Saturday, February 18, 2017

Every Exquisite Thing, by Matthew Quick

Nanette's favorite teacher gives her a copy of the out-of-print cult classic The Bubblegum Reaper.  Reading it, she becomes obsessed with its Catcher in the Rye-like story of non-conformity.  Her own life is on a pathway to success (popularity, sports acumen, good grades, etc.) but the book opens her eyes to the way that her life has been missing authenticity and meaning.  She tracks down the novel's reclusive writer and makes contact with other fans.  And she and these young fans seek the answers to their lives which have been missing.  Along the way, there a variety of successes and mistakes.

An interesting story that will resonate with outsiders and introverts (i.e., the vast majority of bookish teens), although Nanette's ability to move among both popular cliques and outsiders will be alien.  The search for greater meaning is universally adolescent.  Surprisingly, while the topic is well-trod, there's room for Quick to have a few fresh things to say.

As a result, the story has a timelessness to it that will give it some legs, but is there really room for a new classic about the shallowness of modern civilization?  Do we need more rejection of the  cynical adult world?  Or are we too attached to media spin-offs and stories about superheroes?  For those who are looking for relief from mass-commercialism, this is the book!

Summer Days and Summer Nights, ed by Stephanie Perkins

Summer.  Long days.  No school.  Lots of time to explore new friendships.  Beaches.  Summer camps.  Plenty of decent material to utilize in writing a short story, right?  So, what do you get when you ask twelve YA writers to attack the subject?  Sea monsters, carnival demons, funiculars, and time paradoxes!  That's because Perkins’s anthology is the weirdest collection of summer romance stories ever!  Highlights include Francesca Lia Black’s nostalgic look at romance in the early 80s (a favorite for personal reasons, but one which will probably just seem quaint to the young whippersnappers!), Jon Skovron’s comedy of manners and riff on Jane Austen, Lev Grossman’s tip of the hat to Groundhog Day, and Perkins’s own story of love lost and rediscovered on the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.

In between, there are a bunch of largely forgettable pieces and more than a few (that I’d just as soon skip) going for the gore factor.  The overall challenge that each author faced (to mixed levels of success) was developing a character that was engaging and meaningful in just thirty pages.  Creating a story that was worth reading and had something to say in that short space was also a trial.  I found this collection a mixed bag.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Spare and Found Parts, by Sarah Maria Griffin

In a post-apocalyptic world, destroyed when the world became so overrun with the lust for data that people no longer spoke to each other, technology is both worshiped and feared.  Since the Turn, three rules now hold sway:

1)  The sick in the Pale, the healed in the Pasture.
2)  Contribute, at all cost.
3)  All code is blasphemy.

Nell is the pride of her father's Contribution: part human girl, part machine.  It is her father's prosthetics and machinery that allow her to live.  And in the world after the Turn, where people are frequently born without all of their parts, his particular technology is tolerated.  Still, she is shunned and feared.

In addition to her loneliness, Nell is under pressure to make her own Contribution (alternatively, she could join her Nan and her followers in the Pasture to pray against technology but this holds no appeal).  But until she comes across a mannequin boy's hand one day, she doesn't know what she can do.  Now she does:  she will build a companion, a friend, someone she can talk to, someone who isn't afraid of her machine parts.  But her contribution will offer much more to the world than Nell can even imagine!

A moody and often hard-to-track story that owes some gratitude to Mary Shelley, but seems just as inspired by Johnny Mnemonic and cyberpunk.  The result is original and very very strange.  When your heroine's life-altering kiss is delivered by an android with a tea pot for its head, you know you aren't dealing with typical YA tropes!

It is so rare (and so special) to find an author of science fiction with something to say and an original way to say it.  And it doesn't hurt that she's a good writer!  The writing is fluid and oft times quite beautiful and the characters strong and vibrant -- all of which makes the weirdness of the settings and events all the more strange.  Beautiful and haunting!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What Light, by Jay Asher

Every year, Sierra and her family spend the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas selling trees in California.  It's something that Sierra both dreads and enjoys.  She'll miss her friends back in Oregon, but she has a Californian BFF as well that she looks forward to seeing each year.  This year, however, may be the last time she gets to go -- her parents are thinking of switching to wholesaling their Christmas trees and foregoing the trip.

