Friday, December 31, 2010

You Wish, by Mandy Hubbard

For her 16th birthday, Kayla's mother insists on throwing a huge sweet sixteen bash, complete with a DJ and a huge pink cake. Kayla, however, isn't that kind of girl. She's embarrassed by the whole event and would rather hide within herself. When forced to make a wish in front of party guests whom she doesn't even know, she vows that she'd like to finally have her prior birthday wishes come true, since they never seem to do so.

The next morning, a life-sized bright pink My Little Pony shows up at her home, followed in the days that follow by endless gumballs, (Raggedy) Ann brought to life, and even a very plastic self-absorbed hunk named Ken in a convertible. Yes, her birthday wishes from all of the years past appear to actually be coming true! It's a bit awkward, but the worst is yet to come. Last year, Kayla wished that Ben would kiss her, but Ben is her BFF's boyfriend now!

From that synopsis, you get an impression that this is a fairly silly vapid book, and when I started to read it, I honestly didn't hold out a lot of hope for it. I figured it would be cute fluff. While you could read it that way, I found that as I did so that the story was actually much more nuanced. Somewhere amidst all of these childhood wishes coming true, Hubbard has some amazing things to say about growing up. These wishes, she argues, are not simply isolated and forgotten parts of our past to be ashamed of, but a piece of what we are today. They say a lot about who we become and as Kayla comes to appreciate and embrace her past, she is able to be at peace with her present. And so, while being reminded that we once wished for a real live pink pony of our own might seem embarrassingly infantile, it can't really be separated from the more serious grown up (or teen, for that matter) that we become.

It was this observation (and many other similar ones made alongside it) that showed me that this extremely funny book had a serious core to it. While tongue is firmly in cheek, Hubbard uses a wonderful choice of shared cultural icons (from Ken dolls to the joy of snow) that most any reader can relate to and through them understand her much deeper message. One of the more surprising books I've read this year and a wonderful way to wrap up the year.

The Daughters, by Joanna Philbin

In my mind, Meg Cabot always does it best, but don't fault a new author (particular the daughter of Regis Philbin) from trying to cash in on a hot formula: imagining the rich and fabulous as being girls just like you, with all the aches and boy troubles of the average teen, but without any of those pesky economic limitations that mere mortals such as you and I have to face. Yes, they too could be your best friend, and maybe even loan you their clothes (!) while you trade confidences.

Lizzie is the daughter of a supermodel; Carina the daughter of a multi-billionaire philanthropist; and Hudson the daughter of a pop diva. They bond together as co-sufferers of ambitious parents who never listen to them. This first book in a series focuses on Lizzie (future installments will highlight different girls) and her discovery that while she is very different from her mother, she has an inner beauty that makes her a natural for modeling nonetheless. A pesky on-again/off-again maybe-romance with childhood sweetheart Todd distracts us, but the main focus of this story is about how one can follow in the footsteps of one's mother while simultaneously applying your own twist.

Admittedly, it is all a bit catchy and seductive to read, but this is outright escapism with a high fluff factor and shamelessly marketed to the Teen Vogue set (who will eat it up).

Saturday, December 25, 2010

No and Me, by Delphine de Vigan

Lou is a painfully shy, but intellectually precocious girl. Having skipped two grades, she's considerably younger than her classmates, but bright and articulate when she wants to be. She longs after the popular Lucas, but as she can't even bring herself to talk to the girls in her class, the idea of approaching him is unfathomable. Back home, things are bad. Her mother is completely withdrawn and her father is in denial over the death of Lou's younger sister. Lou may be very smart, but she struggles to get by.

But then, Lou meets No, a girl on the streets with even greater problems than Lou could ever imagine. Initially, Lou takes an interest in No for a school paper on homeless women, but after the project is completed, Lou can't break free of her attachment to No. Instead, her life gets more intertwined with No's. Strangely, this is initially a very good thing as it brings Lou closer to Lucas and helps Lou's family to repair itself. But, it is also inevitable that things will end up badly and Lou will learn some powerful lessons about the forces that drive a person out on to the streets.

It all starts off a bit slowly, but the story picks up some strength as both Lou and No develop into complex and interesting heroines. No easy answers here about homelessness, but plenty of thought-provoking ideas to explore. The story is a bit gritty and parents might cringe at the amount of child endangerment going on here, but it plays out quite realistically and I found it entirely believable. I'm less fond of Vigan's writing story (all very passive, with little important dialogue to speak of), but the story itself was fantastic.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How It Ends, by Laura Wiess

A book this complicated is tricky to summarize, but in an odd way, the book's cover (with its simple image of a dead leaf) somehow manages to symbolize this story's tale of death (with a promise of rebirth) quite well. There are at least three stories here.

First, there is the story of an elderly childless couple (Helen and Lon) and Helen's close relationship with Hanna - the daughter of the next door neighbors. There is the poignant sense of loss as Helen watches Hanna grow up and away from their friendship and wander off more often with her friends rather than spend time with "Gran." It's a beautiful tale and would have stood up on its own as a short story (sort of a geriatric Toy Story 3).

Then there is the story of Hanna's infatuation with Seth, a guy at school. It's the sort of bad news lust that is so strong that it causes her to ignore all the warning signs that Seth is not good for her. Meanwhile, in the background, there are plenty of friends (and even a good guy) lurking in the background waiting for her to come to her senses. Even Gran might have a word or two of advice. It's a bit of a tired story, but would have made a cute one if the elder woman had been there playing Dear Abby.

Those two stories would have made a nice, but fairly inconsequential YA novel -- pleasant, but largely forgettable. Wiess however has far greater intentions when she introduces a third story: a far nastier tragedy about an orphan girl and her immigrant Dutch lover. And this storyline, while it weaves very far off from the other two, probably has far more important things to say. For High Schoolers, there's plenty of eye-opening gender history here: about the abuse of gynecology and female patients, about animal and human cruelty, and about the bad old days when sexism was more overt. With a strong debt to Susan Griffin and Andrea Dworkin (although neither is directly credited, so maybe it is unintentional), Wiess brings up a litany of prior abuses that will shock the uninitiated. And if it causes a few teens to crack open some women's studies classics, so much the better.

This last thread is naturally the most potent part of the whole, but it seemed very poorly stitched to the rest. Yes, there's some attempt to explain that Helen feels guilty about her past and there's a bit more of an attempt to use this lesson in feminist history to inspire some gender consciousness raising in Hanna (don't let that bad guy treat you in the same shitty way that men have treated women for centuries!), but it doesn't really work for me. Seth is just a pimply adolescent asshole, not a misogynistic gynecologist or a sadistic Nazi. So, the story threads hang very loosely together and maybe not at all. This is frustrating as there are really two or three decent books here. The problem comes when Wiess tries to bring them altogether as one.

The Blind Faith Hotel, by Pamela Todd

When Zoe's mother and father separate, her Mom decides to pull up stakes and leave WA and relocate Zoe, her sister Nelia, and little brother Oliver to Minnesota. It isn't all about trying to get away from Dad. Mom has plans to try to resurrect her parents' house and turn it into a B & B.

Zoe resents having to leave Dad and also Mom's apparent lack of interest in her and her problems. Issues with fitting in in her new environment eventually end up with Zoe getting caught shoplifting. As restitution, Zoe has to work on a prairie restoration project, where she is able to develop a sense of self and gain some perspective.

Todd makes some nice insights about growing up, but the novel is something of a narrative mess. A wide variety of themes are picked up and dropped. Whether it's the B & B project, a boy interest, the passing fascination with a breeding pair of hawks, or even the Dad, I had a hard time figuring out what the point of any of this was. I have no problem with leaving a few loose ends with a story, but when hardly any part of the story reaches a conclusion, one really wonders what the purpose was of the writing. I probably missed the point of the whole exercise, but I don't feel compelled to give it another try.

