horrific.  Her stepfather is abusive to both her and her mother.  And Mom has retreated into a private insanity, taking her anger out directly on Grace.  Somehow, Grace has managed to be a stellar student and kept her focus on graduating and getting out of town, dreaming of going to drama school in New York.  Now, with Gavin in her life, she's hoping the time will go by faster.

At first, Gavin's kindness (and frequent escapes to his supportive family) seem to be providing the escape she was wishing for.  But the relationship sours and slips into a destructive cycle, eerily echoing her mother's own abusive relationship with Grace's stepfather.  Gavin is jealous and paranoid.  He demands that she stay away from her friends and starts spying on her.  Without warning, his mood turns dark and his behavior violent.  And Grace, groomed to take this type of abuse from her stepfather, willingly accepts and embraces the dynamic.  Despite constant efforts by her friends (and even her parents), Grace is unable to pull away.

The result is a harrowing and unrelenting tale of a destructive relationship, which unfortunately rings true.  It takes a special level of dedication (or masochism) from the reader to work through it.  I did so in hopes for redemption in the end.  It comes, but is far too brief and rushed to offer a good pay off for the suffering that we endure along the way.  Instead, the major value of the book in the end is its unflinching portrayal of an abuse.  That has education value but makes for a grueling read.

I'd recommend Sarah Dessen's very similar novel Dreamland over this book -- a novel that is just as devastating, but did a better job at focusing on the psychology of a young women slipping into madness.

Friday, November 10, 2017

What To Say Next, by Julie Buxbaum

In the aftermath of her father's death, Kit finds her popularity (and the effort it takes to maintain it) exhausting and seeks refuge by hiding out at a lunchroom table occupied solely by social outcast David.  David has trouble communicating with others or reading their expressions, but is something of an expert observer of his classmates, even if none of them will speak to him (making Kit's surprise visit quite a shock).  But to their mutual surprise, the two of them hit it off nicely.  And while David still struggles to communicate and understand others, Kit finds David's honesty refreshing and his social awkwardness liberating.

A romance of sorts between two complete opposites.  Some great pain is expended to explain the plausibility of this odd couple, which in the end kills some of its magic. David is apparently quite handsome and comes from a family of social royalty (his older sister spins in Kit's world). Kit is more open-minded than her peers.

Overall, the two of them do make a great couple.  I ran hot and cold on Kit.  She could be nice and kind at times, but was mostly self-absorbed.  Some of my lukewarm reaction is due to the harsh way she deals with her mother's indiscretions, but in general Kit is self-absorbed and has trouble showing sympathy towards other.  David, on the other hand, is hard not to like.  He puts himself in some pretty awkward situations, but his honesty and kindness shows through.

Certainly, when one can critique a character that is complex enough on paper to have faults and strengths that one can have strong opinions about, something is going right.  I found the plotting and storytelling a bit drawn out (and cared very little about Kit's various micro dramas), but I enjoyed Kit and David enough that I didn't really care what they were doing.  So kudos to Buxbaum for crafting a complicated relationship that is fun to read about.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Flying Lessons & Other Stories, ed by Ellen Oh

Ten short stories that share little in common (the first and the last one are about basketball) except that they feature unusual (and underrepresented) protagonists.  That rather forced motivation to promote diversity in YA is tempered by the high quality of the contributions.

All of these works are solid, but there are a few that really stood out for me.  Matt de la Pena's story of a boy's quest for an understanding of basketball and of his father is poignant and touching (as the topic lends itself towards being) but transcends the usual male-bonding-over-sports theme.  For different reasons, I also enjoyed Grace Lin's brief historical fiction about a female Chinese pirate.  It's entertaining, yet fits in a nice plug for female literacy along the way.  Finally, I give an honorable mention to Tim Tingle's Indian fable for making me laugh and for being the story most imbued with ethnic color.

I wish that we were at a stage where diversity didn't need its own collection.  These are good stories that would have enhanced any anthology of short stories.

The Education of Margot Sanchez, by Lilliam Rivera

In a misguided attempt to impress her friends, Margot took her father’s credit card and ran up $2600 in charges.  Now, to pay it off, she has to spend the summer working at her family’s grocery store in the Bronx.  She hates the place and everyone there thinks she’s a stuck-up princess (which she sort of is).  But she thinks she can survive the summer (and hide the shame from the girls at school whom she is trying to impress).

But just when she feels like she's working things out, an annoying boy from the neighborhood has a habit of showing up her hypocrisies.  And with everything going on around her, Margot is struggling to keep things together.  The store is missing money.  Her father and her brother are acting weird.  And the neighborhood is changing too – gentrification threatens the community and the family store may not survive.

Sassy and trendy, with a firm grasp on urban argot, Rivera captures the setting well.  But that color aside, she also builds a great story full of vivid characters.  There are so many things going on in the story that people can pretty choose whatever they want.  My own choice was to latch on to the socioeconomic tensions between the rich white world of her Margot's prep school and her family’s roots in the (poorer) world of the South Bronx, and her valiant struggle to bridge that gap.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Midnight at the Electric, by Jodi Lynn Anderson

In the year 2065, Adri has been chosen as a candidate to join a team of terraformers on Mars.  It's a one-way mission, but that doesn't bother Adri because she's an orphan with no close family.  But before she leaves the Earth, she must undergo training out in Kansas.  There, she is lodged with a previously-unknown distant relative named Lily who lives all alone in an ancient farmhouse.

