Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle

Quinn and his mother have been adrift since Quinn's sister Annabeth died in a car accident six months ago.  In Quinn's mind, he and Annabeth were bonded over their shared love for film (he wrote screenplays that she then filmed).  It was a team that was destined to join the pantheon of sibling filmmakers (like the Coens or the Wachowskis).  Since her death he hasn't written anything.  In point of fact, he hasn't done much of anything.  Skipping out of school and avoiding people, he only really hangs out with his best friend Geoff.  His mother is just as bad, loitering around the house. 

But then a chance meeting with a hot guy named Amir gives Quinn something to make him alive again.  And seeing how that can be, he starts to dream about fixing his life.  Meeting up with an old friend and inspiration (and now a successful screenwriter) also helps him see his future potential.  But he is discovering things about his sister that threaten his rosy picture of how things were.

Guy authors generally fall flat for me -- all snarky jokes and not much depth to their characters.  Federle gives Quinn lots of loving attention, but it was hard to feel much for the result. Moping characters have never really attracted much sympathy from me, and obviously cluelessless lack appeal and dramatic potential.  The relationships between Quinn and the two guys in his life never really bloomed for me (famous screenwriter friend was a throw away). The relationship with Amir lacked much spark and Geoff was just a typical sidekick.  Quinn's relationships with the female characters are even worse.  Pedestaling his dead sister annoyed me (and what was with Quinn's strong reaction to the idea that his sister could have been in a romantic relationship?).  Mom had a completely disposable role -- she was paralyzed with depression for half the book and then suddenly fixed her life.  In sum, there just isn't much here to latch on to.

Exit, Pursued By A Bear, by E. K. Johnston

During summer cheer camp, Hermione is obsessed with getting the most out of her last summer.  What she is not expecting is to get drugged and raped.  In the aftermath of the attack, she is unable to recall the details or the identity of her attacker.  Instead, she is left wondering who he is.  Was it a teammate?  Or someone from another school?  But with supportive friends, family, therapist, and community, she pushes on bravely through the ordeal of recovery.

Overall, I found this to be a nice balance between thriller and emotional drama that makes this unpleasant premise into a better than average read.  The greatest strength are the characters.  Hermione is strong and does a pretty good job of bouncing back.  But the real standout character is her BFF Polly, whose toughness and loyalty make her a great sidekick. 

But I had issues as well.  She brings up some of the indignities that rape victims endure but resolves them quickly, whether it is rumors at school, victim blaming in the media, or the ordeal of terminating an unwanted pregnancy.  All of these could have been developed further, but Johnstone skirts the issues, leaving the treatment superficial and recalling a more middle-school appropriate treatment (like an Afterschool Special).  I also didn't get the Shakespeare references, which seemed tacked on to the story (perhaps Johnstone was just dying to use the title and had to come up with a way to justify it later?).

In sum, there are not a lot of surprises or new ground here, but Johnstone gives a surprisingly upbeat story with a satisfying ending.  It will raise many questions and issues, and might stir some young minds to ask deeper questions.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

War is coming and Peter is being sent to stay with his grandfather for safety.  Peter's pet fox Pax, however, cannot come and so Peter is forced to abandon him (in the heart-wrenching first chapter).  Peter immediately regrets doing so and heads off on a quest to find and rescue Pax.  Along the way, Peter befriends an embittered veteran who teaches him valuable lessons about war and helps him on his way.  And, in alternating chapters, Pax meets other foxes and learns more about his own nature and the ways of humans.

Pennypacker, who I know better for her charming Clementine series, has created a unique and haunting book.  Initially, it's a straightforward adventure, but more of an allegory about war in the end.  I felt that the story was a bit dark for children and not entirely appropriate for the middle readers it is targeted towards (in much the same way that Watership Down got mischaracterized as a children's book).  I enjoyed it, especially the chapters about Pax (who ultimately proves a more appealing protagonist than the boy) and the anti-war message is soft-pedaled but well-presented.

The Secret Language of Sisters, by Luanne Rice

An auto accident leaves Tilly's older sister Roo paralyzed and in a coma, unable to communicate.  People doubt that she will ever recover and some believe she might even be brain dead.  But Tilly maintains the hope that Roo is "there" and she is able to show that Roo is suffering from "Locked In Syndrome." An ambitious young doctor is brought in who has had experience working with such patients and he develops devices that allow Roo to speak and even to manipulate objects around her.  But jealousy between the sisters threatens to divide them just as they should be coming together.

