Friday, June 16, 2017

Just Another Girl, by Elizabeth Eulberg

Hope has always assumed that she and Brady (the boy next door) would become a couple and she's long been plotting the perfect moment for them to become official.  So when he falls for new girl Parker instead, Hope is crushed.  It disgusts her having to watch the two love birds, especially since Parker is so perfect and is always rubbing the fact in Hope's face!

But Parker's life is no where as nice as Hope imagines it.  Unbeknownst to Hope, Parker's family has come apart and she and her older sister have to scrape by on their own.  Parker is busy holding down and job and focusing on getting good enough grades to be able to get a scholarship to pay for college.  Parker is jealous of Hope, her perfect family, and carefree life.

Through alternating views, we see how the two girls are so wrapped up in their own woes that they have become blind to what the other is truly like. The idea of seeing the world through the eyes of your nemesis is a nice one, but the presentation was heavy handed.  Parker's issues are so serious and Hope's so trivial that it makes Hope seem shallow.  Granted, she redeems herself in the end, but it's hard to get attached to her.  And there are so many other rough spots:  the girls' BFFs (Lila and Madelyn) are throwaways, the Rube Goldberg Machine Club seemed like a charming subplot but didn't really cohere, and the mysterious disappearing parents (and the adults' response) is left unexplained.  The strangest part of all is the inconsistency between the counterpoising of their town as allegedly too small to keep secrets and the central role of secrets in explaining the misunderstandings.  Passable, but not outstanding.

Flower, by Elizabeth Craft and Shea Olsen

Charlotte knows that the women in her family have a history of making bad choices.  All of them got pregnant young and ended up sacrificing their dreams in search of love that never panned out.  She’s determined not to make the same mistake and has steadfastly focused on her studies, making all the right moves to end up at Stanford next fall.  But then she meets Tate and suddenly she’s finding herself willing to break those promises.  Suddenly, she can’t imagine not having him in her life.

The problem is that Tate is a world-famous celebrity and to be in a relationship with him means joining his high-flying world.  Charlotte feels she can manage it all, but Tate (still reeling from his own issues coping with fame) wants to protect her.  This leads him to switching impulsively hot and cold on the relationship,  and the couple have a series of break-ups and reconciliations.  Each time, Tate blames his behavior on his fears of hurting her and each time Charlotte forgives him, ready to throw it all away for him.

One of the things I’ve grown to enjoy is how much unlike an adult Harlequin romance, these Teen Harlequin books are…that is, until I read this one.  I wanted to like this book.  It was a fast-paced read and Charlotte seemed to have a good head on her shoulders.  After finishing the book, it is plain that she is just boy-dumb.  The first two or three times Tate tosses her aside, I was willing to forgive her for pining after him, but I kept waiting for her to gain some backbone.  Up until the second to last page, it seemed that she would really pull herself together, accept that there were plenty of other boys out there (many with less emotional baggage), and learn from it.  But in the end, she throws herself at him one more time.  Does anyone believe that he won’t treat her like crap again?!

I also disliked the fact that she kept lying to her family and her best friends.  None of that seemed responsible or like the behavior of a young woman with the good sense she is portrayed to have. In the end, how much can you care about a protagonist who makes the same mistakes again and again?  There’s lot of romance and I guess it’s supposed to be hot stuff, but it seemed more driven by lust than any sort of respectful loving relationship.  And it bored me.  Teen Harlequin:  go back to defying my expectations, rather than living down to our preconceptions of your corporate parent!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

We Are Okay, by Nina LaCour

Marin stays over during winter term break, all alone in her dorm.  In truth, she has no other place to go (no family to visit, and she hasn't exactly reached out and made friends during her first semester).  In a few days, an old friend Mabel will visit, but for the first days she has only herself and her memories.  Mabel's visit both excites her and terrifies her.  For the past few months, Marin has successfully blocked out her past and the pain she still feels from it (and alongside that ignored every text and voice mail that Mabel has sent her).  Mabel's arrival will change that and force Marin to deal with what she can't bring herself to address -- the loss of her family and the betrayal that it exposed.

A bittersweet story about loss and family, and (of course) rebirth and potential renewal.  It's very melancholy and downtrodden -- definitely, not a cheery read!  But if you enjoy a mood piece, quieter than a deserted snow-covered campus at Christmastime, then this is probably for you.  Marin is self-absorbed and one tires of her navel gazing, but it is appropriate for the story.  And the writing is gorgeous, as one would expect for the genre.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Crazy Messy Beautiful, by Carrie Arcos

Neruda is named after the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, but he bears little resemblance to the great poet of love.  Neruda the kid knows that he has no particular talent with words himself (although he is a fledgling artistic talent) and even less luck with girls.  He's tried to get someone to go out with him, but been rejected by all (as the novel begins, he's striking out again with the lovely Autumn Cho).  In his heart, he believes that everyone has a soulmate -- if only he could meet her!  His friends try to encourage him to keep trying but he is beginning to give up hope.

