Friday, March 16, 2018

Dress Codes for Small Towns, by Courtney Stevens

Billie and her friends make up the “Hexagon” – a gang of rowdy and inseparable teens in their small Kentucky town of Otters Hollow.  They’re prone to mischief and pranks.  As the story opens, they’ve managed to nearly burn down Billie’s church in an experiment involving a dirty sock and the church’s aged microwave oven.   

But the kids love their town and they love the annual Corn Dolly Harvest Festival.  The Festival is endangered after the passing of the town’s patriarch and the Hexagon decides that they are going save the Festival.  They launch a massive fundraising campaign and incidentally get Billie nominated for the Corn Dolly Contest – an award given to the woman who is judged to be the epitome of femininity and generosity in Otters Hollow.

That description couldn’t be any further away from androgynous, scruffy, boot-kicking Billie.  And for her, even the idea of “femininity” is hard to grasp.  She’s still trying to figure out if she’s straight or gay – a fact not helped by her interest in both a boy and a girl, or by her desire to keep things platonic.

Part of the key of the Hexagon’s bond is that everyone stays as friends only.  But as they have grown older, that promise is starting to fray.  All of which makes Billie’s sexual orientation an object of speculation.  And in a small town not being easy to compartmentalize is a problem, which complicates her relationship with the town -- a town that she loves, but which may not love her back.

A nice genre defying novel that blows apart stereotypes about the rural South, Christian fundamentalists, and teen gender identity angst.  Billie is a true original – a tomboy who kisses both the boy and the girl (and stays friends with both!).  She can be kind and generous, and still make bad choices.  And her friends are full of mischief and trouble.  Sometimes the cast of characters gets overwhelming but this story feels new and special.  There's lots of energy and personality in the characters and a real small town feel.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

How to Make a Wish, by Ahley Herring Blake

Grace’s mother Maggie is a train wreck, but since the day her Dad was killed overseas, Mom has been the only parent she’s had.  Dragged from one of her mother’s unhealthy relationships to another, Grace has never had much stability.  But she’s had dreams and friends.  The dream: to audition for a piano scholarship in New York.  Her friends: Luca and his Mom who look out for her when things get real bad.  And then, a new girl Eva, who’s just been orphaned and bonds with Grace in ways neither of them expect.  But what good can any hopes, dreams, or wishes do when Grace’s Mom is always there to drag her down again?

A complex story that takes the central conflict between Grace and her mother and ties in so many complicated and wonderful side plots. While Luca and his mother are largely throwaway sidekicks, Eva the orphan girl becomes quite central: as a lover to Grace and also as competition for the affection of Grace’s mother.  The nuanced story between the two girls touches on friendship, romance, and jealousy, and is ultimately critical for Grace’s moment of transcendence.  I’m never a fan of the destructive mother motif, but at least this one focuses on Grace recognizing her codependence and learning to cope with it. That it manages to fit in a meaningful and authentically touching teen romance as well is impressive.

Ultimately uplifting and hopeful, this book beautifully describes a young woman learning to overcome on her own terms the traps laid by her destructive parent.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Wild Bird, by Wendelin Van Draanen

The story opens with Wren, a troubled young teen, being forcibly removed from her home and relocated to a desert boot camp for rehabilitation.  There isn't much mystery about why her parents have taken this drastic step (she's a real handful from the beginning) but as the story starts to fill in the details, the depth of her problems keep growing and growing.

Naturally, as this is a story about healing, Wren comes back from the edge and really rebounds, but it is rough going and fraught with set backs.  Through the harshness of the environment and some really stellar counselors, she develops the self-confidence and self-respect she needs.

Some of this story is a bit overly rosy, but the core of the story (Wren's rebirth) is lovingly handled and beautifully told.  I really did despise her in the beginning and her growth could be maddeningly slow.  But in the end, I could look back and see the progression and feel it was truly authentic, and really appreciate how she had fixed her life  Pacing a story like this (where you know how it will end) is so challenging but Van Draanen gets it right.  That the ending is a tear jerker should come as no surprise, but the way it is becomes the surprise.  A lovely book!