The Saver, by Edeet Ravel

When 17 year-old Fern is left an orphan after her mother dies, Fern makes the decision to lie about her age and just take care of herself. Through amazing hard work, she manages to get by. But Fern has another thing going for her, she's a saver (amazingly frugal and resourceful). So, she manages to find jobs that take care of her needs (by providing free housing and food) and cheap alternatives for everything she can't pick up for free. All along, she maintains her sanity by writing letters to an imaginary alien friend.

I'm not a big fan of child abandonment stories, but this one turns out pretty well, mostly because Fern is so self-reliant. Still, by the end of the story, I wasn't really sure what the point was. You get the feeling that everything will turn out OK in the end, but what was really the point of the journey? There's some character growth, but no climax and no major epiphanies. She struggles, some things work out, and there's more to come. Her relationship with her imaginary friend is never explored and other important threads are left unresolved.

Dark Song, by Gail Giles

When Ames's father loses his job and the family loses their home, they pull up stakes and relocate from Colorado to Texas. It's a hard transition from living a well-off and privileged life to falling into poverty. Things are not helped by the tensions between her parents. Lost, angry, and confused, Ames finds solace in her new home from a boy named Marc who comes to help her Dad fix up their new house. Marc, however, is not a safe choice for a friend. He has a violent streak and an unhealthy obsession with firearms. Ames, though, needs his companionship and forces herself to overlook the danger signs. It is bound to end badly.

Taut and gripping, this story moves along at a furious pace, that is scary but still quite believable. Readers will like to imagine that they would never be so foolish as to fall into this trap, but Ames is no dummy. She realizes her dilemma quite early on yet still gets ensnared. That will disturb (and maybe even anger) some viewers, but I found it compelling. This is a familial train wreck in high gear here and you'll want to see how it turns out. Overall, a very creepy book, but one that is hard to put down.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Plastic, by Sarah N. Harvey

Jack has a fairly major obsession with breasts, but when he learns that his friend Leah is planning to get a boob job for her sixteenth birthday, he is shocked. When trying to talk her out of it doesn't work, he starts an anti-teen plastic surgery website and then his own protest movement. Not only does this not change Leah's mind, but it totally turns her against him. Jack persists, though, and his movement continues to grow until it starts to turn nasty.

More of a novella than a full-blown book, this thin large-type book covers a pretty unusual topic. For being such a short book, it does a remarkably decent job, but so many parts of it get short-changed. Jack is engaging but the other characters are mostly underdeveloped. Fairly or not, the brief nature of the story makes it look like a rush job. There is definitely potential to do more with this.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Star in the Forest, by Laura Resau

When Zitlally's father gets deported back to Mexico, she finds comfort in taking care of an abandoned dog in a junkyard. And while her friends don't understand why Zitlally has become so withdrawn and morose, she makes a new friend with Crystal, the unpopular girl next door. The two girls take care of the stray and name him Star, teaching him tricks in hopes of impressing Zitlally's father if he ever makes it back.

Written more for middle readers than Resau's previous books, this one takes on similar themes (indigenous Central American cultures, immigration, maintaining identity in North America) that Resau has explored in those other books. It's a gentle story and probably sufficiently enjoyable for its targeted age group. But I thought it really didn't break any new ground. Resau's a lovely writer with some wonderful observations about indigenous American culture, but she needs to move on to new stuff.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Willowood, by Cecilia Galante

Lily and Bailey were best friends before Lily and her Mom moved away. Lily is having trouble making new friends and misses the secret hiding place that she used to share with Bailey (a grove they called Willowood). Things get worse when Bailey starts drifting away and no longer seems to share the same interests. But when Lily's babysitter takes her to meet a local pet shop owner and his son Nate (who suffers from Downs Syndrome), Lily's visions of friendship expand and she learns to see beyond herself. Themes of parental abandonment and school bullying also play a part in this story of personal growth.

This is a busy little book with quickly paced action that sometimes runs a bit ahead of the reader. Galante has an annoying habit of discussing new characters or plot developments and then backing up to explain them, leaving me wondering if I had missed something (sometimes I had, and had to re-read a section to understand the action). So, in my mind this is a bit hard to read. But also, there is an awful lot going. To bring some sort of conclusion to all of these threads, many of the plot lines get tied up too neatly, but I'll forgive that in a middle reader. I do think that the story could have used more focus.

The Twin's Daughter, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Lucy never knew that her mother had a twin sister until she was thirteen, when Aunt Helen showed up at her door. Aunt Helen and Lucy's mother had been separated at birth, with Aunt Helen consigned to an orphanage and raised in dire conditions. Now reunited with her sister's family, Aunt Helen slowly begins to bloom. But what would be just a story of Victorian manners (Pygmalion meets Emma) takes a gory and murderous turn.

There is an interesting theme in this novel involving layer upon layer of deception. And, as in any story about people deceiving each other, the question of knowledge and how we really know each other is paramount. The striking answer in this novel is that we truly don't ever know each other, beyond our personal experience and observations of actions. Nothing inherent ties a parent to a child beyond declaration of intent and role. It's an bit coldhearted, but the idea is well played out.

Strictly speaking, despite the young heroine, this isn't a YA book. The writing style is in a faux-stilted fashion than is meant to emulate Jane Austen, but there are a fair number of anachronisms (including some distracting modernist feminist notions). The result is more a history lesson than a historical novel (as the manners and mores and more observed than lived). The plot gets a bit convoluted and, in the end, makes little sense, but it is a fun ride and I anxiously tried to pick the book back up whenever I had a free moment.

And Then I Found Out the Truth, by Jennifer Sturman

In this sequel to And Then Everything Unraveled, Delia has started the search for her mother. This quickly leads to complications: the clairvoyant Caroline is still giving cryptic advice, the artiste Dieter has decided that the best way to help Delia and her aunt keep a low profile is to paste up pictures of them everywhere, Quinn (who may or may not be her boyfriend) is grounded for being involved in an underage betting ring, and people (including Quinn's father) appear to be trying to kill Delia. Everything keeps leading to Buenos Aires, so that is where Delia eventually ends up.

One should not take a book like this too seriously. It's the sort of adventure where a breathless chase scene is interrupted with less-than-subtle references to brand-name shoes and a heated discussion about saving people's lives is on equal par with angsting over whether Quinn really likes Delia or not. In sum, a mystery of international intrigue and deceit that could lead the cataclysmic environmental change and the romantic mysteries of teen boys are of similar significance. So, it's all in good fun. Those looking for redeeming educational value can take some heart from the cultural tour of Argentina, but none of that is really the point.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wolves, Boys, & Other Things That Might Kill Me, by Kristen Chandler

With a title like this, you'd probably be expecting a werewolf book, but this is actually non-fantasy lit. It's the story of KJ Carlson who struggles to win her Dad's trust and her own self-confidence, but gets far more than she bargained for when she agrees to write a column about the wolves in Yellowstone for her school paper. Living on the edge of the park, tempers run hot over the issue of the reintroduction of the wolves. When a series of violent acts threaten her father and her boyfriend Virgil, KJ has to take a lesson from the wolves about standing up for what she believes in.

