Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Karma for Beginners, by Jessica Blank

Tessa has spent most of her 14 years being dragged around the country by her Mom, as Mom has searched to find her "soul mate." Now they have ended up in Upstate New York at an ashram where Mom buries herself in worship and Tessa feels bored and forgotten. Enter a handsome 20-year-old mechanic and, before you can say "statutory rape," there's romance brewing. But karma has a way of coming around and getting you. Music from the 70s and 80s features in prominently.

I have reservations about historical novels, especially ones placed in the 80s (as we well know, the 80s rocked seriously, but how lazy is it to be a 30-something writer and placing your YA story in the era we grew up in?) and I'm a bit tired of the child-abandonment theme in YA (lousy parenting is hardly inspiring), so this number has a couple of things going against it. I'll also nail this story for all of the attention it lavishes on (old) music (how excited can anyone -- except for the DJ on my favorite radio station -- get over Neil Young?) and drugs (tripping on LSD is really only interesting if you're the one doing it or so I'm told). So let's switch to what is good.

There's some nice character development in both mother and daughter and the parallel growth (or regression) of both characters is interesting. Their dynamic, while volatile, is more interesting to watch than most YA mother-daughter slug fests. There were plenty of characters I wanted to get to know better, which is frustrating but also the sign of a strong writer.

In the end, I'm not so sure that the story took me anywhere new and I found it dull.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Escape Under the Forever Sky, by Eve Yohalem

Lucy Hoffman lives a life to which very few of us could relate. As the daughter of the US ambassador to Ethiopia, she lives in relative luxury, but is trapped within the walls of the American compound. Let out only occasionally (for school and a tour of the safari), she longs for some freedom and a little adventure. But when she is kidnapped, she gets more of that adventure than she bargained for. Escaping is only her first challenge, as she must now survive somehow in the harsh wilds of Ethiopia.

This is one of those marvelous middle readers that combines some decent adventure and suspense with lots of local color and charm (creating both entertainment and education). To an adult reader, it is fairly obvious that Yohalem is dumping large dollops of personal experience and favorite tales (often haphazardly) into the story, but the narrative moves so quickly that it never bogs the story down. If anything, the story seems a bit intense for the lower end of the 8-12 age range it is being pitched at, but age-appropriateness is not really something I follow too much about. Children will enjoy this book for the suspense and excellent story-telling. I enjoyed it for being both entertaining and enlightening.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hate List, by Jennifer Brown

On May 2, 2008, Valerie's boyfriend Nick gunned down a series of their classmates and teachers in the school cafeteria before shooting Val and himself. Val survived the gunshot, but not the notoriety. In the months that followed, she went from suspect to victim to outcast, and no one (not her parents, her former friends, or even herself) could manage to forgive or even understand what had happened. In painful detail, Brown traces Valerie's path to recovery and her attempt to repair her life.

An extremely dark and depressing story, Brown sets up a formidable obstacle in the shape of a grieving teen and a community that is hell bent on seeing her suffer. And it is all dragged out for quite some bit (over 400 pages) as one horrific thing happens to Val after another. Consider yourself duly warned.

This is good stuff and the story is important. The closing messages about the meaning of hate are inspirational and redeem the suffering in the story, but it is a very long path. I'd argue that the story needed some editing and shortening, that the points were made too often, and that certain digressions (like a wonderful art teacher character who never quite forms into a meaningful addition to the story) could have been left out. Brown also got bored with her characters at times and rushed the story forward (the important ending is itself terribly rushed) leading to an uneven narrative.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Girlfriend Material, by Melissa Kantor

A bit late in the season, but what screams Summer read louder than a teen romance on the beach? In this case, it's Cape Cod and Kate and her mother have fled here from Utah while her Mom sorts out things with Dad. At first, Kate absolutely doesn't want to be here (having been dragged away from her tennis, a writing class, Dad, and her friend). Things don't start off well as their hosts' daughter snubs Kate pretty strongly and Kate is left to spend the days by herself. Gradually, she makes some friends and things improve. The love interest (Adam) helps her mood much more and a youngster taking tennis lessons from her adds some wisdom from the mouth of a babe. As one would expect, it all wraps up nicely in the end with a few minor surprises.