I rarely find that successful adult literature writers are able to cross over into YA.  Unfortunately, Rice proves the rule here.  She writes a good story but doesn't really have the tone right.   The two sisters sounded more like they were in their twenties than in their teens. It wasn't simply that they were mature and well-spoken, but that their tastes are too complex and their way of relating to each other too grown up.  The girls' bond seemed wise beyond its years and the jealousies lacked the angst, doubt, and awkwardness that would make it authentically adolescent.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Way I Used To Be, by Amber Smith

Books about sexual violence and rape walk dangerously close to exploitative fiction, but when done well they can be as stunning.  Take, for example, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak and Sarah Dessen's Dreamland which both hold spaces in my list of top ten favorite YA novels.  I'm not ready to add The Way I Used to Be to such exalted company, but it is certainly a superior specimen.  This novel delivers.  As a survivor myself, I'll admit to having a soft spot for stories which appreciate the nuances and complexities of the experience (although I fully understand folks who shy away from books on these topics altogether on principle).

The assault that the story centers around takes place right in the beginning of the novel when Eden is fourteen and, while the story will revisit the events surrounding the attack at later points in flashback, the bulk of the nearly 400 pages that follow trace Eden's fall from grace over the next three years.  Her lack of ability to cope leads to self-destructive behavior that teeters between pitiful and distasteful.  Smith wants to drag her heroine into the gutter to show how destroyed she is but at some point even the reader starts to lose faith (grownups are warned that the book's depiction of illicit drugs, underaged drinking, and risky sex will definitely encourage grey hairs!).  That there is some redemption in the end makes the book worth reading to the end.

And that basically underscores my issue with the story.  Smith wants to show the corrosive impact of rape on the psyche and she does this so thoroughly that there isn't much room for escape.  It takes a little deus ex machina in the end to break the stalemate.  And even then, Eden is so tightly wound and so hardcoded into her destructive trajectory that it's a bit of a close call.  The issue with that is that Eden ends up being an unsympathetic character (a brutal thing to say and we can debate it, but when you look at how horrible she is to the people around her, you do start to lose faith).  That is part of the point and I wouldn't change a thing about her depiction but it creates one heck of a quandary for the author!  I really felt for Eden, but I didn't really like her.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

I Woke Up Dead At the Mall, by Judy Sheehan

Sixteen and dead at her father's wedding, Sarah finds herself in a state of limbo -- which turns out to be an extra floor at the Mall of America.  It's been specially constructed for deceased teenagers who can't move on because they feel they have unfinished business.  There are other kids there:  angry Lacey, vain and dim Declan, the very adorable Nick, and others.  And there's plenty of rules about what the kids need to do in order to move on (and the things that could cause them to get stuck forever).  And then there's the Boy ("boss of you") -- the being that makes (and sometimes capriciously breaks) the rules.

It's an extremely quirky story about the afterlife, righting some wrongs, clairvoyance, evil stepmothers, bad songwriting, Oprah, and living in New York City.  It's clever and funny.  It will amuse you.

But it's not much of a story.  Sheehan likes to make a funny scene out of an absurdity, but she doesn't really seem to know what to do with it.  There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but not much point to the novel.  It's a bit too much of a downer to be a comedy (Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere is an obvious precursor), it's too flippant to say much about faith, the righting-of-wrongs stuff moves the story along but gets mired in a lot of silliness about "angels" -- it is a narrative mess.  The most endearing characters are the silly ones (Declan, Bertha, the Boy).  Sarah and Nick and just plain boring.  The novel will still amuse you, in spite of all that.

Friday, July 29, 2016

See No Color, by Shannon Gibney

At the age of sixteen, Alex is struggling with the growing dissonance between what she is trying to be and who she thinks she is.  She's a black girl adopted into a white family -- neither black nor white.  She's trying to live up to her father's dream of her becoming an excellent baseball player, even as her developing body betrays her.  And she's discovering that her changing body yields surprising strengths along with disappointments.

An interesting and often uncomfortable book about identity.  I squirmed through passages in this novel where Alex pondered how the "black mind" differed from the white one, but I understood her struggle.  Like her adoptive family, I'd like to maintain the position that race is irrelevant, but Gibney gives no quarter on this and points out (I believe correctly) to the damage that silencing difference brings.  Told through both gentle episodes (like one in which Alex gets her hair properly handled for the first time) and more striking ones (as when Alex tries to prevent her black boyfriend from meeting her white family). Gibney explores all sorts of elements of transracial adoption.  Not content to simply focus on the racial issues, sexuality and gender differences are also invoked. The novel, in sum, pushes all sorts of buttons and is ripe for discussion and explorations.  I found it fascinating.

Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary D. Schmidt

When Joseph Brooks comes to Jack's family to be fostered, he's only thirteen years old, but he's deeply troubled and has already spent time at a juvenile facility.  He's also fathered a child.

Quiet, stubborn, and fearful of physical contact with others, it takes some time for Jack and his parents to break the ice, but gradually Joseph lets them into his world.  Jack learns that Joseph is much more complicated, mature, and intelligent than people have given him credit.  And once admitted in Joseph's confidence, Jack becomes obsessed with Joseph's struggles and (despite numerous warnings from adults) allows himself to be swept away by Joseph's influence.  Jack promises to look out for Joseph and "have his back" which becomes challenging when Joseph sets out to be reunited with his child.

