Saturday, May 30, 2009

Does This Book Make Me Look Fat?, ed by Marissa Walsh

A collection of short stories, memoirs, verse, and even a graphic story devoted to body image issues. Some of the stories take the viewpoint of the person struggling, while others look at the impact of issues on family members and friends.

As with all collections, the contributions are a bit uneven and a few are even off-topic. The strongest pieces are the memoirs, where the authors relate their own image problems. The graphic story is a nice change of pace too, and well done. However, most of this collection is unexceptional and forgettable.

The bottom line is that there isn't much new being said here about the topic.

3 Willows, by Ann Brashares

Three girls (Jo, Polly, and Ama) have a memorable summer. Jo goes to the beach and spends the summer bussing tables, struggling between trying to impress the older girls with which she works and staying true to Polly and Ama. Ama goes out on a hiking expedition, even though she can't stand the outdoors. And Polly tries to pursue a career as a fashion model as well as deal with an absent mother. In the end, all three girls learn a lot about themselves.

Sound familiar?

At a basic level, Brashares is producing another installment of her successful formula. After four Traveling Pants books, though, that franchise was pretty much exhausted, so we now have a new set of girls -- all ready for their own set of books. But hey, it works and it is the literary equivalent of comfort food. Brashares is a good writer, so there is little pain in reading any variant of the theme. The shame though is that she really isn't stretching her talents any.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Boy Heaven, by Laura Kasischke

At cheerleader summer camp, three girls decide to sneak out to go skinny dipping at a nearby lake. They never make it, but instead manage to attract the attention of a car-full of boys. On a lark, they decide to tease the boys. Now, days later, the girls have become convinced that they are being followed.

A surprisingly aimless novel. The main story itself is fairly thin, so most of this novel is actually made up of flashbacks and completely unrelated subplots. Much of this back story is interesting but without much of a main story, there isn't much to keep this together. By the time I finished the book, I really wasn't sure what it was supposed to be about. A disappointment.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, by Kerry Cohen

A young woman, confusing her need for love with sex, goes through a series of relationships, never quite getting the validation she needs in her meaningless physical entanglements.

While this could read as a fascinating piece of YA fiction, it is all the more interesenting for being non-fiction. Cohen has previously revealed a strong heart and a captivating ability to get inside people's heads in her novels Easy and The Good Girl. In this autobiography, she goes much further, revealing in brave detail her own attempts to sort out her emotional needs. In the process, she does not hesitate to reveal intimate details that she admits (in her introduction) will probably embarass her family.

A ground breaqking work. Most of us will relate to some part of her story and, without a doubt, this should be required reading for every teen girl and boy. More than an account of mistakes and wrong turns (which truly would have been boring and narcissistic), Cohen gives us an honest read of doubt and longing, and the way that sex far too often fills (and fails to satisfy) those needs. Striking and unforgettable!

Impossible, by Nancy Werlin

Lucy has always known that her foster parents are not her real parents (and that her biological mother is really the crazy bag lady). She knows that her biological mother went mad shortly after giving birth to her at the age of 18. What Lucy does not know at first is that she is the latest in a line of women condemned by a curse. And that everything that happened to her mother -- being an unwed teen mother, going mad -- is about to happen to her as well, unless she can perform three impossible tasks in time.

A marvelous modern fairy tale based on the words of the "Elfin Knight" (aka "Scarborough Fair"). Werlin, whose overhyped Rules of Survival annoyed me and whose Double Helix surprised me, is turning out to be quite a good writer of sci-fi/fantasy (a genre which probably no one pegged her for at first). This well-paced story features strong everyday characters pressed into extraordinary service. At over 350 pages, this book could have been torturous to read through, but that was not how I experienced it at all. Entertaining and fulfilling.

Monday, May 25, 2009

All the Wrong People Have Self-Esteem, by Laurie Rosenwald

Subtitled, "an inappropriate book for young ladies (or, frankly, anybody else)," this hilarious book is a bit hard to describe. Each page features a collage dedicated to a particular theme (most of them mocking in one way or another what an old friend of mine calls "bow head magazines" - Vogue, Cosmo, etc.). This is a "chick lit" book that mocks even itself and has a bit of bile for even the best intentioned cause (tired of being green? try the purple movement instead!). Witty and on the money, without becoming too precious.