A bit longish and awkwardly paced, Chandler still deserves major kudos for writing a book about an interesting subject (wolves, ranchers, and the conflict between them). It's an insightful book and fulfills a criteria of mine for truly great books: they teach me something. I really don't know much about wolves and this book manages to work in some fantastic details. Despite the pacing (which jumps strangely ahead at crucial points, causing major plot developments to be underplayed), the characters are varied and the heroine is sympathetic. There is more than enough human interest to keep things going (although the romance is bit lame). I especially liked the gentle way that wolf behavior and teen behavior is juxtaposed and found the analogy quite effective.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Hard Kind of Promise, by Gina Willner-Pardo

When they were in Kindergarten, Sarah and Marjorie made a promise to each other to always be best friends. For many years, that's what they were. But as they enter seventh grade, the girls are drifting apart. Marjorie is just plain weird and sometimes her behavior embarrasses Sarah. Sarah wants to stay friends, but it's hard when Marjorie doesn't share her interests. As the two girls branch out and acquire new friends, they struggle with their feelings of guilt and loss, trying to figure out if there is a middle ground that can save their friendship.

This is fairly familiar ground for middle readers (the classic example is Lynne Rae Perkins's All Alone in the Universe), probably because changing loyalties are common enough for this age cohort. As such, the book doesn't exactly chart new territory, but it makes a nice supplement to its predecessors. The story is notable for avoiding any of the sort of bitchiness that permeates so many books about girl friendships. There are some not-so-nice kids in this story, but they are quickly sidelined. The characters that matter are all fairly decent to each other. Willner-Pardo's message that, despite one's good intentions, sometimes you just drift apart, is nicely delivered.

I do take some issue with the plot for drifting aimlessly. The primary narrative thread (about participating in a choral competition) is pretty tangential to the purpose of the book. But, the action in this story is inconsequential: basically, the girls could be doing just about anything. The purpose of the story becomes an excuse to show the gentle parting of ways.

The Body Finder, by Kimberly Derting

Violet has a supernatural ability to sense dead humans and animals, but only if they have been killed. And she also has the ability to sense the killers as well. Ever since the talent first revealed itself when she was eight, Violet has had to keep this talent a secret and only her parents, uncle, and her best friend Jay know about it. But when a series of kidnapping and murders start to take place in her town, Violet gets involved in finding the killer. The situation escalates when the killer starts to stalk her.

Derting has expert pacing with the suspense and mystery angle of this story. The "hunter" as he's called is sufficiently creepy. But the story overall drags because of Derting's insistence on throwing in a romance. In itself, this might be a good idea as Violet and Jay's shifting feelings add a bit of spice to the story and allow the pace to run a bit more slowly, but this is a romance without much spark. I get that they are friends but I just didn't see much fire between them. In fact, most of the relationships in this novel lack much feeling. As a result, I really found myself pushing by them so I could get to the juicy and creepy sections of the book.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

As someone who never caught the Harry Potter bug, the Hunger Games series has been a significant literary event. The first book impressed me. The second transcended the usual sequel curse by being both true to (and better than) the first book, except for its ending. That put part three in an awkward place. Having pretty much hated the ending of book two, would I really enjoy book three? There really wasn't much of a choice as to whether I would read this last installment -- I was seriously invested and thus I had to read it.

Mockingjay picks up a few weeks after Catching Fire. The basic gist is that the districts are now rising up and the leaders of the uprising are looking to Katniss to play the role of the agitator. The truth, though, is that (just as in the Games) it is the image of Katniss that they want -- her real self is not actually all that interesting. Still, she wants to be helpful and reluctantly agrees to help out as she can. Along the way, she has plenty of ghosts to face and unresolved issues with her two loves (Peeta and Gale).

There are several interesting tracks to this much darker installment in the series. Having expanded out of the colliseum of gladiator games, Collins is building in a much larger theater both physically and narratively. There is, of course, the action story (the part most likely to be adapted into a movie, if rumors of a film optioning are true). There is also a very complicated political story about paranoia, corruption, the impact of the media, and the depths of greed. These themes have been present in the previous novels but Collins expands on them here. Finally, there is the personal story of Katniss herself and how she copes with survivor guilt, vulnerability, and her conflicting desire to act. Sadly, this last part is the most neglected part of the story. While she is constantly plagued -- to the point of reader distraction -- with guilt and doubt, her ability to work through those feelings remain underdeveloped.
A friend commented that she felt that Collins rushed the ending. I'm prone to agree. In the last half of the book, Collins jumps from one thing to another, seemingly uninterested any longer in her characters or even in the story. It seems as if she simply can't wait for the whole thing to end.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson's best friend Tiny Cooper is "the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large." The two of them have been best friends since little league when Will stood up for Tiny and Tiny towered over anyone who had a problem with it. Now that they are in high school, Tiny wants to return the favor by including Will in his fabulous musical about love. Will isn't so sure how he feels about the attention. He's managed most of the time to get through life with a low profile.

Enter a different Will Grayson, living a couple dozen miles away. This Will lives in constant battle with himself, taking pills to deal with his depression. Through a cruel prank from his former best friend Maura, Will ends up at a porn shop, where (through a string of coincidences) he meets the first Will Grayson. And through Will, he also meets (and falls in love with) Tiny.

The rest of the book traces Tiny and the second Will's romance in chapters that alternate between the two Wills. That Tiny never takes a chapter is irrelevant as he is the center of attention from beginning to end. And, like Tiny, the story is larger than life, culminating in a completely over-the-top ending that can only appropriately be described as gay.

I'm not a fan of David Levithan's writing and just as less a fan of his other collaborations (Nick and Norah being a classic example for me of a book where only half of it was any good in my opinion). This one didn't change my opinion much. I'd like to imagine that I could ascribe all of the parts of this book that I loved to John Green (who seriously rocks!) and all the parts I hate to Levithan, but I suspect that this book was so corroborative that that is not possible. I liked Tiny and the o.w.g Will, while the lower case spelling of manic-depressive Will annoyed me and his plot line seemed like a serious distraction. Tiny and the first Will's relationship though reminded me of some of the same buddy relationship in Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines.

Side note: One of the things that one notices in reading a book like this (when I spend so much time reading chick-lit) is that it takes a lot of digging (mostly through profanity) to get at the inner souls of boys. I'm not entirely sure if that is really true, but it is certainly the modern style. And I wonder what others think: do all the "bitchsqueeler" references make the relationship more realistic or does it seem overly pumped up?

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, by Erin Dionne

Having to start eighth grade with your genius seven-year-old sister taking your classes with you is pretty bad. Add to it your amazingly nerdy parents who show up at school in medieval garb (they are utterly obsessed Shakespeare scholars). Now stir in the unfortunate coincidence that you are studying a unit on the Bard and that your English teacher is convinced that you are a theatrical genius and should play Puck in an upcoming production of Midsummer's Night (when you're already prone to terrible stage fright). Top it all off with being a girl named Hamlet (with a sister named Desdemona)!

In sum, it's waves of unspeakable humiliation for an image-conscious junior high schooler. Hamlet certainly has her hands full. There's the task of both ignoring and covering for her sister. There's a pair of popular girls who are being suspiciously friendly to Desdemona. There's trying to prevent her parents from embarrassing her further. And finally, there's the small matter of small origami piglets that keep showing up in her locker. Is someone playing a prank or does she have a secret admirer?

The narrative can be a bit uneven at times, but Dionne's story is brilliantly over-the-top. Realism is not the point here and the good-hearted characters and tween-ish dramatic exaggeration target the book's middle reader audience well. This is a fun book, intended to make you smile. The foils are typical -- clueless adults, insecure queen bees -- but that simply makes this book literary comfort food.

The Year I Turned Sixteen, by Diane Schwemm

Four sisters take turns recounting their eventful and pivotal sixteenth years. It starts with Rose, who wants to pursue a career on the stage, but has to balance her dreams with a responsibility to help her mother with the family after Dad dies. Two years later, Daisy rebels against her good girl image as a way of acting out her frustration that Mom is dating their next-door neighbor. Three years later, Laurel suffers a deep personal loss. And finally, after all of this, baby-of-the-family Lily struggles with an identity crisis in the wake of all of her sisters' successes and failures.