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Impossible Vastness of Us, by Samantha Young

India Maxwell, a childhood abuse survivor, has plenty of issues with trust.  She’s learned to survive by being tough and being on top of her school's social hierarchy.  But when her mother announces that she’s remarrying and that they are moving across the country, it throws off everything India’s worked for.  And it triggers more than a few of her fears.

When they arrive, India finds that the situation is even worse than she feared.  Her stepfather-to-be is immensely wealthy and his stepdaughter and her friends, while India’s age, couldn’t be more different.  Initially hostile to her, India has to struggle to settle in to her new environment.  And as she does so, she finds that not everyone is who they seem and that the secrets that they hold could destroy each other and take India down with them.

Mostly non-remarkable romance material, Young focuses on the relationship between India and her stepsister Eloise.  This proves a good choice as Young knows well how to write the complexities of adolescent friendships.  The romance (a love triangle between the two girls and a boy named Finn) is less inspiring (at least its boy-girl parts) and serves as a better foil between the two girls.  So, read it for the girl-bonding sweetness and ignore the rest.

What should go down as the most perfunctory sex scene in Teen Harlequin history graces this novel on page (page 320 – blink and you’ll miss it!).

Friday, February 23, 2018

This is Not the End, by Chandler Baker

When you turn eighteen in this alternate reality drama, you receive a one-time opportunity to resurrect someone.  Only one person and only on your birthday.  Since her brother’s accident, which left him crippled, Lake has known what she was supposed to do.  She promised to resurrect her brother so he would be whole.  Despite the fact that he’s become mean and bitter, she’s been willing to uphold her promise.

That is, until the day that she survives a car accident but loses her best friend and her boyfriend.  Now, her choice has become more complicated.  Does she honor her promise to her brother (and her family) or does she pick one of her friends?  And if one of them, should it be or best friend or her boyfriend?  And in this decision, friendships are shattered and families divided.  Unable to find decent counsel, Lake finds herself turning to an outsider, a boy with only a fleeting connection to her life, but whose own life offers lessons for hers.

An intriguing (if somewhat implausible) premise that raises many ethical questions.  Baker’s heart isn’t really into those questions and the novel drags when she goes through the motions of exploring them.  The far more interesting parts of the book are spent on Lake’s journey towards acceptance of death.  This subject may or may not interest adolescents but it is the sort of thing that is an interesting topic for others – how youth processes death.

Much of the rest of the novel is predictable, but Baker throws in a serious twist in the last fifty pages that picked up the consequences and turns out to be pretty catastrophic for the storyline.  Much of the earlier conflict in the story gets sidelined.  The most glaring example of this is the sudden pacification between brother and sister that provided much of the interesting drive to the story.

Zenn Diagram, by Wendy Brant

Eva is a brilliant math tutor.  Her skill is based not only on her knowledge of the material, but also on her ability to see inside people and know what they are struggling with.  It doesn't come from pedagogical talent or unusual empathy, but rather from a supernatural sense.  When she touches a person or an object that they have touched, she feels the troubles that they are experiencing.  While this is helpful for tutoring, it makes any regular contact with other human beings uncomfortable.  And her social life has consequently suffered.  Her romantic life is non-existent.

And then she meets Zenn, who is everything a YA heartthrob should be:  cute, considerate, and mysterious.  But there's one more thing: she can actually touch him.  And that only starts the mystery, which will bring out family secrets and unresolved issues that are much greater than just a simple romance.

Given its centrality to the novel's story, the supernatural element is a surprisingly light touch.  Instead, this is really about the relationship between Eva and Zenn, and about their families.  It works quite well as a story.  Eva is engagingly candid and outspoken and she brings out a lot from her family and friends.  The result is a chemistry that Brant has lovingly crafted full of intelligent conversation between both kids with kids and kids with parents.  No deep thoughts, but a fine entertaining story.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Little & Lion, by Brandy Colbert

Little (Suzette) was sent away to boarding school a year ago after her older brother Lion(el) suffered a psychic break and was diagnosed as bipolar.  Returning home for the summer, she discovers that her old friends have turned against Lion in the meantime, despite the fact that he appears to be better.

Meanwhile, Little is suffering from issues of her own.  During the school year, she discovered that she had a romantic interest in her roommate. But when the relationship that the two girls are having is discovered and the pair are outed, Little panicked and abandoned her lover.  Now, she feels guilt over her betrayal that is compounded by her uncertainty over her sexuality.