While not full of any deep meaning, this book made me laugh and laugh. And as one of the most original books that I've read in a very long time, I'll give it top marks. I will admit that it may be a special taste (my s.o. couldn't stand it!), but if you have a cynical edge and enjoy a wise cracking humor, you will be able to get into this. And, if not, it really does not take much time to read this one!

Every Soul A Star, by Wendy Mass

Three kids from three different backgrounds: Ally (shy and isolated, she's spent most of her life with her parents and little brother taking care of a campground deep in the woods and now most face the decision of her parents to leave and return to civilization), Bree (spoiled and materialistic, her dreams of becoming a fashion model are destroyed by her parents' decision to pull up stakes and relocate the family to the campground to replace Ally's family), and Jack (a dreamy artist who's never had much interest in science but has been offered the opportunity to skip summer school if he'll accompany his science teacher to the aforementioned campground to help observe a total solar eclipse). Three kids faced with impending huge changes in their lives and the rare opportunity to observe one of the most beautiful occurrences in nature.

A fun and mostly fulfilling read about learning to accept changes and discovering oneself, Mass has delivered another winning novel for middle readers. I was a bit disappointed at how easily the characters changed and I would have appreciated a bit more drama and resistance. That said, Mass brings great creativity to this work (and which novel of hers hasn't been creative and interesting?) and a strong ability with characters. Even Bree, who could easily have been the least likable of the three narrators, develops in a way that makes her sympathetic and identifiable. And while following a convention where each narrator gets to tell the story in alternating chapters can easily get tiring, Mass keeps the pace up. A good read.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

What They Always Tell Us, by Martin Wilson

At a party at the beginning of his Junior Year, Alex decided on a whim to swallow a bottle of Pine-Sol. A month later, he is coming to terms with what prompted such a rash act and dealing with the way that his old friends are treating him now. His older brother James has issues of his own, not least of which is a suspicion about the unusual attention that his friend Nathen is paying to Alex. A lonely 10 year-old boy next door plays a role in both Alex's and James's lives as well.

A strange story that can't seem to decide what it wants to be about. Alex's coming-out story is the clearest plot line and would seem to be the focus of the novel, but half of the book is really about James and James's storyline never really seems to go anywhere. The subplot about the boy next door also seems to lead nowhere. None of this is helped by the lack of real character development. As much as we would expect the suicidal and sexual-orientation-questioning Alex to make an interesting character, he stays pretty flat. For me, neither Alex nor James really came alive off the page.

Gossip of the Starlings, by Nina de Gramont

In 1984, Catherine is being given a chance to redeem herself after being removed from her last school for sleeping with her boyfriend. She misses her old friend Susannah, but is quickly befriended at her new school by Skye Butterfield (the daughter of one of the state's senators). Skye is hardly a good influence and quickly leads Catherine into bad old habits that threaten to destroy all of them. In sum, a complicated story about adolescent jealousies told in a past passive voice that implies recollection from a wiser older self.

Overall, this is a terribly dull and boring story. The narrator's passive voice does nothing to help. Billed as YA, the novel is really a wistful adult novel about teens (it's no coincidence that Jacquelyn Mitchard's gushing praise appears on the cover -- only she could write a novel that was similarly dull and age-inappropriate as this!). The characters spend their time waxing poetic with a wisdom entirely inappropriate for their age (and lack to ego-centricity that authentic 17 year-olds would express). And where did all the cocaine come from? I myself went to a private school in New England in 1985 and, while we had plenty of pot and acid, none of us could afford the plethora of blow that these young women plow through! Just give this story a miss! There are plenty of nostalgic stories about teens written by grownups -- most of them are more interesting than this one.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Getting the Girl, By Susan Juby

Girls at Harewood High School are getting blacklisted (or "defiled") through an anonymous accuser. The results are devastating -- complete social ostracism. However, Mack Daddy (a.k.a. shy 9th grader Sherman Mack) is on the case! He doesn't know much about girls (and even less about the specifics of the case!) but he bravely plows ahead, even if it means getting caught in a closet wearing a dress that belongs to the mother of one of the lacrosse players! Before the story is done, he will have exposed the mysterious "defiler" and managed to prepare a dinner party for twelve.