Strikingly, all four sisters have the same absolutely lousy taste in boys, each one starting off with Mr Wrong and initially clueless about the Right Guy who is right in front of them. Thankfully, they each recognize their mistake and pull through before the nice guy gives up on them. All of which left me wondering how poorly Mom raised her kids to be unable to tell the difference between a nice boy and a monster!

And that underlines my first basic problem with this breezy 700-page epic -- it's terribly repetitive. Each section (envisioned as a standalone book) is basically the same: young woman arrogantly ignores family and friends and throws herself at a worthless creep. After a lot of painfully obvious abuse, she recants and the spurned good guy (who she's treated like crap) takes her back. I get that it's a formula, but I didn't need it repeated again and again!

My second problem is the writing style. For a book pitched at teens, the vocabulary and sentence structure is pedantic and simplistic, as if it was more aimed at tweens. The tone was condescending and written more like a parent would like to imagine teens talk/behave, than how they actually do. It seemed sloppy and careless, and I was disappointed.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour, by Morgan Matson

Amy's family is falling apart. Her father is dead. Her brother is in drug rehab. Mom has moved across the country, leaving Amy alone in California. Now, she wants Amy to drive the family car and join her in Connecticut. Amy's terrified of driving ever since the car accident that killed her father so Mom carves out a compromise: she finds the son of a family friend named Roger to do the driving. And thus is launched a road trip.

Her Mom's carefully-planned itinerary quickly gets bypassed as Amy and Roger decide to explore a few side-destinations along the way. And what starts as a few detours becomes a much more important journey for both of them as they confront a series of issues and clear up some serious emotional baggage.

The story works on a number of levels. There's the overly predictable love story, which is pretty lame, but develops at its expected speed. There's the similarly predictable shedding of issues which at least is paced realistically, albeit in a way that was more tedious. If this was all that the book had going for it, I'd probably toss this out is slight formulaic fodder. But there's all sorts of lovely touches, from the play lists to the travel guide of burgerology, which liven the story up and make it fun. All sorts of great research went into the travel aspect (for all the places which I knew, the details seemed right) and I enjoyed that part. So, while the story telling itself didn't really offer anything new, I liked the details and enjoyed the trip. And even a formula can be fun with the right dressing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Friend Is Not A Verb, by Daniel Ehrenhaft

Hen's older sister has been missing for a year, so it's a big deal when she suddenly shows up again (although, suspiciously, his parents don't seem so surprised by the news, suggesting that they may have known where she was for the past year). Unfortunately, his sister's reappearance coincides with Henry getting dumped by his girlfriend and getting kicked out of her band. The latter is short-lived as he gets invited back into the band (albeit not into his ex-girlfriend's bed).

Somehow, despite his total lack of talent, everyone seems to think that Hen has what it takes to be a rock star. His parents are encouraging him to study music. His prodigal sister wants him to take lessons from her fugitive boyfriend. Hen himself is just confused.

Written in a wise-cracking and uber-trendy style that is guaranteed to date itself in weeks, Ehrenhaft's prose will bring a smile to your face (the book, at the very least, has the best title of the year). As literature, however, it left me cold. The characters are fairly thin (why do male writers do such a crappy job with emotions and motivations?) and are largely vehicles for one-liners. There's a decent collection of embarrassing anecdotes and some great physical humor, but the story is going in several directions at once and has a hard time getting off the ground.

Illyria, by Elizabeth Hand

Madeline and Rogan share a love for the theater and for each other. Descendants of a famous stage star and also first cousins, they share a number of secrets (secret hideaways, secret rendezvous, and a special secret attic with a magical miniature stage). However, their forbidden love for each other and for the stage threatens to destroy them both. Told completely in the hindsight of adulthood from Madeline's viewpoint, we learn about their growth into stars and their loss of innocence and love.

This is a beautifully-written short novel, but it is problematic for me because (beyond describing a life full of disappointments) it lacks much of a story. The narrator's perspective (an adult looking wistfully back on the folly of youth) is not really YA, but rather an adult's book about childhood. And finally, the book is a stylistic mess. Themes ranging from explicit incest to sheer fantasy are picked up carelessly and dropped just as quickly. The overall mood is dreamy and random. The result is pretty but not terribly compelling.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Forgive My Fins, by Tera Lynn Childs

Lily has always had a crush on swimming hunk Brody Bennett, but all she ever seems to get is unwanted attention from her obnoxious neighbor Quince. The worst part is that she is running out of time. Lily is a Thalassinian princess - a mermaid - and if she doesn't bond with Brody by her 18th birthday, her underwater kingdom will go without an heir. An unexpected prank at the Prom from Quince causes complications when he accidentally bonds Lily to himself (instead of to her true love). Now, she must prove that her affections are really with Brody and not with Quince to be free of the bond.

The story is tried and true, and utterly familiar and predictable. We all know that she will end up with Quince, since even though she despises him from the beginning, everyone around them thinks that they will be a great couple. We simply have to wait for her to recognize it as well. The key is whether the journey to the predictable conclusion will be worthwhile. I'll freely admit that "true love" romances are not my thing (more on that below), but this one in particular really didn't break any new ground. Mermaid stories (especially ones that compare mermaid life to American high school life) have been common enough in recent years. This one is so lacking in tension and suspense, that I found myself counting the pages until we got to the part where she would get over herself and fall for Quince.

OK, so why so cold on the true love theme? You might rack that cynicism up to me being a guy, but I suspect that age has more to do with it than gender. I like a good romance, where the characters struggle with their feelings and fall in love, but the idea that one can just be in love without any effort is so unrealistic and so uninteresting. Why would you care about people who don't have to work at it? In the end, I wasn't really convinced that Lily's feelings for Quince were any deeper than her infatuation with Brody.

As Simple As It Seems, by Sarah Weeks

In fifth grade, Verbena learns that her parents are not her real parents. She was adopted. In her mind, this explains why she is such a screw-up. After all, how could she not be when her biological parents are an alcoholic and a murderer? Just the idea of it drives Verbena nuts and triggers her (in her mind, inherited) short temper. She is angry and upset and closes off to her parents and her friends, spending the summer between grades struggling with her mixed-up sense of identity.

Enter Pooch, a "flatlander" from NYC, spending the summer in Upstate New York in Verbena's neighborhood. He's got his own problems (not least of which is that he's convinced that Verbena is actually a ghost!). But from the start, you know that the two of them will help each other through the issues and aid in each others' self-discovery.

With one of the most misleading titles, this economic (180 page!) and tightly-written novel is far from simple and has a lot to say about growing up. While definitely intended for middle readers, there is such a complicated storyline that young readers may get lost or bored. But this is good writing with a timeless setting that will keep this story around for a long time. All of which are the makings of a classic.

In general, I liked the story. The kids were funny, the story lacked any nasty bad guys, and it avoided meanness. There was a bit of gratuitous animal death, but in general this is a gentle tale with universal themes.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Invisible Girl, by Mary Hanlon Stone

Stephanie has taught herself plenty of tricks for surviving her mother's abuse. She has her Nancy Drews to inspire her and her vocabulary of "Warrior Words" to give her strength. She knows how to hide when her mother has been drinking and is in a mean mood. But when it is finally decided to rescue her from her mother and send her to a wealthy family on the other side of the country in Los Angeles while things get "sorted out" as home, she is completely unprepared to deal with the meanness of the girls she meets there. At first, she finds herself meekly accepting her peer's abuse (following the model she learned from dealing with Mom), but when another (and much stronger) new girl arrives, this new girl's kindness motivates Stephanie to stand up for herself.

