Friday, March 26, 2010

What the Moon Saw, by Laura Resau

Clara has developed a restlessness at home. She feels distant from her friends and she finds herself drawn to wander outside after dark. But just as her parents are beginning to despair, a letter comes from her grandparents in Mexico. Seeming to know all about Clara's problems (despite never having met her before), they invite her to come visit them for the Summer. It is the answer to everything and Clara departs on an adventure of a lifetime.

At first, she finds her grandparents' life in impoverished rural Oaxaca to be unbearable, but soon enough she opens her heart to the different pace of life and discovers a great deal about her family and herself. A parallel story about her grandmother's own girlhood provides some elaboration on the timeless theme of self-discovery.

As with her novel Red Glass, which I reviewed a few months back, this is a beautiful introduction to rural Mexican life. Resau expertly interweaves local culture and language into a well-paced and interesting story. One might quibble that the two books bear an awful lot of similarity to each other (as if Resau has trouble getting out of the same rut), but they are each beautiful in their own way and so are both worth reading.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hold Still, by Nina LaCour

In the aftermath of her best friend Ingrid's suicide, Caitlin feels aimless, drifting through her junior year. A new friend Dylan and a new boyfriend Jayson cannot erase the missing presence of her friend. Over the course of a year, this book traces Caitlin's grieving process and coming to terms. When Caitlin discovers the dead girl's journal under her own bed and she starts to read it, she learns lots about her friend that she didn't know before.

There are plenty of books about grieving and loss in the YA cannon. And more than a few of them have come out in the last year. This one, however, really stands out from the pack for several reasons.

LaCour is a formidable writing presence. The great challenge with writing a book like this is keeping the pace moving. It is far too easy to fall into navel gazing and melancholy. And it is similarly easy to pull out the stops and go for melodrama in an attempt to avoid the lethargy. LaCour achieves the perfect balance, never letter Caitlin become a whimpering helpless mess yet not resorting to extreme (and uncharacteristic) emotions. Instead, we get a beautifully-written story about coping.

As usual, what I really keyed in on was the way that everyone in this book is imperfect, neither evil nor good. The photography teacher Ms. Delani is probably one of the more complex teachers to grace a teen book in some years (and she could have been so evil in the hands of a lesser writer). Ingrid's parents, introduced quite late in the book, are breathtakingly fragile. Pride in place, however, goes to Caitlin's lesbian friend Dylan who never falls into the stereotype that you would expect from the new-kid-at-school (neither that nor her sexual orientation ever become a real issue in this story - although some school-based homophobia is briefly hinted at). I love the way that Dylan's friendship not only supports Caitlin, but also feeds certain key elements of the plot.

And that brings me to another strong point in this story: LaCour's ability to bring it all together. In a novel with a lot of characters and a fair number of subplots (a closed movie theater scheduled to be demolished, romance, struggle with art, the journal, building a tree house), it is always a notable event when the author manages to tie all of the elements together without forcing them. The result is you leave this book never feeling that your time was wasted. Every page is truly important to the story. Remarkable!

So, even if the topic of death and grieving may be old hat, this novel will rank as one of the very best attempts to do it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Scars, by Cheryl Rainfield

Kendra has been going through a lot in recent months. Recollections of childhood sexual abuse have begun to appear out of suppressed memories. To cope with them, she has turned to cutting. And while the self-abuse gives her a sense of release, her level of tension keeps rising as she becomes convinced that her abuser (who she cannot remember) is following her in an attempt to intimidate her and prevent her from identifying him (as if she could!). Her parents are both weak and ineffectual and Kendra's only allies are her Mom's gay friend Sandy, her therapist, and a new best friend at school Meaghan, with whom Kendra is falling in love (and who, incidentally, has significant problems with physical abuse at home).

