Friday, February 14, 2020

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland, by Rebekah Crane

When Zander shows up at Camp Padua, a summer retreat for at-risk teens, she insists that there is nothing wrong with her.  That makes her stand out.  Everyone knows that Cassie is anorexic, Bek is a liar, and Grover is just odd.  But the most that can be said about Zander at first is she doesn't like apples.

Faced with a summer of group therapy and outdoor games that is about to change.  Grover's, convinced that he is destined to become schizophrenic, and similarly persistent that Zander and he are a couple.  Amidst Cassie's snarky observations about just about everyone are a few pointed ones at Zander that show that she sees far more than anyone else at Camp.  And Zander will open up and address the feelings and behavior that wound her up here.

A familiar story of institutionalized teens healing gets a lift in this case from some fresh characters.  Cassie and Grover are the most colorful and provide excellent soundingboards for Zander.  Character growth is a given in this genre but follows a less predictable arc that gives us some suspense and a better pay off in the end.  The language is smart and mixes believably vulnerable adolescence with intelligence.  A pleasant enough read but not terribly noteworthy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Oh, Rats! by Tor Seidler

Phoenix is one impressive squirrel.  The largest in his litter, his luxurious fur and big fluffy tail make him a great catch.  But unfortunately, that vanity costs him when he is caught by a hawk instead and swept away from his New Jersey home.  Making it through a series of near-death experiences, Phoenix finds himself in New York City, but without his fur and his tail now bare.  He looks almost like a rat!

While the local rats don't really trust him, he proves to be their good friend, helping to protect the abandoned wharf they call home from a greedy real estate developer.  It will take serious climbing, inventiveness, help from a bird of prey, and a few sticks of dynamite, but Phoenix is determined to save the day.  In the end, he finds that home is where you make it, even if you are a hairless squirrel from Jersey!

On a whim, I picked this up from the new middle school bookshelf.  It looked cute and even a bit funny.   It proved to be strange and more than a little bit dark. It is cute, but not very funny.  I also fail to see how it really qualifies as a book for middle schoolers, although I'm at a loss to say what the audience should be.  It's not a bad adventure, but between the violence, some mature themes (alcoholism, family abandonment, etc.) it doesn't really seem age appropriate. But at the same time, the talking animal genre tends to skew young.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

We Are the Perfect Girl, by Ariel Kaplan

In this retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, Aphra is the brave and fearless fighter.  Skilled with words and outspoken, she's a loyal friend to her little brother and to her best friend Bethany.  While Bethany definitely has the looks, she becomes tongue tied in the presence of handsome Greg.  And as much as Aphra keeps trying to encourage her, Bethany seems condemned to sit on the sidelines.  Aphra won't stand for that though and she helps Bethany find the words to capture Greg's attention.

Meanwhile, Aphra is developing a phone app that uses artificial intelligence to chat with people.  The app is supposed to be anonymous and confidential, but when the program starts failing, Aphra fakes results by intervening and writing the app's responses herself.  That's when she discovers that Greg has been confessing to the app.  Unable to help herself, Aphra responds, trying to gently nudge him towards her best friend.  It doesn't take long for Greg to figure out that the responses are not coming from a computer.  And when he calls her out, she is forced to confess, but due to unfortunate circumstances, he mistakenly assumes that the app's author is Bethany.  Now smitten, he falls madly in love with her.  This leaves Aphra in the unenviable position of coming clean with Greg about her true identity and confessing to her best friend that she's been secretly chatting with her love.  The fact that Aphra actually likes Greg as well only complicates matters.

Clever is the way that Kaplan has managed to modernize and adapt Rostand's classic play, the book also shines for its clever writing. The book is hilarious, with a whole slew of amusing and original anecdotes and scenes (ranging from an awkwardly misplaced swimsuit donut to a grand confession in front of an entire school assembly).  At times, these are so clever that they overwhelm the story itself, threatening to make the novel just one funny scene after another, but it mostly works.  Meanwhile, I loved the characters.  The dynamics with Aphra's family are particularly refreshing (I'm always a fan of parents who actually do more than forbid the heroine to do something and then ground them afterwards).  And Aphra's journey from self-obsession towards self-acceptance is real and meaningful.  A delightful read.

Sadly, the unusual and notable inclusion of rarely-seen-within-YA Russian to the story falls flat due to the multiple errors in its usage in the book.  But A for effort, nyet?