A bit more hectic than Juby's previous books but still displaying that same dark wit. The narrator's still slightly more clueless than your average reader (not so much that you can hate him, but enough for a good laugh). As with the Alice books, this can be hard to digest (either you like or you don't) but unlike those books, the humor is less mean and anyone can root for our hero's attempt to right the social wrongs of casting out people who are different.

Fearless, by Tim Lott

In the future, the Ten Corporations run the world and the City is controlled by the City Boss. Children who do not comply with the rules (or who have the misfortune of being associated with parents who do not) are sent to the City Community Faith School -- really, a prison -- where they are stripped of their names and identities and forced to work. One day, one of the girls raises up her voice and challenges the status quo. Nicknamed "Little Fearless," she hatches a plan to free the girls and wake up the compliant cityzens of the City.

A clever and rich allegory, although largely derivative of most other dystopian novels, Lott spins an intersting story. Character development is sparse but in a world of such dehumanization, it is hard to flesh out characters. Instead, we get a fast-paced adventure story. The ending is all a bit too convenient for me, but suffered mostly from being so rushed (it was certainly plausible). The story overall will give you plenty to think about and makes a nice discussion piece (for people who like to analyze literature!).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Zoe & Chloe on the Prowl, by Sue Limb

Zoe and Chloe are desperately looking for boys to take them to the Earthquake Ball next weekend and they get the bright idea of interviewing candidates for the role by inventing a fake job vacancy to use as a cover. Around the same time, Zoe's older sister has a crisis and needs the girls' help. There's also the amazingly naughty Norman boys to babysit, a suspicious mother to placate, Zoe's attempts to charm Oliver, and all manner of zany adventures to keep this story moving.

It's really hard to say what drove me to finish this book. I picked it up in hope that Limb would find new energy with some new characters (since her Jess Jordan series has been losing steam and energy), but these two girls are no mindlessly lame that it was some sort of torture to finish the book. I realize that this isn't a book intended for blokes (to coin the Brit flavor of the writing), but I can't see much here for girls either. Most of the book is spend gushing and fretting and not much of substance goes on (just because it's a children's book doesn't mean it needs to be completely vapid, does it?). By the time we get to flatulence jokes on page 78, I would think that most folks would be ready to turn this one in. Unfortunately, Limb appears to be a one-hit wonder with Girl, 15 Charming But Insane (a brilliant story she just has never managed to match for creativity and fun).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Switched, by Jessica Wollman

Laura would love to be doing anything this year besides cleaning the houses of rich people, but there is no other way she can come up with to earn the money she needs to attend UCONN next year. Willa is floundering at home, sentenced to attend yet another boarding school, where she will undoubtedly fail yet again and let her parents down. In short, two very unhappy girls. But through some strange stroke of fate, the girls are dead ringers for each other and they hatch a plot to switch places -- Laura will become Willa and vice versa -- and both of them will get to live the life they have dreamed of.

Yes, it's Prince and the Pauper modernized and set in the word of texting and MySpace. Who says the classics have to be boring? The story stretches believability in more ways than one and has enough skips in logic to make your head spin, but I have to give it some credit -- I kept reading and I even enjoyed myself. Brainless escapism, but then it's almost Summer isn't it?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Artichoke's Heart, by Suzanne Supplee

Continuing on the same was the plane ride devoted to eating disorders!

Rosie (nicknamed "Artichoke" so many years ago) struggles with food. Unable to moderate her consumption, she binges as a means of soothing her heartaches. But when she cracks through 200 lbs, she commits herself to losing weight. Meanwhile, she also struggles with a variety of outside stressors: a mother sick with cancer, a new friend who has been cast out of the popular girl clique, and a gorgeous boy-crush who (for some reason she cannot fathom) actually likes her in return. All of this is set in the environs of a Spring Hill TN beauty salon (cue lots of Southern cliche).

Overall, this is a nice story about finding self-esteem and gaining the strength to take charge of one's life. The added element about coming to terms with a sick parent will probably make this a popular pick for mother-daughter book clubs. However, I couldn't quite get beyond the chaotic number of subplots. The overall impact was that I began to block out large amounts of the story just to stay focused on the main narrative. The rest just got distracting. Subplots are beautiful things but focus is best!

Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson

When Lia's best friend Cassie dies, Lia knows it is her fault. Never mind that Cassie has been purging for years and destroying herself through bulimia and alcohol. Lia knows that Cassie tried to call her a couple of dozen times before she died and Lia never called her back because she was afraid to help her old friend. Not that Lia can tell anyone about this, because if she did, they would throw her back in the nuthouse again. Just as they would if they knew that she was losing weight again. Instead, she has to lie her way, denying to everyone - including herself - that she has a problem (beyond being massively overweight and trying to get herself down to 75lbs or less!).

A truly harrowing trip through the mind of an anorexic. Anderson, of course, is of the great shining stars of YA lit and this book certainly does not disappoint. This is a hard topic to read about and (for me) harder to relate to than her other books (I'll be honest and say that I just don't anorexia -- it combines self-denial with a lethal dose of dishonesty and self-indulgence that repels me on several levels -- but perhaps it is a Good Thing that I can't quite comprehend the motives). Wintergirls lacks the humor and emotional release that helped lighten Speak but I think it is fair to say that humor would have been out of place in a story like this. What Wintergirls offers instead is an unrelenting tour of self-destructive madness. This is scary stuff but worth reading!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Goldengrove, by Francine Prose

After her sister drowns, Nico and her family must come to grips with their loss and grief. Nico's father buries himself in a book he is writing ("Eschatology for Dummies"), her Mom starts abusing painkillers, and Nico herself gets drawn into a relationship with her dead sister's boyfriend. The relationship, which begins as simply a means to vent their grief, spirals out of control as Nico finds herself unable to accept that her sister is truly gone.

I seem to have picked up a lot of books about death and grieving lately. This one, not truly a YA book, is well-enough written but suffers from the same general problems as the others: what can you actually say about this subject? Someone died, you spend a lot of time ruminating about them, and then you either move or or you don't. Prose (great name for a writer, don't you think?) has little to add to this formula and even less about going through it as a teen. Her 13 year-old narrator tells the story through the benefit of adult flashback, so comes across as terribly precocious.

Angel, by Cliff McNish

When Freya was little, she was visited by an angel. The experience led her to become obsessed with angels until that obsession drove her into madness. Now that she is 14, she's better and returned to a normal life, just trying to fit in at school. But the arrival of a strange girl named Stephanie, her brother's struggles with a bully, her father's battle against illness, and the appearance of a dark apparition all threaten the sanity she has struggled so hard to achieve.

A complex and interesting story that spends about as much time exploring high school cliques as it does the meaning of good and evil (in a way that will appeal to teen readers well!). If you're not into angels (and I'm not), there is still a decent adventure story here. But if angels are your thing, you'll like this even more.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Forever Changes, by Brendan Halpin

Brianna is struggling to survive Cystic Fibrosis and her senior year of high school. She dreams of getting into MIT, but being able to live long enough to matriculate will be a more important accomplishment. Her Calculus teacher serves as an inspiration to keep her going and also to appreciate her role in the universe. The music of (the band) Love keeps her going.

While showing a lot of promise, this is a very rough book. The ending is great, but largely comes out of nowhere. Much of the rest of the book is like that as well: pieces of genius observation scattered amidst a rough outline. In sum, Halperin has fantastic ideas but no real story. The story has promise, but disappoints.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Down to the Bone, by Mayra Lazara Dole

Laury is a typical Cuban-American girl living in Miami with a secret (she is in love with another girl) and when a nun intercepts a love letter between the two girls, Laury is kicked out of school and out of her home by a mother who won't let her back until she changes into a heterosexual. So Laury has to go out and fend on her own, which she actually does quite well at: finding a job, making friends, and discovering her identity. She still struggles with whether she should date boys in order to win back her mother or be true to her heart and see girls. In between, Dole gives us a lot of local color and custom, and insight into the gay Cuban-American scene.

Fast paced and heavily laced with jargon and cultural details, Dole obviously knows the milieu and appreciates the culture, mores, cuisine, and patois of Miami. Readers who want the multicultural experience will appreciate the chance to read about a sympathetic character who is Cuban-American and unashamedly gay at the same time. Moving beyond that, however, this is a very thin book. Dole is great with dialogue and so relies on endless conversations about nothing (basically, just her characters "chilling" or "kicking"). Important plot developments get stated quickly and we return to the chatter. The result is frustrating. The characters obviously had a lot going on inside, but we don't get to learn much about that as neither they (nor the author) want to share.