While the story of finding one's inner strength in the face of mean peers and hapless adults is tired and old, there are two things that make this book stand out: the careful plotting of the way that a nasty cohort of teens can develop and maintain its hold, and the strikingly unrelated exploration of being a Muslim American. The former is also not original, but Stone figures out the logistics of young teen peer pressure quite well (and in a much more interesting fashion than you might find in a Clique novel). The diversion into Muslim life is a bit of a bizarre twist (and largely not organic to the story), but is interesting nonetheless. Unfortunately, it (along with the end) seems to be a bit of a rush job. The story halts awfully abruptly, leaving a number of key issues unresolved (but leaving room for reader imagination).

Thursday, October 14, 2010

After the Kiss, by Terra Elan McVoy

Two seniors, getting ready to graduate and move on, remain stuck on a boy - the same boy. At first, neither one of them knows about the existence of the other. Camille is new in town, a victim of having been moved around the country regularly by her Dad. Her scenery has changed so often that she no longer even registers the changing names of her latest BFF. When she meets Alec at a party, she has no way of knowing he is already taken. The other girl, Becca, is Alec's betrayed girlfriend. When they accidentally become friends (without realizing who the other one is at first), it is Becca who is the first to realize who Camille is and what she has done. While she has the advantage, Becca toys with Camille and plans out revenge, yet something holds her back from carrying out her plans.

It's an interesting story, although not as original as McVoy's previous novel Pure, and has an unusual structure. Camille's sections are all written in lower-case second person prose. Becca's chapters are in verse (with frequent parodies of poetry lifted from the Norton Anthology). Becca's poetry can at times be a bit twee but at other times shows real strengths (and was certainly the best part). I'm undecided about how I feel about that wide variance (there's something stereotypical about a teen who writes bad poetry). Camille's sections, on the other hand, really got on my nerves. Second person narrative is exhausting (coming across more as constant criticism and accusations) and the lower-case spelling makes it all very hard to read, without adding much.

It's Not Summer Without You, by Jenny Han

From the cover and the title, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a summer romance with a beach and a boy. And it actually has both things in it, but this sequel to The Summer I Turned Pretty is really a story about grief and the acceptance of loss, tackling those subjects in a poignantly mature, yet totally age-appropriate, way.

It's one summer later since the first novel and the world has changed dramatically. Conrad has gone missing from school and Jeremiah seeks out Belly to help him try to find his brother. Through flashbacks, we quickly learn the most important events: Conrad and Belly's failed romance and the death of Susannah to breast cancer. The latter event hangs on everyone -- the boys miss their mother, Belly misses Susannah as the mother she never really had, and Belly's mom misses her best friend. Of course, ultimately they overcome it, but it's the voyage that matters.

There is a tendency in YA to assume that teen readers aren't interested in the adult world. And while I suppose there is some truth in that, Jenny Han takes a very different approach in this series. The novel is very much about the kids, but the children exist in the context of the adults and the two parties react/respond to each other in realistic and measured ways. Perhaps as a grownup myself, I appreciate the fact that we aren't segregating the worlds. And it really works with Han's interest in nostalgia and skill at portraying what is lost in the process of growing up (showing children halfheartedly seeking adulthood and adults wistfully recalling youth).

I also like the fact that this sequel isn't rehashing its predecessor. While it includes the same characters and there is some continuity in themes, the story has moved on and deals with a completely different topic than the first book.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Glimpse, by Carol Lynch Williams

Hope and Lizzie have always looked out for each other. Hope always figured it was her job to take care of her older sister, but when she finds Lizzie with a shotgun to her head, that illusion shatters. As Hope copes with what has happened and tries to uncover the meaning of her sister's suicidal urges, she is forced to come to terms with the facts of her family's existence and the brutality that lies under it.

Told in taut verse, this 480-page novel is an extraordinarily fast read (I devoured it in a little over two hours). Verse novels, as I have written several times before, are a risky proposition. The good ones can stick with you and suck you in in a way that regular prose cannot. The vast majority of them, however, are trite and sentimental. This novel falls into the former category.

Williams's previous novel (The Chosen One) was a shocking story of polygamy, but this one pulls out more of the stops, showing the brutal life that Hope and Lizzie live in through Hope's halting lyrical voice. One could fault the story for portraying the girls' mother so harmfully that one wonders how any one could love her, but you won't forget the experience of glimpsing Hope's world.

The View from the Top, by Hillary Frank

In seven chapters, told from six different viewpoints and stretched over several months, we get the stories of a group of recent high school graduates who are spending their last summer together. There's a certain complicated intertwining of relationships and the chapters reference each other, but for the most part each chapter has its own theme and stands on its own. The chapter titles ("A Mix Tape for Bears", "How to Eat a Chocolate Boob") are the best part.

I have to put this book in the category of "I don't get it." I'm no fan of artsy books and this one is very proud of its deep meaningful dialogue and largely non-existent storyline. Most of the action occurs between the chapters and so is (re)told in the past tense. The chapters themselves are exercises in navel gazing (and not the type that teens actually enagge in). The overall experience of reading this book was alienating and boring (and I don't read YA to be bored!). I'd suggest skipping this one, unless you actually get it.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Leaving Paradise, by Simone Elkeles

After nearly a year in jail, Caleb is eager to get home. One night a year ago, he got drunk and behind the wheel, and he ran over a girl. The girl was his next door neighbor and his twin sister's best friend Maggie. And as eager as he is to come home, she's equally obsessed with never seeing him again. Once upon a time, they were close friends, but because of the accident, everything has changed.
Nothing goes as either of them plan. Caleb returns to a family and a town that can't forgive him for what he did and Maggie, who must live with the injuries she sustained, has lost even more. But a series of coincidences (and a few convenient twists only found in novels) send the two of them towards a reconciliation.

While I could see where this story was heading for the most part, I didn't really mind the manipulation of the story as it allowed me to explore the complex process of forgiveness. And the story had a certain poetic quality that I enjoyed reading. However, a startling -- and quite unnecessary -- plot twist on page 230 sent the story out the window. It was as if, after writing a completely predictable romance, Elkeles panicked and decided that the best thing to do would be to totally take the story off the deep end. It certainly suprised me, but it didn't make sense. Without giving away the ending, let's just say that there is a terribly neglected storyline about the relationship between Maggie and Caleb's sister. Perhaps if it had been explored a bit, I might have found the plot twist to be more believable.

Mistwood, by Leah Cypress

When Prince Rokan places the bracelet around Isabel's wrist, binding her to serve him as his bodyguard (his "Shifter"), she feels no fear of revulsion. In fact, she feels nothing at all, for she has no memory of how she acquired this role. She merely knows that it is her duty. For as long as anyone can remember, the Shifter comes when the kings of Samorna call and the Shifter protects them for as long as they need the help. But this time something is not quite right. Isabel knows what she should be able to do, yet she seems limited and hemmed in by strange new limitations. It doesn't help that the Prince doesn't quite seem to be who he is supposed to be either. And as danger approaches, Isabel must make some difficult decisions about who to trust and how to do the right thing.

Good fantasy stories have little to do with magic and fairy tale castles. They are about human concerns. Isabel's struggles with knowledge, love, and loyalty will feel very familar to most young women. Her transition from living in a world of magic to becoming a strong, yet vulnerable, human will elicit sympathy. Her realization that the world is not full of certain absolutes, but rather of vague grey lines, will ring true to any adolescent facing the adult world. The major difference is that by placing this complicated coming-of-age story amidt magic and fantasy, Leah Cypress has made it much more beautiful and breathtaking. But the story is still intended more to speak to readers in the here and now. It does an excellent job but making coming of age into a large allegory about transformation and destiny.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Clearing, by Heather Davis

After getting out of an abusive relationship, Amy decides to go live with her great aunt in rural Washington. Things don't go terribly smoothly for her and she has trouble making new friends in such a close community. Instead, she finds solace wandering through the woods. One day, she walks to a clearing and becomes curious about a deep fog on the edge of it. Passing through the mist, she finds a boy on the other side who appears to be from an entirely different time.