Bored out of her mind in the middle of nowhere, Adri explores the house's secrets.  She finds a packet of letters and an old journal that recount a family history that Adri has never heard of, stretching back to the 1920s and 30s.  As the stories of these people from the past unfold, Adri uncovers a complicated tie to the past that Adri has never imagined.

A beautifully written story that ties together the lives of three young women separated by decades. Never actually meeting, they are nonetheless interconnected.  Some of the things that tie them together are concrete (the old house, Galapagos the tortoise) but far more of the stories’ connections are subtle shared traits.  Each of the stories, while authentic to its period, is engrossing in their own right.  Even Adri’s story, which could have easily fallen off a cliff and buried itself in fantasy, is centered on a human element that transcends the down-to-earth vision of the near future.  The result is not really YA and it will appeal to adults as well.

Everything Beautiful Is Not Ruined, by Danielle Younge-Ullman

In order to get her mother's permission to attend a music conservatory, Ingrid finds herself with eight other teens on a three-week survival trek in Northern Ontario.  The harshness of the conditions and the bleak backgrounds of her peers take her by surprise.  She can't possibly imagine why her mother has sent her here.  But as she starts to share the particulars of her own life in flashback, we gradually come to understand why she needs to be here.

A tight ensemble piece, each of the characters have a clear and distinct personality.  Ingrid, of course, shines the most strongly and is a sympathetic and appealing heroine.  She is fiery and opinionated, but fragile at the same time and wears her heart plainly out on her sleeve.  Her relationship with her mother, a fading opera diva, is complex and highly nuanced.  Her dramatic arc, while seemingly predictable, takes an unexpected and devastating turn at the end that provides a surprising payoff for the reader.

This is a mature book, full of older teens who are worldly and wise.  They speak frankly and honestly, and there is little wasted here on trite intrigue.  A huge part of the appeal of this book is that honesty, featuring conversations that matter and resonate with the reader.  It's not that the story is particularly new (there have been many stories about teens facing nature and the elements), but that it treats those young people with tremendous respect (without making them behave like adults).   Highly recommended.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Ramona Blue, by Julie Murphy

Eulogy, Mississippi is the type of small town that young people get the heck out of.  But for Ramona, there are not a lot of options – her family lost their home to Hurricane Katrina, her parents separated, and now her older sister is pregnant.  It falls on Ramona to keep things together.  And getting out of town is not in the cards.

She can’t even figure out her own life.  She’s liked girls from the beginning, but after her girlfriend dumps her, Ramona finds herself attracted to her best guy friend Freddie.  What does that mean?  Is she going straight?  Becoming bisexual?  She doesn’t really know, but she fights attempts by the people around her to categorize her.

Just as she did for Dumplin’, Murphy has crafted a rich cast of characters who surprised me and a story with enough twists and turns to defy stereotypes about poverty, small towns, and the South.  It's a story about family, value, and taking big steps.  From believing in your heart that everything will truly work out in the end to being strong enough to leave Neverland (knowing that friends and family will always be there for you in the end no matter how flawed they may be).

Perfect Ten, by L. Philips

Since he broke up with Landon two years ago, Sam has been single.  Landon's the only other gay boy in his school, so they've stayed friends.  But it's frustrating how slim the pickings are!   When their mutual friend Meg suggests trying out a spell she's researched to create the perfect guy, Sam agrees to go along on a lark.  But he doesn't really believe in magic.

But afterwards, when not just one, but three perfect guys show up out of the woodwork, all bets are off.  There's Gus, an exotic, sexy, and horny French exchange student.  And Travis, the dangerous (but ultimately perfectly safe) rock star.  Finally, there's sweet Jamie the sensitive artist.  In a world of such amazing choices, Sam finds that perfection isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

A cute and readable story, albeit without much to teach us beyond the need to be less superficial.  There certainly is room in LGBT kidlit for some vapid romance, so this fills a gap nicely.  The kids are all pretty nice and the pacing is good.

My big complaint is that I didn't find the boys all that authentic -- far more like a girl's fantasy of what gay boys are like (my wife points out to me that there are plenty more male authors out there creating fake depictions of women than this and it's only fair play).  The guys are sweet and sensitive and it's nice that they aren't constantly posturing and talking about their cocks.  But it's not very realistic that they never do and their obsessive concern over each other's feelings is much more of a girl thing.  It could happen, but it's not plausible.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Alive, by Chandler Baker

When seventeen year-old Stella receives a much-needed heart transplant, she knows that there will be a long road to recovery. But she is not expecting the strange symptoms that have best her: an intense shooting pain every day at 5:08pm, visions of people around her suffering, and bloody hallucinations.  She’s reluctant to tell her doctors (they will just try to keep her at home and, anyway, they can’t find anything wrong with her), but it is growing harder to get through the day.

Besides, school has gotten interesting.  A sexy new arrival Levi is reciprocating her flirtations.  And while her friends don’t seem to trust him, she can’t help but notice that she feels physically better when he’s around.  She can't explain that, but could it be a bad thing?

Starting off in a fairly realistic vein as a surgery recovery story, I was pretty much on board with the whole romantic interest, jealous friends, and even some of the cat fighting scenes.  But the hallucinations/visions and violent imagery sort of jolted this story off kilter for me.  The fact that all the hallucinations clearly are such, made this part of the story less interesting or coherent.  Honestly, it seemed unnecessary, which is an odd thing to say about a horror novel.  Perhaps, it is wishful thinking on my part (I’m no fan of the genre), but I think we had a pretty good story without the supernatural stuff (which in any case wasn’t convincingly developed).