The formulaic nature of the book is, of course, part of its charm. You don't pick up a book like this expecting to be surprised. Not that there aren't a few of those: Kate's got a nice literary thing going (strangely enough, with Hemingway -- not usually the focus of teen girls) and the tennis student is a surprisingly strong character. Still, this is a book that needed heavier editing: the mother-daughter interaction barely reaches out of stereotypes, the subplot about the parental marital difficulties is weak, Kate's relationships with just about everyone (sister, best friend, new friends, and even boyfriend) are sketchy and undeveloped. The other characters (and the plot itself) works best as an instrument to allow Kate to narrate to us. And she's a fantastically dry and cynical narrator. I laughed several times. For a bit of warm Summery feeling, this book is the right sort of material.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pure, by Terra Elan McVoy

It was so easy for Tabitha to decide to wear a purity ring and make a pledge to keep her body chaste until marriage. The preacher who led the rally was persuasive and her friends were all doing it. But in retrospect, Tabitha isn't so sure now what it was supposed to mean. She has no intention of breaking her vow, but when she finds out that one of her friends did and that now her other friends have shunned the vow-breaker, Tabitha begins to question what the right thing to do. The answer isn't easy to figure out because Tabitha wants to be both moral and loyal, kind and forgiving, but true to her values.

A few reviews back, I said I was laying down a gauntlet for a YA writer to address conscience and religious faith in a mature and respectful fashion. Had I realized that the challenge would be answered so quickly (and in fact was already sitting in my to-read pile), I would have just hurried off to read this book! McVoy really hits the subject soundly and firmly. Tabitha (by her own admission) is no Bible-thumper but she struggles with what her faith tells her. A significant part of this story is devoted to her search for the Truth, which she gets help on from her pastor, her parents, her friends, and some independent research. None of this is ever mocked (or glorified). Instead, it is a fact of her life -- an integral part of her character. And, if organized religion makes you uncomfortable, you needn't be bothered too much by this element of the story because it is hardly shoved down your throat.

Now, that element of the story itself was wonderful, but there is so much more going on here. The entire culture of the promise rings was new territory for me, so I found it fascinating. There's some great dynamics between Tabitha and her friends and you really feel for these young women as each of them struggle with their consciences and with their conflicts. As a guy, I'll admit that the digressions about shopping and make-up made my eyes glaze over, but even these have a distinct point in the story (and I loved the fact that Tabitha's Dad actually has a talent for picking out clothes -- how often do you see a non-clueless father in YA?).

There are a lot of other elements to this story and I imagine that this would make an excellent book for discussion. That in itself should be considered a mark of approval.

The gratuitous mention of Quakers on page 242 does no harm either.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

September Sisters, by Jillian Cantor

As this story opens, Abby's father is about to tell her the fate of her younger sister who disappeared two years ago. But before we can find out, the story jumps back to the moment of her sister's disappearance and walks us through what has happened in the interim. As a result, we have the knowledge that there will be resolution of this story to come (but we simply do not know what it is). The result is a heavy gloom over this story of loss, grieving, and a family coming apart.

The way the story unfolds will not surprise anyone. Abby's mother falls into madness, her father grows protective and clingy, her friends drift away, and Abby herself fights loneliness and abandonment. A lone bright spot is the boy who moves in next door and provides a brief romantic spark.

The book is well-written, but hardly original. To its credit, the book doesn't drag nearly as much as it probably should (having stretched this story out over 350 pages), but it just doesn't have much to say. What was the point of the story? Did we learn anything new about grief? Or about the process of healing? Were we entertained? The truth is that this story has been told before. Telling it again, without anything new to add seems like an empty exercise.

Sister Wife, by Shelley Hrdlitschka

Following the long tradition of books written about teenage girls growing up in polygamist religious sects, this is a story of three young women who struggled with their faith and (moreover) with the restrictions with which they live. There are the usual stereotypes -- the greedy and corrupt leader, the angry father, the weak mother, and (of course) the doubting (and unbelievably worldly) young women. Two twists make this novel a little different: it is told by three different narrators (the doubting Celeste who wants to marry a boy her own age, her younger sister and fervent believer Nanette, and the worldly outsider Tavianna); and there is a subplot about a pagan worshipper who erects stone statues and imparts the (author's obviously) preferred spiritual alternative.

To set the record straight, I would certainly have a bone to pick with a polygamist faith, but these types of books are so intolerant of organized religion altogether that they are hard to read. No attempt is ever made to understand the faith (Nanette's beliefs are largely ridiculed as naivete). Instead, we just get an endless history of injustices and hypocrisy which are portrayed as the pillars of the faith. As this religion is described, it is nearly impossible to imagine why anyone would follow these beliefs. A straw man villain is a terrible cop out.