Saturday, February 08, 2020

The Undoing of Thistle Tate, by Katelyn Detweiler

At seventeen, Thistle is the author of two bestsellers.  The third installment of her Lemonade Skies trilogy is almost finished.  But as successful as she is, she carries a terrible secret: she’s not the author.  Rather, it is her father who produces the books with Thistle listed on the jacket.  After years of unsuccessfully attempting to get published, he resorted to this subterfuge as a hook to get the manuscript noticed.  At the time, they were in desperate financial straits and risked losing their home.  Thistle, just fourteen at the time, agreed to go along with this ruse because she knew it would make her Dad happy.

The home and her father is pretty much all that Thistle has left of her mother.  Dad, though, is close-lipped and reluctant to tell her much about Mom, who died when she was only three.  But the Lemonade Skies series, which features a young heroine searching through the afterlife for her lost mother, is a rather heavy handed analogue to their real life.

Dad always promised that the third book would be the last and that Thistle would no longer need to carry on the charade.  She would go to college, get her own life, and move on.  But Dad’s been wavering about the future of the series and Thistle is worried that she’ll be trapped forever.  But then those fears are swept aside, and Thistle and her Dad find their hands forced by a tragic chain of events.

While a little slow at first, the story picked up steam and gained a poignancy as the initial deceit and cover up is replaced by Thistle’s search for her mother.  The ending, while perhaps a bit overly rosy, is deeply satisfying.  Tear jerking occurs and key life lessons are expounded.  In sum, the story is good.  Thistle wallows a bit much in self-pity and makes the usual bad choices of lying and deception that seem to plague young women in YA novels, but she’s strong willed and brave and comes through in the end.  The love interests suffer more and the relationships are a bit of a yawn.  Read this for the story, not for the characters.

Friday, January 31, 2020

When Reason Breaks, by Cindy L. Rodriguez

Ms. Diaz's class is studying the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  For two young women in the class, the poetry has a particular impact.  Goth girl Elizabeth is largely considered a troubled teen.  Abandoned by her father, she lashes out at everyone around her.  Her disturbing artistry gets her regularly sent to the counselor.  Sweet Emily, seemingly the antithesis of Elizabeth, struggles with an inner demon of depression.  Both girls, latching on to Dickinson's melancholy, apply it to their contemporary lives, which are seemingly falling part. By the end of the book, one of them will be lead to take their life.

Unfortunately, the suicide angle feels artificial.  Yes, obviously it  provides a direction to the story.  But once we get there, the writing falls apart with the narrative becoming disjointed and passive.

I didn't clue in until the afterward that the characters are amalgams of Dickinson or people who moved in her circle.  It helps to explain some of the more forced parts of the story. Unfortunately, it is more clever than enlightening or entertaining.  Which is pretty much my issue with the entire book.

Meet Me in Outer Space, by Melinda Grace

Edie has a cognitive disorder that causes her to mis-hear words.  In English, she can usually manage to figure sentences out in their context.  But in the French class she is taking, it is nearly impossible for her and she struggles.  She'd quit, but the class is crucial for her in her chosen career as a fashion designer and her plan to go to Paris to study this summer.

She needs a tutor and the class’s TA, Hudson offers to help her.  He obviously wants more from Edie but she resists getting involved.  Any sort of relationship is just going to complicate her life.  Still, Edie can’t deny that she is attracted to him.  But really what future can they have when she is planning to study in Paris?

Quirky and original story with strong characters.  Edie, despite the temptation that Hudson presents, is pretty steadfast in her dedication to her career goals.  I did find it rough and amateur, but there is raw talent here.  Finally, it got mislabeled as YA, when it is really NA, but young readers may not care (the characters are not terribly mature so the primary visible difference is that they live in dorms and not at home).

Have a Little Faith in Me, by Sonia Hartl

CeCe lost Ethan.  After succumbing to pressure from him to have sex, he decided to break things off.  He says he needs to re-connect with his faith and is going away to Summer Bible camp.  CeCe, whose faith in Jesus was never very strong, is convinced that by following him there and proving she can be a good Christian too, that she’ll win him back.  Her best friend and neighbor Paul tries to convince her that this is a very bad idea.  When he fails to do so, he announces that he’ll go too in order to help.