This year is also special in another way:  Sierra meets a new boy named Caleb and falls in love for the first time.  But Caleb has a dark history and just about everyone wants to break them apart.  Will their relationship be able to withstand the pressure (as well as the fact that the two lovers only have a few weeks together)?

You can probably guess what will happen.  And if you know Asher's writing you'll also know that a great deal of winding up of the tension will be met with a fizzling climax (why anyone likes his works is incomprehensible to me -- I'll consider this my last attempt to understand his success).  For example, the parental disapproval (based upon the rather smothering desire to protect their daughter from the heartbreak of a relationship doomed to fall apart more than concern over Caleb's dark past) is diffused shockingly uneventfully.  And conflicts with friends and other peers never fully solidify.  The most interesting subplot (an estrangement between Caleb and her friend Jeremiah) is resolved bizarrely.  The writing is pretty but the action of the story really goes nowhere and often makes no sense.

Asking for It, by Louise O'Neill

Emma is beautiful and tough.  Her girlfriends have her back and with boys she’s fearless.  So, as the summer begins, Emma is on the prowl.  She knows the guy she wants and she’ll be certain to have him.

But after a night of which she has no memory, she is found bleeding and beaten on the porch of her home.  Shortly afterwards, the pictures start to appear on the Internet.  Her instinct is to put up a tough front and claim that it is all good.  But when Emma realizes that her nightmare isn’t going to go away, she is convinced to accuse her attackers.  In doing so she learns a hard truth:  things will only get worse.

It's an indictment of public attitudes towards rape (set in more conservative Ireland but not much different from the States).  And O’Neill sets up a difficult scenario, making Emma reckless, promiscuous, and unreliable, but sticking nonetheless to the narrative that no one “asks” to be raped.  I’d like to believe that even as flawed as person as Emma would be believed by the reader, but the story is ambiguous enough that I could see some readers doubting her version of what happened.

As a story (rather than as a polemic), it’s a drab, depressing read, with a very ambivalent (albeit authentic) ending.  That makes the story a difficult read.  But O’Neill has a good feeling for dialog and for characters.  The various players felt quite real and vivid, regardless of age or background.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Love Bomb, by Jenny McLachlan

OK, here's something silly from the UK in honor of V-Day coming up...

Betty has got it bad for Toby.  She can't do anything else but obsess about kissing him.  And she knows he likes her back because he's even asked her to sing in his band.  But why is that the more she learns about him the more what she learns bothers her?  Why can't his hot body be attached to someone nicer like her best friend Bill?  If only she could ask her Mum for advice, but she passed away when Betty was two.  And now all she has left are letters her mother wrote to her -- letters, in which she finds wisdom and solace.

Oh, it's so so filled of cliches.  From the bad boy who's no good for the girl and the nice boy she overlooks.  From the squealing gossip and the loud crazy unchaperoned party.  There's the clueless Dad with the new (threatening, but really quite nice) girlfriend.  The awkward first kiss and the perfect one that concludes the book.  And, of course, there's the dead mother.  Do tween readers really don't care that they've read this story a hundred times before (probably not!).  In any case, there's not much new under the sun here.  The kids are fun to spend some time with, but this is light young love.

Finally, there's the awkward question of targeted age.  The kids here are so innocent about sex and romance, that I'm prone to plug this as a middle reader, but the drugs, alcohol, and criminal content definitely puts it into the adolescent category.  Is there something between tween and teen?

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Ask Me How I Got Here, by Christine Heppermann

Addie's story of terminating her unwanted pregnancy and the aftermath of her decision gains that certain pathos through verse that could only have been achieved in prose with lots of ellipses.  Verse is the perfect way to tell a story where the heroine doesn't really know what she feels and grows easily anxious over that reluctance.