I will lay down a literary gauntlet: I want to see a YA novel that takes a perfectly reasonable faith and portrays why people like it, avoids any opium-of-the-masses or aren't-these-folks-so-dumb-and-gullible plot lines, and shows a young person struggling with that faith for real. We're talking nice subtle crisis of faith stuff. I'd bet big money that young people (and adults) would really relate to a story like that. The closest I've seen so far is the novel Converting Kate, which easily left this exploitative book in the dust!

The Girl Who Could Fly, by Victoria Forester

In Lowland County, things are done pretty much as they always have been done. So, when Piper McCloud starts floating around and then starts to actually fly, the McClouds are fit to be tied. They do their best to keep things a secret, but when all is revealed, the government shows up and everyone agrees that it is best if Piper goes off to a special institute for special children. This institute, while first seeming like a paradise to Piper, reveals its true colors as a prison where each child's special talents is driven out of them. Once they realize what is going on, she and the other children become determined to find a way to preserve their talents and escape.

While vaguely reminescent of the X-Men franchise (or the first movie at the least), this is a gentler story - geared more to middle readers. It's a pleasant read but rather derivative -- a secret base in the arctic, an evil matron, a child named Boris Yeltsinov (!), the silly simple-minded country bumpkins, and so on. Some of this is for satirical purposes, but it also seems lazy. The characters are flat, the story formulaic, and the most interesting subplots (the mysterious J, for example) are left unfinished. It's a fair enough read, but nothing spectacular.

I also share the opinion of a blog I read (and I apologize that I don't remeber which one) that complained about the portrayal of Piper's parents and the people of Lowland County. It is a tiring (and offensive) act to depict rural people as simple-minded and prejudiced. Rather it says an awful lot about the prejudices and narrow-mindedness of the writer. Satire has its place, but this is just mean.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Say the Word, by Jeannine Garsee

Shawna was abandoned by her mother at the age of 7, when Mom ran off with her lesbian lover. Eleven years later, when Mom is dying, Shawna gets an opportunity to see her before she dies and begins to discover what happened to her mother after she left them. But this attempt at reconciliation is quickly overshadowed by her father's moves to seek revenge for the abandonment. As Dad's actions threaten the safety and sanity of everyone around them, Shawna slowly begins to realize the things that have been happening around her are not right, and that she must take a stand.

The fact that the book is inevitably hurtling towards a happy(-ish) conclusion is about the only thing that kept me going through this masochistic love fest. The father is a horrible person and the daughter is not much better. Page after page of selfishness and meanness is barely mitigated by Shawna's incessant crying and self-pity (woe is me! woe is me! My Mom was a terrible dyke and hated me!). Give me a break! By 150 pages in, I was developing a true hatred for Shawna. What kept me going to the end was a need to see her (1) grow up; (2) lose her homophobia; (3) get a clue; and (4) become a decent person. I'll ruin the ending slightly by saying that she sort of does these things...but really, there's making your heroine a bit flawed to make her interesting and there's creating a mean nasty witch who almost deserves her nasty abusive father. (Wow! I obviously have issues, here, don't I?)

That said, I read the entire book, so I obviously didn't hate the story (I just hated the characters). I'm not sure I learned much from reading it, but it certainly sucked me in. The author apparently intends the focus to be on how Shawna struggles between trying to be pleasing and containing her anger (and I certainly got that Shawna has anger management issues), but I think the story had a lot more to say about how people who refuse to listen to each other create their own misery. If the reader can pick up that message, they'll have gotten something useful from it. What you will have to put up with is an anwful lot of yelling, a bunch of angry people, and some real nastiness.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Return to Sender, by Julia Alvarez

When Tyler's father is injured, his parents start talking about selling the farm, which worries Tyler because he has had too much loss lately (his grandfather has recently passed away and his older brother is leaving for college). Instead, his parents hire three Mexican men to help. The men turn out to be a godsend ("angels" as Tyler's Mom refers to them) but bring along with them three young girls (the eldest of which, Mari, is 11 years old, the same age as Tyler). At first, Tyler doesn't want to have anything to do with them and when he finds out that the men are illegal aliens, Tyler grows upset that his parents are breaking the law. But as time passes, Tyler gets to know them better and develops a close friendship with Mari.

Alvarez's political agenda hangs heavy over this book. The book's title itself is an allusion to a US campaign to crack down on illegals during the mid-2000s and the entire structure of the book is engineered to criticize that policy. Whatever your feelings may be on the subject of immigration, the doctrinaire nature of the storytelling was very distracting to me. Truth be told, I rarely have much patience for books with an axe to grind. It seems to me that there are really only two possibilities -- you are either preaching to the choir or you are offending someone (who probably won't finish the book anyway!). Either way, it is condescending to the reader, especially in a story geared towards younger teens as this one is. Save the politics for older readers who can engage the issues intelligently!