This is a very dark book, but if you can stomach these sorts of things, the novel has a lot to offer for itself. Certainly the story is riveting and will keep you hooked. I'll admit that I didn't care for the ending (the story veered off into a far too easy conclusion when the guns started to appear), but I found the characters compelling. It is always a bit of a challenge to take a victim like Kendra and make her strong yet believable. Yet in this case, Kendra's struggles seemed realistic (and it helps to learn that much of her sufferings were based on the author's own experiences -- it lends credibility to the overall story). That I'm saying this is significant as I've always found cutting hard to understand, and I really got it in this case. Kudos for getting through to the hard-to-reach!

One thing I do wonder is where Rainfield will go next. Once you've written the fictional account of your life, what do you do for a second novel? It seems that she has the skills to write a less autobiographical book, so I hope she will and give us a taste of her skills as a writer, and not just as a survivor. Her own story was compelling, but I'd like to think she could pull it off with someone else's story as well.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Off Year, by Claire Zulkey

As her father is dropping her off at Kenyon to start her freshman year, Cecily suddenly reaches a moment of intense clarity that she doesn't want to be there. So, she turns to her father and says she wants to go home. Her father, at a bit of a loss for words, takes her home. While Cecily doesn't know what she wants to do next, she does know that she simply isn't ready for college. During the next year, she attempts to figure out why and whether it is something she wants to change.

An insightful story about the jitters and the difficulties of facing change. But for me it never really took off. First of all, because the heroine is sort of a 21st century teen Oblomov (that's college reading folks!) who sits around moaning and complaining about her own lack of ability to motivate. And secondly, because in the process she just comes off as spoiled, coddled, and clueless (anyone here want to guess what tuition/room/board at Kenyon actually costs? it sure must be nice to blow that off!). Overall, it was really hard to relate to Cecily. Ironically, the number of times that her friends and family pointed out to her how spoiled she actually was never really seemed to have any impact. OK, she grew a little by at least understanding a bit about her fears, but she took an entire year to figure it out. Give me a break!

And an old pet peeve about the depiction of my home town: Zulkey has obviously never been to Madison, so don't pay much mind to that section of the book. Madison is hardly a "small town" with a "small lake" (which one? we have four of them!), "cute restaurants, cute theaters, cute stores" (they are nice, but I'd hardly describe anything in Madison as "cute"), and the "main drag" (State Street?!) is actually not home to many head shops. Maybe she should have browsed through Google Earth's 360 view for inspiration! Sloppy research!

So, yeah, original idea with some nice insight here and there, but overall not my idea of a fun read.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Touch, by Francine Prose

When 14 year-old Maureen is "inappropriately touched" in the back of a school bus by her three best friends, the story of what really happened and why it happened is not exactly clear, even to Maureen. And as the people around her (adults and former friends alike) begin to use the story for their own ends, Maureen becomes more and more upset with her inability to explain her feelings and thus ironically less and less articulate. What eventually develops is a fairly complex understanding about adolescent behavior, puberty, body image, and the ways that friendships get torn apart through change.

While I've noticed that this book does not seem to have a lot of adolescent fans, I was nonetheless very impressed by its complexity, bravery, and honesty. I was frankly surprised by the book. My initial feeling had been to distrust the book and the author, but Prose won me over with her very insightful heroine and the painful and truthful thoughts she expressed. Perhaps as an adult, I find the way that relations between boys and girls change during adolescence to be more interesting -- and more poignant -- than a teenager would. And perhaps the idea that the basic fact of growing breasts could be not-so-simple and, in fact, so tragic to this young woman is something that is worth pondering. So, in the end, perhaps this is a YA book intended for an adult audience. After all, puberty is probably far more interesting to read about in hindsight!

I do know that I enjoyed Maureen's character. She brilliantly skewers the supposedly adult people around her (she so brilliantly nails her Mom's insecurities, her Mom's boyfriend's childishness, her stepmother's self-centeredness, her father's and teachers' avoidance, and -- in something of a departure for this sort of novel -- even her own shortcomings. That may not always be so realistic, but it is welcome in a book that is this cerebral. The other characters, most of them flawed in significant ways, are also realistic in their limitations. And the ending of the story eschews any unrealistic happy tie-up, leaving us with an understanding that nothing like this is truly going to end up bad or good.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The ABCs of Kissing Boys, by Tina Ferraro

Ok, so I'll have to admit that between this book's title and its cover, my manhood felt a bit too threatened to read it in public. That's probably a bit of a shame, because this is a decent read that shouldn't be limited to a female audience...