Another well-crafted story by Schmidt, who has developed a strong track record for crafting sensitive books about boys and young men in trouble (a bit of a departure for me).  This is Jack's story of course, but both boys are well-developed.  Strikingly, the rest of the characters are not.  Adults and other children largely come off as flat and disposable.  Still, the story moves at a good clip and ends memorably with some suitable pathos.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Whisper to Me, by Nick Lake

During a summer, Cassie is diagnosed with a psychotic disorder.  As she quickly discovers, it colors people's perceptions of her.  Trying to avoid the stigma, she resists the diagnosis and refuses to acknowledge it to others.  Cassie's healing process is aided and complicated by her father (who suffers from PTSD) and a young man who likes her but to whom Cassie is not ready to open up.  Seemingly unrelated, her Jersey Shore community is struggling with a series of unexplained murders involving young women.

Billed as a romance, this extremely long story (544 pages!) is really more of a drama about mental illness.  The romantic thread plays only a minor part and actually seemed peripheral to the story.  This is an overall issue with this bloated novel.  Major threads (the missing girls and the father's own mental illness chief among them) are inconsequential and unresolved.

Another fault I found was that Cassie herself is a frustrating heroine.  Making mistakes and being imperfect is a typical characteristic in a YA protagonist.  But she develops so poorly, repeating mistakes again and again that you never get much sense of personal growth until suddenly at the end when she is -- poof! -- magically mature!  Without any development on display, we are basically  cheated of the most interesting part of the story and left with a largely unsympathetic main character for the bulk of the story.

Ruby on the Outside, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Ruby's mother is serving a twenty-five year sentence as an accomplice to murder.  To Ruby, it's almost normal that she can only see her Mom during supervised visits, that their phone calls are monitored, or that she has to live with her aunt.  Almost being the key word.

Ruby is stigmatized and too embarrassed even to tell her best friend about where Mom is.  But a new girl next door gives Ruby the courage to start writing about her feelings.  Through some literary therapy, she finds the voice to express her frustrations, fear, and anger.

This is a fascinating book that introduces the corrosive impact of the correctional system on families.  Readers (of any age) probably give little thought to the hardships that incarcerated mothers go through or the damage that is committed on their children.  Baskin deals with the subject sensitively and in an age-appropriate fashion, letting Ruby tells us what it means to her in a way that younger readers will find sympathetic (and that older readers will find heartbreaking!). It plays to Baskin's strength at creating very intimate books about children coping with trauma.  This one tugs on the heartstrings and educates.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Summer I Became A Nerd, by Leah Rae Miller

Ever since Maddie learned how uncool comic books and fantasy/science fiction stories are, she's hid her love for them.  Instead, she has carefully crafted a public persona (cheerleading, having a popular boyfriend, wearing trendy clothes) that has established her at the top of the social ladder.  But her secret is in danger of being exposed when she falls in love with the adorable (but certifiably geeky) clerk at the local comic shop.  As she succumbs to his charms and discovers the joy of expressing her passions openly, it becomes harder to keep her two lives separate.

My biggest problem with this fun (but pretty silly) book was buying in on the idea that Maddie actually had a second life.  She did geek so well (Miller obviously enjoyed showing off her knowledge of LARPing) that I couldn't see how it had ever been a secret.  Add to this that there wasn't much in the book about her popular girl/cheerleader side, and I was left doubting that Maddie had ever been anything other than a geek.  For a story about conflicting cultures, that seemed like a fatal weakness, even if it left her more sympathetic to the (presumably geeky) target audience.

If I Was Your Girl, by Meredith Russo

After transgender teen Amanda is beat up by transphobes, she is sent to live with her father, in a town where no one knows that she used to be a boy.  Given what happened to her, Dad would like Amanda to keep a low profile, but when she meets handsome Grant, she's lovestruck.  He's a dream and seems smitten with her as well, and she cannot resist falling for him.

All of this, in spite of the inevitability that Grant will find out her identity in the end -- an outcome that Amanda actually accepts.  The mystery is how he will react.  What will he feel when he knows that she was born as Andrew?

A briskly-paced story about the complications of being adolescent and transgender.  I felt on edge the entire time I read the story, fearful of a violent end.  However, while danger is always present, Russo manages to impart a certain amount of fun and humor into the story.  In fact, there were times when the attempt to depict Amanda as a normal teen seemed to be too good to be true.  Amanda integrates surprisingly well into her setting and develops strong friendships that provide her with support and safety not commonly found by transgender adolescents in real life.  Russo admits in the afterward, that her story has taken liberties (downplaying not only social dangers of being identified as transgender, but also the difficulties and expense of surgical intervention).

But I liked the story nonetheless. It shows the complicated world of Amanda with sensitivity and emotional honesty.  Given the trendiness of the topic, we've seen a number of books like this recently, but I believe that this is one of the best I have read so far.