Friday, April 14, 2017

Don't Ever Change, by M. Beth Bloom

Eva wants to be a writer and she's well-regarded by her teacher, but he wants her to stick to things she knows about.  She doesn't agree:  it's not like she has a lot of life experience to draw upon!  He also points out that she might do better learning to be kinder to her fellow classmates during their peer reviews.

Partly to follow his advice, she branches out during the summer between high school and college, to attempt to broaden her experience.  While counseling at a summer day camp, she inspires a group of girls to write, and learns some lessons standing up for a bullied child. In this mix, she juggles two relationships and repairs her broken friendships.

Bloom has a very unique style.  The story is rooted in fairly floral prose, but the dialogue is snappy and colloquial, creating a clash of styles.  Add to this that the settings are a little unusual (for example, Eva meets her first romantic interest while they are sharing the bathroom).  I thought the novel was  choppy (very nice scenes were sometimes just dropped into the story, not so much because they added to the story, but seemingly simply because they were nice scenes) and often hard to follow.  I suspect that the story might have a bigger pay off with greater attention or a second read, but I generally don't like to work that hard with a book.

The Truth of Right Now, by Kara Lee Corthron

Lily is recovering from the scandal surrounding her affair with a teacher last year, and shame and embarrassment separate her from her peers.  Dari is a new kid and one of the few African American students at the school.  This would be more than enough to make him an outcast, but his attitude and anger make it harder for him to ingratiate himself.

The two of them fall for each other.  But their bond is threatened by Dari’s abusive father, kids at school, and the institutionalized racism around them.  A tragic ending, worthy of Shakespeare, culminates a story which is strikingly authentic and true to its characters.

Corthron is a refreshing new voice in YA literature.  Her ability to revisit tropes and eke modernized truth out of them is breathtaking.  And the characters are amazing.  In a short span of pages, she is able to fill out both her major and supporting characters with great depth.  Of the majors, Dari is the most sympathetic but both him and Lily are full of good and bad traits, prone to real faults and failures.  They feel real in a fresh way.  Now, Corthron has an agenda about police violence, but she approaches it with a light touch and integrates it into her overall themes of honesty, change, and coming to terms with who we are.  In all, I think this is an outstanding novel and one of the best I've read in a long time.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Drag Teen, by Jeffery Self

JT hates living in Clearwater FL and working at his Dad's gas station.  But unless he can come up with a way to pay for college, that is where he'll be stuck.  He's tried every idea for a scholarship except one:  Miss Drag Teen -- a beauty contest in New York City for young drag queens.  JT's boyfriend thinks he'd be perfect as JT loves drag.  But after a humiliating prior experience at a school talent show, JT isn't sure he can do it (or that he has any talent for it).

But his boyfriend and his friend Heather convince JT to apply and soon they are on the road, heading north.  On the way, they have various adventures, meeting an old drag queen and a faded Country Music star, both with wisdom to offer.  And the fun continues in New York as they face various challenges in the city.

A fun little story about self-discovery.  For better or worse, it takes the subject matter largely for granted (I suppose we have gotten to the point where gay teens and transvestite teens can be considered common).  That allows us to skip over any need to explain or justify adolescent drag and move into JT's personal character weaknesses.  That avoids some awkward scenes, but also creates an unrealistically cheery view of the lifestyle.

What did get grating was the incredible coincidences that keep happening.  Self puts up a fairly significant number of close calls, from which the kids keep getting bailed out with relatively little impact.  And the ending is far too good to be true.  If you go with the idea that this is fantasy, then it all pretty much works, but I'm still a bit suspect of what feels like a whitewash.

Tell Us Something True, by Dana Reinhardt

River has made it through life by drifting along and relying on others to tell him what to do.  When his girlfriend dumps him (in the middle of Echo Park Lake) he has no clue how to get back home.  He’s the only person over sixteen in LA who doesn’t drive (and he doesn’t know how to use mass transit either)!  As with his life, he’s expected others to help him get around.

So, he walks home.  Along the way, he discovers a support group for troubled teens.  While his problem is a broken heart, the group just feels right to him.  And so he invents a story of addiction to explain his pain, and the group takes him in.  But River’s problems are of a different sort than theirs.  And he finds his lie a barrier to appreciating the intimacy that the group has to offer.

A brief and breezy new novel by Reinhardt.  She can be an uneven writer, but this is one of the better ones, with good character development and a moderately interesting story.  The developments are firmly pre-ordained but not drawn out and the pace brisk enough that we don’t mind taking the trip.  One thing I will certainly give her credit for is her ability to create realistic male characters who are not all snarky and crude.

Pushing Perfect, by Michelle Falkoff

All of her life, Kara has felt the pressure to be perfect.  When she has felt that her position was threatened she has had to take drastic measures (quitting her beloved swimming practices, shutting out friends, etc.),  So, when it seems she is about to fail the SATs, cutting off her hopes of getting into a decent school, she makes a terrible mistake.  And when an anonymous informant threatens to expose her secret, she is blackmailed into participating in a local drug smuggling operation.  To her surprise, she finds that many of her friends are similarly ensnared.