At camp, CeCe is definitely in over her head.  Her ideas clash repeatedly with the staff and the campers, but her biggest shock is finding that Ethan has a girlfriend at camp.  Desperate, she gets Paul to agree to pretend to be her new boyfriend and make Ethan jealous.  It works so well that CeCe and Paul discover they have feelings for each other.  It culminates in a stand off at a campfire confessional.

So far, so predictable.  I twitched quite a bit at the depiction of organized Christianity, but that’s pretty common with writers who want a group that’s still OK to trash.  But the great climactic fireside showdown occurs on page 185 and there are almost 150 MORE PAGES TO GO!!  What on earth are they going to do with the rest of the book?

The answer is to embark on a treatise about sex and consent.  The girls at the camp, shocked by what CeCe has endured launch into an extended dialogue about sexual mishaps, questions, and consent.  Much of it is fine and the material is sound, but it is so dense that it largely comes across as a textbook.

The book's popularity may be boosted by a pretty explicit sex scene at the end that the sex education material seems to be building up for.  It contains probably the most thorough by-the-book explicit consensual sexual encounter ever recorded in a YA (or any other) book.  And there is a stress on verbalized consent (i.e., implicit consent does not count so everything must be spoken aloud), which will raise eyebrows. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with teaching that good sex is consensual sex, but it has so little to do with the first half of the book that it felt like a hidden agenda.

It’s a little hard to review the book since it is really two books – one fiction and the other non-fiction.
The characters start as young people but largely become mouthpieces in the end.  CeCe and Paul get the best treatment, but that’s because they get to be the models for perfect sex.  In the first half of the novel, I found them much more interesting.  The end is a mess as the story shifts in several different directions, but finally gets the kids back home and into each other’s arms.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer

Rob lost everything when his Dad was caught embezzling money from his clients' investment accounts.  Most of their possessions were seized.  Rob became an outcast at school as everyone assumed he knew about it.  Meanwhile, his father escaped in his own way (with a failed suicide attempt that left him in a vegetative state).

Maegen got caught last year cheating on the SATs and caused an entire classroom's worth of exams to be invalidated.  But that scandal pales compared with her star older sister coming home from school pregnant and unsure about what she wants to do about it.  Maegan's family life has grown unbearable.

Both Rob and Maegan now lie at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but neither of them have any reason to associate with the other.  It takes a group project in Calculus to bring them together and help them discover that they have much in common.  One thing they have both come to understand is, as desperate as things seem for themselves, there are others who are in greater need.  They can make a difference by doing good deeds.  While they don't have track records for making good choices, now that are are trying to do so, they find that it is not so easy to know what is right.

A stirring and moving story of two flawed, but resilient young people.  Supported by complex and well developed supporting characters, Kemmerer has created a very strong story of love and loyalty.  Whether it's the sisterly bond between Maegan and her pregnant older sister, between Rob and his former best friend Conner, or even between the children and their parents, there's so much interesting stuff going on here.  And that doesn't even begin to touch on the complex dynamics between Rob and Maegan, who fluctuate between distrust, love, betrayal, and forgiveness in one of the more fascinating pas de deux in YA.  It's a wonderful thing to read a story where no one really acts to type and there's a believable surprise around every page turn.  I wasn't so hot on the plot twists at the end involving the scandal that got Rob's father in trouble, but that is a minor quibble for a novel when the characters themselves are so fascinating.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

True to Your Selfie, by Megan McCafferty

Twelve year-old Ella and popular IT girl Morgan aren't just taking seventh-grade by storm, they plan to achieve multi-platform global domination!  Morgan's got the vision: what they should wear, how they should act, what they should put on their website.  She's shaping the "brand" of Morgan & Ella.  But as the number of followers that the girls have start to rise, Ella finds that more and more she seems to merely be an accessory for Morgan's climb to fame.  And, as much as Ella would like to be famous on the socials, there are things about her old life she misses and opportunities she can see slipping away.

Fairly heavy-handed look at the allure of fame and fortune, from a middle schooler's perspective. It's largely over the top but the descriptions of social media will ring true enough to make any adult cringe.  In the end, Ella learns her powerful lessons about life, so the moral purpose of this fable is served, bu there are few surprises here.  Ella is not a character to really like as she spends most of the book making mistake after mistake, but she's real and one can't help but feel a bit sorry for her.

More successful for me was the entertaining and quick moving story.  It's a fun and breezy read.  It's not fine literature, but it's a good story, told well, with some satisfying lessons about being true to yourself (which is always a good message to drive home with middle schoolers).

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 4th.]