Putting that complaint aside, the story itself holds up reasonably well. The side characters are a bit weak (many of them are there to serve political aims) but Tyler and Mari are nicely developed. I especially liked that their friendship remain platonic and the author didn't feel the need to create a romantic spark. The bilingual narrative is unobtrusive and adds nice color to the story. The plot itself moves along at a brisk pace and is quite entertaining.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Dussie, by Nancy Springer

When Dussie Gorgon hits puberty, she discovers a nasty surprise. No, it's not what you think! She wakes up to find that her head has sprouted a set of serpents! Not quite expecting this turn of events, she turns to her mother for a heart-to-heart talk and discovers that she is,, in fact, a gorgon (and named after her late aunt, Medusa). After she mistakenly turns her crush Troy (!) into stone, it's time to call together the sisterhood (Sphinx, Aunt Stheno, and the Lamia sisters). After all, they may all live in New York now (where anything can happen), but turning your classmates into statues and having the worst hair in your class could really ruin your school career.

A clever and engaging book. The whole turning-into-a-monster thing is actually a clever way to adress girls' anxieties about puberty, and there is a nice mixture of serious chat about changing bodies with the humor. I imagine that this would make an excellent choice for a mother-daughter book club. For the rest of us, the book is still a real fun read. The characters are nice, the snakes are funny, and it all wraps satisfactorily (while avoiding cheap feel good stuff at the end). A nice read.

Take Me There, by Susane Colasanti

Three students at Eames, a magnet school in NYC, give their personal perspectives on the events of a week. There's Rhiannon, who has just been dumped by her boyfriend Steve and desperately wants him back. And her friend Nicole who is seriously infatuated with her math teacher (but harbors some dark secrets that could complicate things). And finally James, who wishes that Rhiannon would notice him and forget about Steve. Told in half weeks by each teen in turn, this story revolves around the idea that the events are not really clear until all three voices are heard. As a result, the reader stays just enough in the dark throughout to not get too far ahead of the characters.

It's a clever idea (and actually better implemented than your typical shifting-narrator story), but I found it uneven. For the idea to work properly, the story really has to be the same but simply fleshed out differently by each character. But in this case, Colosanti achieves suspense simply by omitting key details in each account. As a result, you really wouldn't be able to clue out what is going on because you are missing information all the way up to the end. The result is confusion and a lot of work for the reader. Add some pretty inane slang and characters who never come alive, and I found this a hard book with which to engage.

A Map of the Known World, by Lisa Ann Sandell

After Cora's brother is killed in a car accident, Cora finds her relationships with others changing (her dad has withdrawn, her Mom has grown clingy, and her best friend seems so shallow now). When Cora discovers her brother's secret art studio, she becomes obsessed with bringing his artwork to the public eye. Her own artistic talents bring her attention from the art teacher who suggests that she apply for an art scholarship in London (much to her mother's horror). Trying to piece all of this together, she creates a map of her known world to describe the new complexities of her life.

This is well-written, but the storyline is so well-worn (dead brother? please!) with all the usual tropes (unfair parents, sneaking around, etc.) that the ending should surprise no one. If you haven't read a YA-death book yet, this is a nice one to start with. If you've already had your fill, this one doesn't really cover new ground.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A Certain Strain of Peculiar, by Gigi Amateau

After several years of abuse from her peers, Mary becomes convinced that the only way she is ever going to cope is to be allowed to move back to her Mom's hometown in Wren AL to live with her grandmother. Her Mom isn't too keen on the idea, so 13 year-old Mary steals her Mom's car and drives there herself (from Virginia!). Once in Wren, though, Mary discovers that her troubles have a tendency to follow her as she struggles with bullying and her inability to fit in. She is drawn to the two children of her Mom's old flame - Dixie and Delta - both of whom have what grandma calls their "certain strain of peculiar."

Complex and fulfilling story that pulls off some of the nice atmospheric magic that Amateau created in Claiming Georgia Tate. This book has a wide variety of amusing subplots that create that colorful cultural homage to the Deep South that is almost a requirement in literature (wise old women, respectful gentlemen, mischievous kids) since Mark Twain. Thankfully, we avoid the more obvious stereotypes in this case. I personally didn't find this particular effort all that exciting, but there is a chance that it may speak to you more than it did to me.