Things are pushed to a crisis when Lion announces that he's going off his meds and then blackmails his sister to keep quiet about his intentions.  Little finds herself anxiously watching as Lion's condition worsens.

An interesting story combining several issues -- not only mental illness and sexual identity, but also biracial families. I found the result busy and felt that the many different threads never quite came together.  I also felt that the crisis between Lion and Little was contrived, never quite believing that Little had enough motivation to keep quiet as her brother suffered.  But at the same time, the characters were interesting and I cared about them, and I enjoyed their story.

You Don't Know Me But I Know You, by Rebecca Barrow

A basic story with just enough drama to let dialogue and development bloom. The plot, simple enough, is about what Audrey does when she discovers she is pregnant.  There's plenty of internal dialogue, external conversation (with boyfriend, with mother, with friends).  What there isn't is a lot of action.  It's a story about friendships and people discussing those bonds.  And it's a story that is calculated to allow as much opportunity for tears and laughter as it can.

In sum, this is a book about talking.  It hardly matters where these characters are or what they are supposed to be doing:  They like to talk (and occasionally rage).

Barrow's strength is obviously dialogue and all of the internal motivators that drive an authentic conversation.  Unfortunately, there's not a lot of variety in the voices.  Everyone pretty much sounds the same (a type of intellectual suburban lingo and manners that is devoid of time or place or gender).  So, while everyone was well-spoken, I found it hard to differentiate characters or to visualize them.  Characters occasionally drift into selfish and irrational behavior but in the end everyone makes up and plays nice.  That makes for a comfortable read, but not one in which you feel much investment.  Despite all the heart strings pulled, I didn't feel the emotional pull I expected from such a sensitive topic as teen pregnancy or the choice between adoption and abortion.

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Authentics, by Ahdi Nazemian

Daria and her friends call themselves "the authentics" -- kids keeping things real by being honest about who they are to themselves and to each other.  For Daria, that has meant embracing her identity as an Iranian-American living in Beverly Hills.  And while she is not as rich or as pretty as a "Persian princess" (at least, according to her former best friend Heidi), she is proud of her ethnic identity.

So when she discovers that she is in fact adopted and maybe not Persian at all, she is crushed.  She seems to belong nowhere and to no one. How can she possibly be true to herself?  But in the end, she comes to realize that identity and family are fluid concepts and not tied to a fixed idea.  One can be authentic without any sort of label.

Full of lots of fun observations about Southern California Iranians and some much more nuanced observations about ethnicity, family, and adoption, there's a lot swirling around in this book.  I could have lived without the fairy tale ending, but I enjoyed so many other things in this story:  the frankness and strength of Daria herself, the realistic tension between Daria and her mother, the exploration of adoption and how adoptive families compare with biological ones.  And, as already mentioned, I loved the peek into the culture of Iranian Americans.

Where the Stars Still Shine, by Trish Doller

Life for Callie always meant just her and her mother, on the run since Mom abducted her during a nasty custody battle.  But when Callie's mother is apprehended, Callie finds herself returned to her father and his family.  There contrasts are striking: a home, solid family life, and a chance to build a stable life. There's no denying that life is better with her Dad, but it's hard to enjoy it when Callie feels like she is being forced to reject her mother in the process.

The stability is alien to her.  Things like making friends, falling in love, and getting a job are unfamiliar.  Callie's father's large Greek family would be challenging for anyone, but is particularly smothering compared to the independence that Callie is accustomed with.  Still, it all has some appeal (and the presence of young smoldering Alex in particular!).

A breezy, but ultimately fulfilling read,  Callie is smart and caring.  She makes plenty of mistakes, but owns them and tries to make her life (and the lives of others) better.  Overall, the characters' struggles sounded real and behaved in believable fashion.  The potential pitfall of introducing a Big Greek Family is handled well, deftly avoiding the usual stereotypes.  The romance is hot and the ending a real tearjerker, so all the right notes are hit.

The novel doesn't break any major new ground -- children coming to terms with their parents' failures is a pretty common YA theme -- but it is well written and enjoyable to read.