Henry (the boy) is in fact living in the summer of 1944 on a continuous repeating cycle. It all started after the death of his brother and shortly thereafter his mother. Praying to be able to avoid all of the horrible things that happened at the end of that summer, he got granted his wish. Now, he isn't so sure that it is what he wanted because he sees the costs of living solely in the past.

Each of them in their own way is living in denial of their past and fighting their future. The true question is not why they find themselves drawn to each other, but whether they can find a way to break out of the cycles they are in and move forward.

I found this to be a highly original and entertaining fantasy (and far too underrated in my opinion). Time travel is such a tired concept and the story will remind folks of Tuck Everlasting, but Davis has breathed an new life into what could have been a very trite story. I enjoyed Amy and Henry and found their search for redemption and rebirth to be uplifting. I would not go so far as to claim that it is some sort of literary classic (Davis is shooting more to entertain than to achieve that lofty status), but this is a nice story with characters who are meaningful and delightful. I recommend it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two Way Street, by Lauren Barnholdt

Two weeks ago, Courtney's boyfriend Jordan unceremoniously dumped her. Unfortunately, now the two of them are stuck in a already-planned cross-country road trip to Boston College, where they are both starting school in the fall. It's awkward to say the least! But there's a lot more to the story of their break up than immediately meets the eye (and in fact the relationship has always had a bit going on behind the scenes). Through a lot of flashbacks and told in alternating voices between Courtney and Jordan, we learn the truth about their relationship. And through the trip itself, Courtney and Jordan get a chance to reconsider their decisions.

The story is well-enough written, but it never took off for me. The conflict between the two of them is so contrived that it's neither believable nor even interesting. Instead, it is mostly based around ego and an inability to communicate. Courtney is extremely narcissistic and self-centered (even by teen standards). Jordan alternates between arrogance and horniness (or both simultaneously) -- in the ever-clever vocabulary of the book, he's a bit of a "tool." As a result, I nearly immediately disliked both of the characters. None of this was helped by the story. As road trips go, not a whole lot happens on this one aside from Courtney spending a lot of time barfing. So, the story becomes more about the author doling out the Truth is small dollops.

Nothing, by Janne Teller

When their classmate Pierre Anthon quits school, announcing that "nothing matters," his classmates in 7A are initially amused. But as Pierre takes up residence in a tree and starts mocking them for continuing to go to school and continuing to insist that their lives are meaningless, the students become obsessed with proving him wrong. Their method is to assemble a pile of "meaning" (items which are valuable to each of the children). And while the task starts out innocently enough, it escalates into cruelty and sadism. And yet still the meaning of meaning remains elusive.

Read literally, the book is disturbing and unpleasant, delighting in imperiling children and animals in the horrible way that Scandinavians seem to enjoy in literature and art much more than the rest of the world. Anyone with a weak stomach or low tolerance for cruelty will probably want to steer clear. However, take the story as a parable and it becomes more interesting and thought-provoking, but still not really YA. The search for meaning will of course be understandable to all ages, but the jadedness of the way it is presented reads more like an adult novel.

This is not a novel for interesting characters as everything is passively narrated from a single perspective and all of the characters are symbolic anyway. And it's not a novel for story since that too is simply an extended analogy and the action cannot be taken seriously. In the end, this is more of a book for discussions (ironically enough, about what it all "means") which, if we believe Pierre, simply brings us back to the book's title.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper

Fifth-grader Melody has a photographic memory and is incredibly smart, but no one knows it. She has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak. For years, people around her assumed that she was as dumb as she appeared. Until she gets a computer that helps her form sentences, she's been limited to a very small vocabulary of words on a tray chart, which hardly persuaded them otherwise. The only exceptions were her parents, a care-giving neighbor, and a few isolated teachers.

This may all change for her this year when she is granted the opportunity to compete in a national Whiz Kids contest. Despite the reservations (and outright prejudice) of her peers and teacher, she reveals a strong talent. But the struggle to be accepted by her classmates is far more important to Melody and may be the one thing she can't quite pull off, no matter how many quiz questions she can ace.

Draper has crafted an easily understood story about disability, pride, and struggle that will appeal to young readers. I got a little tired of the two-dimensional portrayals (the bad people are downright mean and evil, while the good ones are perfect), but one assumes that Draper was aiming down for her audience. Melody is a notable exception to this oversimplification and her complex feelings and struggle for peer acceptance is universally relatable. It's not all puppies and roses at the end, but you'll find it hard to suppress a cheer for her nonetheless.

Compromised, by Heidi Ayarbe

Maya and her father have managed to get by. He always has a trick or a game, and Maya has sheltered herself in that comfort and in the world of the science documentaries and the scientific method. Living from one con to another, he's taken care of her. But when the Law catches up with Dad, Maya becomes a ward of the State of Nevada. Finding out quickly what that means (cruel orphanages, neglectful case workers, and scary foster homes), Maya decides to flee with a fellow orphan Nicole. Maya has found out that she may have an aunt (the sister of her long-dead mother), but given the source of this information (her father), it may just be one final con job. However, that doesn't dissuade her and Nicole from running to Boise to find out where this aunt may be.

What results is an unusual road trip story. Between Maya's obsession with the epistemological method and Nicole's more bizarre obsession with the Mob, we have the requisite odd couple dynamics. Joining them eventually is a troubled young boy with Tourrette's Syndrome. But what starts out as a simple quest to find lost family heads fast towards tragedy and death.

An engrossing but disturbing novel about at-risk teens. The story is definitely too intense for younger readers, but mature ones will find themselves locked in in anticipation of how it will end up. To get there, you will have to travel through vivid scenes of drug use, sexual violence, disease, death, abuse, and more than a little petty crime. But in a story like this, moral compasses are largely irrelevant. The ending is satisfactory, but definitely bittersweet. This is not the realm of the happy ending.

I actually liked the story. I don't think it had much deep meaning and I certainly didn't find much uplifting material here, but Ayarbe writes a taut suspenseful story that had me turning pages eagerly. Life on the streets is definitely not glorified but Ayarbe avoids becoming exploitative at the same time. Instead, I felt the genuine respect that she had towards her characters and the dignity of them that she wanted to portray. They are certainly very vivid kids with personalities and quirks that you'll remember long after finishing the last page.

It is a downer to read, however, so you may want to turn to something light and funny when you're through.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Gimme A Call, by Sarah Mlynowski

Reflecting on the painful end to her high school romance with Bryan, Devi wishes that she could go back in time and warn her 14 year-old self to stay away from him in the first place. If she had, maybe she would have spent more time with her friends (instead of losing them all) and even doing better in school. In the midst of that thought, she accidentally drops her cell phone into the Mall's wishing pool. When she manages to fish it out, it no longer works like normal. Now, it calls herself -- three and a half years younger!

So, if you could speak to your younger self, how would you use the power to change your future through the past? What changes would be for the better and what would simply complicate your life? And, in the end, with such a power would you ever be satisfied with what you had become?

It's a fascinating premise and delivered with great pacing and a good sense of humor. In many of her books, Mlynowski has had a lot of fun crossing supernatural events and fantasy with common teen angst, and this particular book delivers a fun adventure with some great life lessons. It's all very thought-provoking, yet overall fun. For being basic escapism, this novel still manages to pack in some substance. I enjoyed it and suspect you will too!

God Is In the Pancakes, by Robin Epstein

Assisted suicide is a pretty unusual topic for a YA book, so this is already off to a notable start....