The most original part of this story, is the way that Heppermann explores not just abortion, but the way that other people try to oversimplify the experience. She does an excellent job of exposing this through both the meddling boyfriend (and potential father) and the well-meaning (but clueless) student-activist.  Messing the waters a bit are the matters of Addie's changing tastes in pastimes and her evolving sexual orientation.  Catholicism, as usual, does not come off particularly well.

With verse novels, the temptation to grow overly precious is a major risk.  And rather than allow myself to be sucked in by the easy final poignant phrase, I focus on the quality of the verse itself (in particular, if any of the pieces can stand on its own) and on the originality of the thoughts.  While there are a few standout pieces, for the most part the verse is high-school notebook-level stuff -- pretty, but not terribly deep.  On the idea front, Heppermann does better.  I particularly enjoyed Addie's snarky comments about the Bible (guaranteed to offend religious people with thin skins, they are just the sort of doubt that I always find vital for faith).

It was a fast read.  Combined with a decent subject, some good ideas, and competent writing, this is enjoyable stuff.  Not a classic, but certainly not bad.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Unscripted Joss Byrd, by Lygia Day Penaflor

Joss Byrd is the hottest young actress in America, but she can't help but feel like that she's a fake.  She's got talent, but she struggles to even read her scripts.  And as much as she owes her success to her mother's drive, she also fears her Mom's penchant for sabotaging her successes.  During a shoot of a movie in Montauk, Joss faces some hard cold realities about the movie business, including the cost of fame and success.

Told with sensitivity and insight by a woman who actually works in the film business as a tutor for child actors, the novel exposes an entire world that few of us know much about (even if we think we know the people so well!).  But the characters themselves are hard to relate with.  From her experiences, Joss has to be wise beyond her years and Penaflor does a decent job of capturing that, but it's hard to connect with her.  The relationships around her are also naturally superficial.

Lacking much in characters, what we really have is the story and that tends to drift from idea to idea.  The story is full of unresolved issues (the director's infidelities, the relationship with the director's sister, her mother's exploitation of Joss and the jealousy she feels for Joss's success, and Joss's feelings for her co-star) that largely just fade away.  The wrap of the film (and the story) comes so suddenly that I didn't even realize it was over until we were told that it was.

On the separate subject of marketing this story, there are different challenges.  The thematic material is probably a bit mature for a middle reader, but since Joss is per-pubescent, it's unlike that young adult readers will be interested in her.  The ideal reader would be a ten year-old with a good foundation!  And finally, what's with the cover? Couldn't they have picked a younger model?  The one depicted is obviously too old to be Joss!

Nice Girls Endure, by Chris Struyk-Bonn

Chelsea is very self-conscious about her weight.  She's always been a big girl (and developing a bust in third grade didn't help matters).  The story pretty much traces her daily humiliations.  These take a small turn to the better as she befriends the energetic and upbeat Melody and a turn for the worse when she is assaulted and humiliated by a class bully.  Thanks to some pep talk from her friends and some chemical intervention, she pulls through her challenges.

The story has lots of lovely details (vignettes and observations that make or break a YA novel) but I was frustrated by the limp plotting.  I wanted a climactic moment and imagined what it would contain (a film premier, winning a spot on the choir, dealing with the brats next door, confronting the bully, telling off her mother, etc.) and none of that happened.  It is so frustrating to be set up for a moment of redemption that never really comes!  In fairness, Chelsea has some minor inner growth, but it wasn't enough for me. I needed to see it resolve some of her issues.

Mosquitoland, by David Arnold

Mim misses her mother and when she finds out that her father and stepmother are apparently keeping them apart on purpose, Mim decides to bolt.  Stealing a stash of money from her stepmother, she hops on a Greyhound bus in Mississippi and heads 950 miles to Cleveland.  Along the way, she befriends a motley crew of companions and has adventures.