Parker has had her hopes on getting into varsity soccer for some time, so when she discovers that she will be one of the only juniors who is stuck in JV for another year, she realizes it is time to hatch a desperate plan to win a spot with the big girls (and her former friends). Through some convoluted logic, she comes up with a plan that involves her older brother's handsome friend, a large bribe, and a kissing booth. The only catch? The handsome friend insists that before any kissing takes place, she'll have to get some lessons so she does it "right." That takes an even more awkward turn when Parker enlists her neighbor's son (nearly a year younger -- and two grades behind her) to give her the education she needs. And while getting on varsity is what Parker needs to maintain her status and self-respect, being caught kissing a freshman could easily damage her far worse.

It's a silly story, of course, with a plot that's so farcical that it's actually believable, but it has a lovely charm to it. And while the middle drags and the ending ties things up way too conveniently with a combination of coincidence and predictability, these are the kind of fluff that make enjoyable reading. The key of the book's success is the characters. Parker is shallow and cruel to people who deserve to be treated better (her old friend Becca and the boy next door Tristan) and way too sycophantic to the evil Chrissandra (where on earth did that name come from?!), but she has a lot of spirit and a decent enough moral compass to guide her through her authentic adolescent lack of judgment. And that mixture of good and bad makes her very appealing.

Ferraro knows her audience and doesn't condescend to them (no one here is stupid and their behavior is never criticized). The key theme throughout is insecurity and finding self-worth. And it's a message that appeals to readers who are trying to do that. Of course, you want to smack these kids in the head and tell them that they don't need to study kissing (or put up with nasty bullies or turn against their friends to become popular), but that isn't how it plays out in the teen years and Ferraro gets that right.

There is no deep meaning buried in this novel and very little long term redeeming value, but that means that a book like this can be safely enjoyed for being fun to read. And that's more than enough!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Cold Hands, Warm Heart, by Jill Wolfson

Dani has always struggled to get through life with her defective heart. When it finally gives out, she is lucky enough to receive a new one. After the surgery, she becomes curious about the donor and starts a correspondence with the donor's family.

After Amanda dies, her brother Tyler searches through her possessions to come to grips with who she was while she was alive. Receiving Dani's letters helps him come to terms with his loss.

For those curious about how organ donation works, this book provides a lot of useful information. Helpfully, it is also a breezy read with a lively pace.

What it lacks is much of a story. There certainly are lots of characters and plenty of subplots, but very little in the way of an overall narrative. For example, the story of the two teens meeting and communicating certainly happens, but there is no real development, no tension, and no conclusion to draw from it. The kids write letters. They are shy about meeting each other face to face. End of story. One can praise the book for introducing readers to an important issue, but this could have been more effectively done in non-fiction than in this thinly-developed novel.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Carbon Diaries 2015, by Saci Lloyd

After an environmental cataclysm nearly floods England, the UK decides to pioneer austere carbon rationing in an attempt to counter the effects of global warming. The result is chaos and disorder as the severe cutbacks destabilize civilization. Worse, it doesn't reverse the damage. Instead, over the course of the year 2015, blizzards, cold snaps, drought, and flooding inundate London.

Told through the diary entries of Laura Brown, who would rather play bass in her punk band The Dirty Angels, the global events share importance with the major daily events in her own life of that year (reconciling with her sister, grades at school, trying to be noticed by the boy next door, dealing with her splintering family, etc.). The trouble is that the events all conspire together to overlap and intertwine in her life.

This is an engaging science fiction novel of a near future where the effects of global warming have become too vivid to ignore. I was a bit put off by having it placed so soon in the future (the book will not age well) but I get the author's point of wanting to make sure that the immediacy of the events would be acknowledged by readers. And while I would like to believe that the scenario is overly dire, I respect the intent. One cannot fault the plot. The story is engaging enough to make me want to read the sequel that has been recently released.