Then a class assignment pairs him up with his surly classroom neighbor Callie and, to Neruda's great surprise, something clicks between them.  In striking contrast to his previous struggles, everything comes easy and Neruda discovers that when love comes around it is entirely different than his prior struggles.  But this is not really a boy-meets-girl story.  Instead, Arcos has written a meditation on the commitment and struggle that exists in nurturing friendship and romance.  Neruda's idealism takes a pretty hard hit as the events around him giving him a hard lesson in the reality of love.

Arcos herself is a pleasant surprise.  Her fairly sparse novel finds many different ways to approach her topic:  not just Neruda and Callie, but also a period of marital discord between Neruda's parents, an effective series of reflections on the poetry and life of Neruda's namesake, and a bittersweet subplot about Neruda's friend (and ex-con) Ezra.  Some parts of the story didn't work for me (the nemesis Luis was a weak link and Neruda's dysgraphia was an underdeveloped idea) but I liked Arcos's originality and her bravery at trying out those new ideas.  And the ending, while completely unexpected, was perfect for the theme of the story.

After the Fall, by Kate Hart

Raychel has always been close to Matt.  When times have been tough, it was Matt she turned to.  At one time, she might have even wanted to date him.  But to her surprise, it is Matt’s brother Andrew for whom she ends up falling.  This is complicated, not just because Matt and her are so close, but also because of how much the boys' parents treat her like a member of the family. And with everything else going wrong around her (including conflict with her mother, financial woes, and a series of sexual assaults), Matt and Andrew’s family is an oasis for her – a rare place where she can find peace.  But an unexpected tragedy mid-way through the story flips everything on its head and the furtive secrecy becomes suddenly irrelevant.

Despite that rather busy-sounding synopsis, this is actually a pretty languid story.  It's most striking feature is the way that Hart tells the story, using Raychel and Matt’s flawed points of view.  Usually, the alternating narrator is a powerful dramatic tool when the best voice tells each part of the story.  Hart takes the opposite approach, using the device to show how badly Raychel and Matt misunderstand each other.  The effect is devastating and raises the already tragic events of their lives to a higher level of poignancy.

Beyond that, the characters and the plot are a bit of a mixed bag.  The grownups are notably relevant and vivid, offering both good and bad advice (and with the parents in particular having interesting dynamics with their children).  The other kids are less developed (Raychel has some good supportive friends, but I could never get into them and they seemed thin and undeveloped).  The story doesn’t add very much to the subject of interpersonal relations or consent, but has a comfortable authenticity to it that will resonate with readers.

Friday, May 26, 2017

#famous, by Jilly Gagnon

When Rachel secretly takes a picture of her utterly gorgeous crush Kyle and sends it to her best friend Monique on Flit, it's all just innocent fun.  But then Monique reflits the picture to some friends and it ends up going completely viral.  Within a day, virtually everyone has seen the picture and her secret crush is not so secret anymore.  Yet she hasn't exchanged a word with him!  The stakes grow higher when a daytime talk host takes an interest and proposes a reality series starring Rachel and Kyle.  Is their attraction staged from a desire to become famous or is there something real between them?

The budding romance will come as no surprise, but the path to true love is particularly rough road and the unusually ambiguous ending make this story engrossing.  That's pretty much how the whole story goes:  fast-paced and comfortably predictable (without being boring as Gagnon shakes thing up).  It drags a bit towards the end but overall was an entertaining story.

While the story is strong, I found the characters to be very inconsistent.  There's a weird shifting back and forth between confidence and insecurity in them that seemed more driven by the demands of the story than any sort of real psychology and it didn't work for me.  And Rachel and Kyle are annoyingly whiny (there's only so many times I can hear them both complaining about being not worthy of each other).  Luckily, you can skim past those parts without impacting the enjoyment.

Beast, by Brie Spangler

Dylan is a big guy.  Fifteen years old, but well over six feet and almost 300 pounds.  Coach wants him for the football team and everyone assumes he must already be on the team.  Hairy as an animal, the kids at school call him “beast.” But no one cares that he’s intelligent, dreams of attending school in England on a Rhodes Scholarship, or that he misses his Dad.