As tired as that plot is, what rescues this novel is its unusual heroine.  She’s schizophrenic, blind in one eye, and prone to uncontrolled and sudden nausea.  And the people she befriends are similarly quirky.  It's the crazy personalities that make this story work.
Arnold’s debut novel is a fascinating and original work, written with all the color and grit of a hipster creating the Great American Novel.  The dialog is fast and witty, but there’s not much emotional introspection (since Mim tends to barf whenever the going gets emotional).  Instead, there's a lot of philosophical navel-gazing.  It’s a little too self-aware of its pretensions and falls more into the adult-literature-about-teens category than actual YA, but kids will find it enjoyable nonetheless.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Wild Swans, by Jessica Spotswood

Milbourn women have always been both extraordinary and tragic.  Ivy's ancestors are singers, poets, and painters, and each of them suffered tragedy.  Ivy Milbourn has certainly suffered tragedy (her mother abandoned her when she was two), but she's never found anything she was extraordinary at (much to her grandfather's regret). And this summer she wants to just take it easy and enjoy herself, rather than yet again try to do something that will impress her grandfather.

But Ivy's plans for a quiet summer are waylaid by the sudden reappearance of her mother, with two previously-unknown daughters (Ivy's half-sisters) in tow.  The reunion is rocky and unearths painful truths about the family that have been hidden and kept out of the light.  And into the mix, Ivy finds herself negotiating her first real boyfriend and the tensions it brings between her and her best friend.

A decent novel about an unhappy family that is unhappy in its own special way.  In many ways, the novel seemed overly busy to me (and apparently in earlier drafts, it was even busier!).  The romance (and its accompanying jealous thread) has tremendous promise but is ultimately inconsequential to a story that is largely about ambition and parents living through (and destroying) their children.  And the family itself has so many interesting aspects that never get properly developed (who brings in a grandmother's journals without discussing their content in greater depth? Or discusses a family's history of depression without developing it into the story?).  The characters are well-depicted and the story flows easily, but there are so many good ideas that were developed here and never quite finished.

Girl Mans Up, by M-E Girard

Pen is just one of the guys.  She's seriously into badass videogaming and doesn't take crap from anyone.  But it doesn't mean that the world gives her any respect.  Her neighbor Colby accepts her as a friend but never fully as part of his gang.  Instead, he demands that she "man" up by following his wishes. This puts her in line as she attempts a failing battle to prove she isn't acting "like a girl."

Meanwhile, her parents (first-generation immigrants) use their own variant of the approach.  They see her rejection of femininity as a threat to Pen's future (which they have narrowly defined as getting married and going to nursing school).  The gaming, hanging out with boys, dressing androgynously, and behaving like a "punk druggy" seems destined for disaster.

Only her older brother (who has lots of problems of his own) and Blake (a girl who seems to be just as much in love with gaming as she is) seem to get her.  Pen wants desperately to make some moves on Blake, but the possibility of a relationship between them is threatening to both Colby and her parents, leading to conflict and ultimately the need for Pen to assert herself and her right to be treated with respect.

It's a provocative book title for a tough heroine who tries to challenge gender stereotypes, but who ultimately reinforces them.  But it's got a lot of originality.  Let's face it:  a lot of heroines in lesbian teen lit are femmes.  After all, it tends to fit more with the angsty profile of books marketed for girls.  Pen, as an uncompromisingly butch young woman, is thus a uniquely non-conforming lesbian character.

However, in her effort to resist being portrayed as weak, Pen makes some pretty horrid choices.  The culture she values (which she has identified as not just tough but also manly) is a dead-end, loser ideology.  The constant posturing and trash talk, as realistic as it may be, just grated on me.  As epitomized through Colby and his narcissism, this masculinity is hardly anything for a boy (let alone a girl) to aspire to.  And while she manages to moves on slightly from it in the end, it is still clear that she equates femininity with weakness. Pen's lack of success in solidly moving beyond both masculine and feminine stereotypes frustrated me.