When her father moves out on his family, Grace becomes disillusioned and bitter about the subject of romance. The fact that her sister's boyfriend is two-timing her doesn't help matters much either. But her perspective starts to change when she takes a job as a candy striper at an old age home and meets a man dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease. At first, he serves as an obvious surrogate father figure, but when he begs her to help him die, things take a more serious turn.

She struggles with what to do about his request, especially as she gets to know the man's family. But she has other issues with which to deal: helping her sister confront her boyfriend, wrestling with whether she wants to reconnect with her estranged father, and dealing with a romantic entanglement of her own.

For its originality and its sensitivity, I liked the main plot of the story (the assisted suicide), but the rest of the story seemed less well-developed. I got the fact that Epstein was tying all of the subplots together with the themes of love and loyalty (with each story illustrating a different perspective of the themes), but the subplots are tired cliches (awkward boyfriend, jealous sister, absent father). Only the elderly couple struggling to end their relationship in dignity and Grace's wonderment at observing it seemed fresh and new. In many ways, the story would have benefitted from a trimming.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Lucky, by Rachel Vail

Phoebe considers herself to be pretty lucky: she's beautiful, popular, and rich. So, it comes naturally to her to plan, with her best friend Kirstyn, the world's greatest middle school graduation party. But then things start to go badly. Her mother loses her job. Credit cards start to get declined. Her parents start having hushed conversations. Worst of all, her parents inform her that she'll have to cancel the party -- an act which would mean embarrassment in front of her entire class. All of which probably makes Phoebe look like a spoiled brat (and she is accused of being so on several occasions) but the issues are actually more complicated.

As one would expect, facing the dilemma of how to save face (and even protect her family's reputation) makes Phoebe evaluate her values and friendships. And she makes some startling discoveries that will take even the reader by surprise. In the end, it all is wrapped up neatly, but not before a carefully-engineered climax has the tears flowing.

The engineering of the conclusion says a lot about the book and the writer. Vail is a great writer with a list of successful books to her credit and she certainly knows how to craft a story. While certainly not as vacuous as some novels out in the mass market, this will still appeal to casual "Summer" readers. It sets no major literary milestones, but it is an enjoyable book with more than a few thought-provoking thoughts and heart-warming moments.

How to Steal A Car, by Pete Hautman

A friend asked me while I was reading this book, "It's not an instruction manual, is it?" Not really. It's ostensibly a work of fiction, but the moral vacuum in which it is written (combined with the details which it describes) left me wondering what the author's intent really was.

It's a story about Kelleigh and her decision to start stealing cars. Step by step, we see how a whim becomes a prank, and blows up into a criminal career. Told in first-person past tense, the tone is more of a confessional, which implies a bit about how you would expect the book to end. Surprisingly, it doesn't wrap up so neatly.

When it comes to YA books that deal with crime, I have a pretty hardcore viewpoint that they need to end badly (for the criminal). But aside from a small amount of lip service to the idea that what she is doing might just be wrong, this story never really gets to the idea that crime does not pay. So, the ultimate message is that it is dangerous but fun to steal cars. And I'm not sure about what is the value of that position.

It also seems that Hautman avoided the issue by filling up the book with too much other stuff. From the unimportant fact that Kelleigh is color blind to the red herring that Kelleigh's Dad is having an affair, the story is awfully busy with subplots that neither are resolved nor related back to the main plot (would it have been so hard to have her - because of her colorblindness - steal the wrong car or run a red light?). With the affair thing, I suppose that we're trying to set up a justification for Kelleigh's behavior, but it's a pretty lame one and we certainly never connect the dots. What a mess!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Beautiful Between, by Alyssa B. Sheinmel

In Connelly's mind, her high school is some sort of fairy tale feudal state. The nobility sashay around, barely noticing the commoners like herself. But then one day Prince Charming (in the form of her classmate Jeremy) does take notice and sits with her at lunch. Ostensibly, he only wants to get help on his vocabulary for the SATs (and he offers physics tutoring in exchange), but something else is up.

He lets slip that he knows how her father died -- a statement which shocks Connelly for two reasons: first of all, because she has never told anyone that her father was dead (instead, she has maintained a lie for years that her parents were just divorced), but more importantly she is surprised because even she does not know what caused his death. This is because, even after thirteen years, her mother won't tell her.

The truth of the matter is that Jeremy is struggling with an impending loss of his own. He hopes that somehow Connelly can help him cope with his problems. Between Connolly's grief for a father long passed and Jeremy's fear of the future, the two of them find an uncommon bond and form an unusual friendship.

This is truly an amazing book and probably one of the best books I have read so far from 2010. Connelly is an insightful and observant narrator -- wise beyond her years, but not distractingly so. She's eminently sympathetic as well. I found that I totally got her and really felt like she was a kindred spirit. And yes, I don't know much about being an adolescent girl, but you don't have to in order to understand Connelly's anxiety and insecurity. These are far more universal feelings and she articulates them well. Sheinmel has a gorgeous writing style that articulates complex feelings in simple but beautiful prose.

I also liked the friendship that develops between Connelly and Jeremy. Rather than have them fall into a predictable romance, they become close friends. This is an unusual approach and, in the end, it is so much more powerful than a romantic relationship would have been.

Finally, the relationship between Connelly and her mother is both realistic and painful. Both of them are hurting and it takes some effort to overcome the barriers they have erected in the years since Connelly's father's death. While this part is less original, it is still powerfully written and highly effective.

I have no issues with wholeheartedly recommending this book. It will totally blow you away!

Nothing Like You, by Lauren Strasnick

Holly knows that there is no future in her relationship with Paul. For one thing, he's way out of her league. For another, he's got a girlfriend (the equally fantastic Saskia). But when Paul makes the moves on her, she finds it hard to resist and she'll do anything to hold on to that feeling. The relationship that starts with no future becomes a serious danger to her other friendships as she finds it harder to hide what is going on from her best friend Nils and as she grows closer to Saskia. But even though she knows it is wrong, she continues to fall in deeper and deeper.

While I'd like to be an optimist and hope that not everyone can personally relate to this story of betrayed friendships and infidelity in the halls of high school, I imagine that most of us have been there. It would be easy enough to despise Holly and her lack of will power (as well as her constant mistakes) but Strasnick does a fantastic job of making her believable and sympathetic (and the pure evilness of Paul makes this a bit easier as well). And she does it without resorting to some more obvious tactics. For example, the death of Holly's mother some months before the story opens would form a perfect justification of the lapses of judgment, but Strasnick never plays the cards that way. Holly's mistakes are truly her own.

Holly's (mostly) platonic relationship with Nils is a wonderful part of the story. On the one side, he perfectly illustrates the unevenness of the sexes in these romance games, but he also provides a nice foil for Holly. And the stresses and strains in their relationship share the authentic flavor of the rest of the story.

If I have any complaints, it is probably with the adult characters. Holly's father Jeff is definitely not checked in on his kid (probably because he is blinded by the loss of his wife, but it is never explained). Holly's drama teacher is a throwaway -- I kept expecting something profound to come from the relationship but it just never got there. Given the total lack of adult supervision going on here, I think that the grown-ups could have been left out altogether with little harm done.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, by Brenda Woods

Nine tenth-grade students in an urban high school in Los Angeles are taking Ms Hart's creative writing class. To get them thinking about alternative concepts of fame, she gives them an assignment to imagine a world in which stars on Hollywood Boulevard are handed out for lots of reason (beyond just acting) and to describe what they might do to earn one. During the two week period in which they have in order to complete the assignment, the rough life of these kids frequently intervenes to color their perceptions on how to answer the question.