What worked less well for me was the juxtaposition of Laura's personal life with the devastating world events. There wasn't much connection between the two and I found the one distracting me from the other. Unlike a book like Life As We Knew It which told the story of environmental collapse in purely micro terms (and thus worked), Lloyd is trying to have things both ways. It just doesn't gel.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Need, by Carrie Jones

After her stepfather dies, Zara gets sent by her mother to live in Maine with her grandmother. On her way there, she notices that a strange man appears to be stalking her. And when she gets to her grandmother's, she learns that boys at her new school are disappearing. At first, she isn't sure how these events are connected, but when some new friends suggest that it is the work of evil pixies she learns that the creatures are trying to recruit her to be their new queen. Before long, she is immersed in the world of pixies, were-creatures, and a legend of magic and dark tidings that haunt this rural Maine town.

Sort of a New Moon in Maine story, but lacking the youthful charm, Jones far too quickly dispenses with any of the trappings of reality that makes Stephanie Meyer's stories interesting in favor of action and adventure. And there's certainly plenty of stuff going on, although it doesn't always make a lot of sense.

While the story did not do much for me, I did appreciate Zara's character. She has a great attititude and a healthy disrespect for the conventional fantasy heroine tropes (hurling verbal insults at the pixie king while he's trying to haunt her is pretty hillarious!). A common thread through the story is Zara's obsession with different types of phobias, but the irony in this is that she really doesn't suffer from any of them. Instead, she is one of the most fearless of the bunch.

Rage: A Love Story, by Julie Anne Peters

Peters has become one of the leaders in LGBT YA literature and in this novel she probes the dark territory of physical abuse within teen lesbian relationships. It's the kind of topic that could easily have been sensationalized or used as fodder for someone's political agenda, but Peters respects her characters enough to avoid those pitfalls.

Johanna is an emancipated minor, orphan, and gay. After being rejected by her older sister (ostensibly out of grief, but implicitly because of her sexual orientation), she struggles with feelings of low self-worth. She has good grades, a steady job, and volunteer work at a hospice to give her a sense of purpose. However, from the beginning it is clear that Johanna has problems letting people down.

Enter Reeve, the object of Johanna's sexual fantasies (which take place in fairly explicit detail in the mythical realm of "Joyland" that intersperses the book). Through tutoring Reeve's autistic brother, Johanna gets a chance to grow closer to Reeve and at first their relationship - while always rocky - is everything that Johanna needs it to be. The reality of the relationship, though, is considerably darker as is immediately apparent to the reader (but completely unfathomable to Johanna herself). Reeve systematically isolates Johanna, severing her ties with school, work, and friends, while simultaneously battering her. All of this seems understandable, given the horrendous conditions from which Reeve herself comes.

While the gay angle is unique, it isn't really essential to the story as near as I can tell (or at least Peters does not present behavior that could be described as unique to lesbian relationships). So I'll focus on this as a story of abuse in teenage relationships. For me, the gold standard in this genre is probably Sarah Dessen's Dreamland and in that light, Rage doesn't really measure up. The character behavior is realistic enough and the story sufficiently horrifying, but the motivations that would drive the characters are not developed. Certainly, we can imagine how an orphan could fall under the sway of an abusive partner and we can understand how the girls are replicating the environments in which they were raised, but that really is not enough to explain what we are reading.

I found myself more disgusted by Johanna's illusions and weaknesses than sympathetic to them. At some point, her constant refusal to acknowledge what was happening became tiresome and I lost faith in her. And, having so carefully defined how important things like her volunteer work are, it wasn't really believable that she would allow it to fall apart so easily.

Peters pretty much realizes the corner she has painted her story into at the end and attempts a radical about-face to clean up the story enough to offer us some hope. But this is rushed and the characters improve in even less plausible of a fashion than they declined throughout the story. If you are going to show character redemption at the end of the story, you really have to show them working for it and the sweat and tears that would help us understand these troubled women are missing.