That changes when he meets Jamie, a beautiful girl who for some crazy reason seems to actually like him!  Dylan can’t believe his luck.  But then Dylan’s friend JP points out the obvious thing that Dylan himself has missed all along:  Jamie is transsexual.  Dylan is initially horrified, but ultimately confused as, even knowing Jamie's sexual identity, Dylan finds that he really is still attracted to her.

And with that twist, the story proceeds into fascinating new territory, becoming more than a tale about a large boy who has trouble fitting in.  Like the novel's inspiration Beauty and the Beast, it is a love story about two outsiders who are flawed heroes. Dylan has a good heart but he’s no angel and the strain he goes through to reconcile his honest affection for Jamie with his revulsion at the thought that he might not be “straight” (or whatever loving “a girl with boy parts” actually means) makes for palpable drama.  

Further complicating matters (sometimes unnecessarily) are his helicopter mom and his conniving duplicitous best friend JP.  I say “unnecessarily” because while JP certainly contributes plenty of villainous plotting, this is not a story that really needs it.  Far more interesting is the relationship between Dylan and Jamie – which is touching in a combustible adolescent way, but also deftly deals with issues that grownups can’t offer much help on (despite Mom’s best efforts).

As more and more books about teens struggling with gender identity come out, there is definitely space for this new one that explores how a straight male teen adjusts to the idea of being attracted to a transsexual peer.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

How Not to Disappear, by Clare Furniss

A story of two women -- Hattie and Gloria.  Hattie is alone at home for the summer, feeling abandoned.  Her friends are elsewhere and even her Mum has gone off with her boyfriend.  And the timing couldn't be worse:  she’s pregnant and she doesn’t know what to do. 

Then a strange call comes.  Hattie, it seems, has a great aunt, who’s dying, suffering memory loss, and wants to see her.  Hattie doesn't really have any interest, but she's not doing anything else anyway, so she visits out of curiosity.  The initial meeting does not go well.

Gloria is maddening.  Messy, distracted, arrogant, and losing her memory, she is dismissive and rude to Hattie.  But as Hattie is about to leave, she utters some fateful words to the older woman and a strange bond is formed.  Gloria insists that she knows something that Hattie needs to know, but Gloria is reluctant to just blurt it out.  Instead, she asks Hattie to take her on a road trip.  Hattie, both intrigued and bored, agrees to take her.  During that trip, the story unfolds through flashbacks.

I liked the idea of this story of two women from different generations uncovering family secrets and seeing how their lives are intertwined.  I also like the depth of the characters and the scope of the story.  The overall tone was a bit more mature than I expect for a YA/NA novel, and I suspect it really isn't intended for teens.

I did find it uneven and drawn out.  As tends to happen for me, I enjoyed the historical flashbacks more than the contemporary scenes.  Gloria's story is far more interesting than Hattie's and the characters from the past more developed that Hattie's contemporaries.  The novel is long and might have benefited from paring down Hattie's contributions.  It also drags since it relies on Gloria’s reluctance to divulge her secrets, a behavior that starts to seem tedious after a while.

Optimists Die First, by Susin Nielsen

Since the accidental death of Petula’s younger sister, Petula has tried to game the risks in her life by anticipating every possible danger and always expecting the worst.  Pessimists, she argues, live longer than optimists.  No amount of arguing from her parents or counselors will dissuade her.  But she isn't just overly cautious, her behavior leads to paralyzing fears of change or novelty in her life.

Then she meets the "Bionic Man," Jacob, a guy with a prosthetic arm and a secret grief which is eating him just as much as hers.  And Petula finds that, as much as she tries to anticipate anything that can go wrong, she can’t control others or the leanings of her own heart.

On the surface, this story about a young woman with an anxiety disorder from Vancouver is strikingly similar to the last book I read.  But when you move beyond those surface items, the novels couldn’t be more different.  Nielsen’s book is more entertaining, but also more superficial.  Her characters are pleasant but not terribly deep.

Perhaps the contrast is best illustrated by the running gimmick that each author uses.  In 10 Things I Can See From Here, the protagonist Maeve is constantly drafting hypothetical obituaries, which underscore her fears of death, dying, and being left behind.  Here, it is Petula’s scrapbook of bizarre deaths (death from watering flowers, being crushed by a cow, etc.), which seems more intended to elicit laughter.  In the end, Petula’s phobia are easily resolved, while Maeve’s struggle with anxiety is more of a battle and that story ended with a note of unresolved hope.  Nielsen's optimism seems misplaced.