As a child of the suburbs, I generally prefer to read about kids growing up in the suburbs (or in rural areas). Also, books like this always seem a bit calculated to win acclaim from politically correct suburban librarians. My cynical mind sees marketing ploy, and Woods' array of awards reinforces rather than dispels those biases (I'm a fervent believer that the Coretta Scott King award was designed to ghettioize non-white literature to justify not considering books like this for a Prinz... but I digress).

While it is true that there is a bit of the usual static (tough kids, well-meaning liberal middle-class teacher, cue the "Stand By Me" music?), this book shines on its own merits. Woods has a great ear for dialog and the characters speak in an angst that sounds (to my privileged ears) like the real thing. With a very large cast of characters in a wafer-thin book, it would have been easy to create identical voices (or fall back into stereotypes), but the kids in this book really come forth as individuals, each one of them truly shining like a star.

The ending is a bit heavy-handed and pedantic (as if the author doesn't trust the reader to get the gravitas of the story without having it shoved down their throat), but I can indulge her a bit because I enjoyed the ways in which this book both met and exceeded my expectations.

Turtle in Paradise, by Jennifer L. Holm

In the midst of the Depression, eleven year-old Turtle and her mother struggle to get by. And so, when Mom finds work as a housekeeper for a woman who doesn't like children, Turtle gets shipped off to Key West to stay with her aunt and cousins. The children are surprisingly resourceful and have a number of adventures. For her part, Turtle learns to appreciate the joys and problems of large families. And the reader learns a lot about Key West in this much earlier era.

This nice gentle middle reader covers a little-known world of the Keys before they were a major tourist destination and when the place and times were a bit more innocent. I always have a soft spot for books that take me places I have never been, so I'll have to recommend this book on that basis alone.

But this book has much more going for it. The characters are vivid and interesting. Many of them break stereotypes (for example, who would have ever dreamed up a babysitting service run entirely -- to many humorous results -- by a gang of boys?). The inhabitants of the Keys are obvious quite quirky and Holm delights in showing them off to us (and we, in turn, delight in learning about them). A fascinating historical end note from the author explains how much of the story is based on fact and may make readers want to learn more. For actual young readers, the scenes where the children have to weather out a hurricane may be a bit scary.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Fat Cat, by Robin Brande

Cat is a brilliant science student. She's just completed an internship on insects and is hoping to spin that work into an science fair award-winning project for Mr Fizer's honors class. But instead she gets assigned a topic in pre-historic hominins (early humans). She has no idea what to do with the topic until she gets an inspiration. Musing that prehistoric women are never depicted as fat (and as she's grown tired of her weight and body shape), she decides to copy their diet (or, at the very least, an organic diet) and see what effect it has on her.

The physical impact of switching to such a diet can certainly be expected to be major and over several months, she loses a good deal of weight. But what this does for her social life is completely unexpected by her. Boys are coming out of the woodwork and noticing her. Now, if she could only get her ex-friend (and now sworn enemy) Matt to leave her alone. After betraying her cruelly four years ago, he keeps acting as if they were friends!

In many ways, this is a charming story about how a concerted effort to change your life can be empowering. Cat is a mostly endearing character (see below) and her self-discovery is interesting to read about. No one is particularly deep, but Brande understands good dialog and realistic staging.

So, why my reticence and restraint in reviewing this book? Well, there are simply major issues with the characters. Cat's hatred towards Matt is so painfully and stubbornly adhered to that even a preschooler would recognize its unhealthy stupidity. It's hard to feel sympathy for a character who you know is behaving like an idiot. And a mean one to boot!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Name Is Memory, by Ann Brashares

Best known for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, Ann Brashares ventures into strikingly different territory with this broadly-scoped story of reincarnation, revenge, and undying love.

In her final year of high school, Lucy feels strongly drawn to a loner named Daniel. But she never works up the nerve to even speak to him, until in a very awkward moment, they get the opportunity to confess their feelings. This potentially romantic moment goes very wrong when Daniel insists on calling her "Sophia" and doing so, for some reason not quite understood by her, scares her off. He flees away and Lucy, while initially relieved, becomes obsessed with finding him again.

There is a reason to this madness. They are both reincarnated souls. As it turns out, many people are, but Daniel is special: he remembers all of his previous lives. And he knows that he and Lucy have repeatedly been lovers in the past. Lucy, for her part, has no such memory but is open to the idea. Lucy slowly learns the truth and puts the pieces together. Will they be able to be together in this life and end a millennium of searching and loneliness?

Brashares is a good writer and her rather lengthy story manages to keep the reader's interest throughout. But I'd still have been happier with some more judicious editing (there is only so much angst and ponderous statements of endless love that one can take!). The tropes (love at first sight, love never dies, etc.) that fill the book are pretty traditional old material. But for lovers of romance novels, this pretty much has everything, including a little bit of action. And it hangs together well as Brashares paces everything beautifully. The book is pitched in such a way to appeal to all ages. The characters are young enough to make this YA, but old and mature enough to bring in adult readers.

The beautifully open ending (and a significant number of unresolved questions) invites the inevitable sequel. With its supernatural themes, this is Brashare's answer to the Twilight franchise. Who needs vampires, when you can be reincarnated instead?

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, by Erin McCahan

Bronwen has always had trouble feeling wanted. She can't manage to communicate with her mother. Her stepfather, while nicer, has never wanted her (proof: when Bronwen was 13 years old, he promised that he would adopt her but then failed to do so without ever bothering to explain why). She's just about convinced that she was switched at birth and really belongs to another family.

In her senior year, she starts to date Jared and falls in love with both him and his warm family. Overwhelmed by their kindness, she doesn't hesitate a minute to accept when Jared proposes marriage to her. But as time passes and the wedding day approaches, Bronwen finds that marriage -- far from giving her a new family in which to develop -- will actually mean sublimating her individuality. She begins to wonder if it is really the right decision for her.

This book, which is really about identity and finding oneself, seems oddly packaged. The book's title suggests a humorous book, while the blurb stresses her sense of being a changeling. Neither is really the point of the story. The tale is in fact rather sad and the ending almost tragic (although a lengthy prologue forces an eventual happy ending on to the story). The overall effect is cloying and difficult to follow. I spent the first half of the story trying to figure out where we were going with this girl. It is only after the proposal occurs that we figure out the point and by then it is pretty obvious where we will end up. Even with what should be a fairly interesting material, McCahan doesn't spin a very interesting tale. My sense is that the book is at least partly biographical, which may make it a cautionary tale, but the writing is very factual and lacks the lyricism that Bronwen's struggles call out for.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Every Little Thing in the World, by Nina de Gramont

After screwing up one time too many, Sydney's mother gives up on trying to control the girl and ships her off to her father. Dad has his own idea of what Sydney needs and decides to send her to Northern Ontario for a month-long Outward Bound canoe trip.

Sydney, however, has deeper problems: she's pregnant and doesn't know what to do about it. There are practical issues (where to find the money to pay for an abortion, whether to tell her parents, etc.) but she also simply doesn't know what she wants. In those weeks on the water, Sydney gains perspective about her life so far and about her relationships with others.

The story follows mostly familiar plotting and presents few surprises, but it is pleasing to read and well-written. Sydney's voice is far too mature for her age and sounds more as if she were writing the story in her adulthood with the wisdom of hindsight. This makes her thoughts insightful but unrealistically sober and clear-headed. Also, for allegedly being such a screw-up before the story begins, she makes almost no bad choices in the course of the novel, so that her bad-girl reputation seems unearned. This also makes the story a bit unbelievable.

Putting these concerns aside, the book makes fine summer reading. The characters are complex and interesting. I particularly like the youth-at-risk Mick, who proves both sympathetic and repulsive at the same time. Romantic relationships form and break with a stunningly realistic ease that rings true and also serves to underscore the plot of self-discovery.