A fairly breezy read that explores pressures of conformity and that old chestnut about finding the strength to admit your flaws to others.  Not a terribly deep work and the casual treatment of the themes suggests a book that will appeal to younger readers (as an up-to-date Nancy Drew-style mystery).  The ending is rushed and anti-climactic but there’s nice character development along the way and the kids are enjoyable.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, by Eric Lindstrom

Mel struggles with bipolar disorder (a condition that runs in her family) and while her parents and her aunt recognize the symptoms, Mel keeps her friends largely in the dark.  So when her erratic behavior is misunderstood, her friends assume the worst and lash out.  Their response sends Mel into a spiral and triggers a breakdown.  The entire experience is told through Mel's eyes, so the reader is sent through a a frantic journey in Mel's psyche, documented by her in a journal that tracks self-check-ins of her emotional state.

In all, a well-thought-out exploration of bipolar disorder that allows us to experience what that must feel like.  For a rational person, that can make for tough reading as Mel behaves so erratically.  Lindstrom probably could have had a lot of fun making her an unreliable narrator as well, but he never falls for the temptation.  Instead, Mel's storytelling is remarkably lucid.

As a story, it's a fairly modest endeavor without much going on beyond a mental breakdown and some fairly unremarkable supporting characters -- the strength is really in the character-building of Mel.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Escaping Perfect, by Emma Harrison

Cecilia has been sheltered and hidden away from public view since surviving a kidnapping in second grade.  Protected by bodyguards and not allowed out of sight, she lives under the heavy hand of her mother, a powerful politician.  But when a chance comes for Cecilia to slip away, she grabs the opportunity and bolts.  Now, with little knowledge of how to survive on her own, she finds herself in a small Tennessee town, where she quickly makes friends and settles down.  But when a romantic triangle threatens to blow her cover, she must choose between the love of her life and her recently acquired freedom.

There are enough plot problems in this story that it doesn't bear much serious consideration, but the whole trip is glorious.  The characters are instantly relatable and the story is fun.  There's an awful lot of jealousy floating around and just enough PG romance scenes to keep things interesting.  It's escapist fun and adolescent romance, and that's about all one needs to know!  The ending is an unexpected cliffhanger, so we should presume that book two is on its way soon.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz

Kivali has been sent to CropCamp by her foster mother to get a camp cert and have a chance at a future.  She’s learning skills but suspects that the camp’s purpose is more mind control than actual education.  And she also finds that she likes the kickshaw that they take each week just a bit too much.  Meanwhile, she is trying to figure out if the Lizard Radio she hears in her head is what makes her so different from the other kids or if it is her sense of not belonging, of being neither one nor the other but both?

An utterly alien setting that claims to be about humans but takes place in a very alternate reality. Far more than a dystopian, Schmatz explores themes of non-conformity from the obvious (Kivali is transgendered) to more subtle questions of career choices and romantic decisions.  Young Adult books are always full of these things, but in this exotic and strange environment, the whole thing resonates more.

The novel's originality is also its primary weakness.  Full of original slang and jargon, the story can be hard to track as the lexicon is never explained (but instead has to be determined through context). The story is complicated enough without the additional struggle to understand the language (which simultaneously gives the book its unique flavor). There are multiple sections of the story that I simply didn’t understand.  That can grow frustrating.  Still I admire the originality and the ambition.


Fire Color One, by Jenny Valentine

When things get too hard for her, Iris starts a fire.  And, as she’s grown older, her fires have grown larger.  Seeking to avoid prosecution after Iris's latest, Mom spirits her back to London, which they left many years ago.  When their money runs out, Mom turns to Iris’s estranged father – a wealthy art dealer who is now (conveniently) dying.  He has but one final wish:  to see Iris.  And when Iris's mother reluctantly agrees to grant that wish, Iris learns that there is much more to him than she’s ever been told by her mother.

A brief story that actually carries itself more like a novella (not simply because of its brevity).  The tale relies largely on its surprise conclusion, which provides a decent payoff.  Beyond that, there isn’t a huge amount to it.  It’s a grown-up’s story with a protagonist that just happens to be an adolescent.

The characters are notably weak.  Iris has a boyfriend, but despite his centrality in her flashbacks and a brief appearance at the end, their relationship doesn’t play much import to the story itself.  The mother is pretty nasty, but beyond the tension that exists between her and Iris, even that doesn’t play much of a role.  And the rekindling of the relationship with the father – while core to the story – is told with detachment.  Iris herself is a cipher.  We don't see much inside of her and the process of the rekindling of her relationship with Dad is understated.  Even her pyromania is simply a characteristic and does not evolve or develop (one imagines that it is tied to the state of her relationships with her parents, but that is also a neglected storyline).