Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Solace of the Road, by Siobhan Dowd

The late Siobhan Dowd's final novel features Holly, a girl who decides to run away on her 15th birthday from her foster parents to find her mother. In logic that makes more sense to a lonely teen, Holly is convinced that her mother, who abandoned her years ago, is waiting for her in Ireland. Emboldened by a blonde wig she has stolen from her foster mother, Holly christens herself as "Solace" -- an older and wiser version of herself. She hitchhikes across western England and Wales, managing to reach the coast, but not without struggles (both material and mental, in both present and past).

As an adventure story, the young girl's mishaps will annoy some readers, but come across true to her age. She is both very brave and very foolish, weak but ultimately strong enough to pull herself back from the brink. While she makes her fair share of mistakes, she makes enough good decisions to survive the trip. Far more important, however, is the emotional journey that Holly takes as Solace. While ultimately predictable, the story is affirming and rewarding, and delivers a proper emotional payoff. In my opinion, a bit more ambitious than The London Eye Mystery and more interesting than A Swift Pure Cry. Worthy reading.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Crossing, by Andrew Xia Fukuda

Xing Xu is one of only two Chinese kids at his high school in Upstate New York. Unlike the other one (the bright and popular Naomi Lee), he's never been able to fit in. Instead, he tries to stay unobserved in the shadows. But when boys in his class start to disappear, Xing realizes that he -- on the sheer basis of being different -- is going to be eyed as a suspect. Ironically, as a careful observer of his peers, he proves to be the most adept at identifying the real culprit.

A chilling and scary book about psychopathic killing, prejudice, and paranoia -- in sum, not really my thing. For me, a simpler story about prejudice and how it makes its victims self-doubting would have been a compelling story, but Fukuda wanted to amp up the story with the murders (it does tend to expand the appeal of the book). While I didn't care for that particular decision, I can still acknowledge the strength of the book. It works on many levels. If you want a suspense/mystery novel, this will work for you.

The key to the book's success lies, as always in a decent book, with a great protagonist. Xing's character is particularly vibrant and interesting. His observations about the town's prejudice are damning and spot on. But Xing's real appeal lies in his ability to be an honest judge and he is equally critical of himself, which makes the misunderstandings in this story all the more poignant (and makes the ending just that much more haunting).

Monday, April 26, 2010

All Unquiet Things, by Anna Jarzab

Neily is the guy who found his ex-girlfriend Carly shot dead on an abandoned bridge over a year ago. Audrey is Carly's cousin and it was her father that was accused of the crime and sent to jail. But a year later, Audrey convinces Neily that the cops got the wrong man. Soon, there is a story of drugs, kidnapping, rape, and disappearances to add to the mix. Very quickly, both young people realize that they are getting in over their heads as the plot thickens.

This is extremely well-paced and Jarzab does a nice job of unraveling the story -- through a combination of narrative shift and flashbacks -- in such a way to keep things very interesting. Even the ending, which is predictable, keeps you beholden to the page. If story is what you're after, this is a good one.

The writing, however, is not nearly as good. First of all, despite being told by two separate narrators, there is no effective difference between the voices of Neily and Audrey. They both just sound old (what teenager would ever describe a room as being like "an English garden" or write such convoluted prose as "free to pace the winding corridors of our minds in search of answers to questions we had just started to learn how to ask"). Jarzab also has a rather odd notion of the generation she is writing about. At one point, she notes that the kids remember 9/11 like their parents remember where they were when JFK was shot. Excuse me? Whose parents?! (Let's do the math -- most HS seniors today were about nine years old during 9/11 which is not really an age where that sort of thing sinks in and their parents were probably 1 or 2 years old when Kennedy was shot!) Yes, it's small stuff, but it piles up after a while and it bugged me. I wanted to like the book because of its great story, but the lack of attention to detail distracted me.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Intensely Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Following the Alice series has become a major commitment and for those unfamiliar with the books, it would take a bit long to get you caught up. What began as an interesting series about a girl growing up in suburban Maryland has become something of a teen lit behemoth. It's not so hard to see the appeal of the books as Naylor details the life of Alice so thoroughly that we know basically every personal embarrassing detail of herself and her friends. The Alice series reminds me of the 7 Up television series -- it shows up at regular intervals to remind us of how we have grown. I've been reading the series for nine years now, and I imagine that there are plenty of people who have read them longer than that. They are not great literature and Alice's normality is coupled by a degree of shelteredness that only a fellow suburbanite could truly equate with reality, but this is literary comfort food and it serves a purpose (more on that below).

This latest installment takes us through the summer between Alice's Junior and Senior years of High School. Her long-term boyfriend Patrick has gone off to Chicago for the summer and Alice is going out to visit him. The big decision (should she have sex with him?) hangs over her for the first half of the book. It's a big decision and one that fans have been waiting for her to decide for at least the past six-seven books. And then there's also her cousin's wedding, a stint working at a homeless shelter, and a bunch of reflections about getting older. Near the end of the book there's a big shocking plot twist to give it all some gravitas.

The problem with Naylor (and I've said it before in nearly all of my reviews of her books) is that she really doesn't know how to write for older teens. For as much explicit material is included in this book, it is surprising just how chaste these books are. That may strike some adults as crazy talk (this novel, for example, includes a pretty explicit sex scene -- on pp 113-14 if you want to jump ahead to the "good stuff" -- and some major sexual themes lifted right out of Judy Blume's Forever), but Naylor is always cutting an agenda. Whether it's how to deal with unwanted guests, sexual harassment, or even being assertive in bed, Naylor always makes sure that Alice does the right thing. All that makes Alice look like a goody goody and just a bit to perfect to be true. In fact, I would argue that Alice isn't supposed to be real (protestations of her fans to the contrary) -- she's a representation of what Naylor would like girls to be like. In a way, it's like a 21st century equivalent of a good for young ladies. I personally find that a bit creepy, but I suspect that people enjoy the fantasy too much to worry about it. And for the younger teen readers, there probably is a comfort in having a role model who squeaks as well as Alice does.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Donut Days, by Lara Zielin

The Crispy Dream donut chain is opening a new branch in town, and Emma is determined to write the story of a lifetime to win a college scholarship from the local newspaper. She needs the money because her parents have made it clear that they won't pay for school if she pursues a secular education (they would prefer it if she went to a Christian school). But then, she's always been the black sheep of the family. While her parents share ministerial duties at an Evangelical church and her little sister is the poster child of pink, innocent devotion, the binding on Emma's Bible cracks loudly from lack of use during prayers and she's never yet spoken in tongues.

But writing this article opens up an entire new perspective for Emma, as she meets obsessed donut fans, college students getting to know each other, and even a group of born again motorcycle riders (whose issues and challenges, Emma discovers, mirror her own).

Meanwhile, her parents are facing their own problem: a wealthy congregant who has launched a campaign to remove Emma's mother from the ministry (under the old chestnut that women should not serve in the role). Emma is suspicious of the man's motives but her parents refuse to discuss the subject with her. And for her protestations, Emma alienates her friends as well.

While the donut shop grand opening and the political struggle at Emma's parents' church may seem largely unrelated, Zielin makes the stories overlap in a way that does not seem forced. And the overall message -- mostly, about standing up for what you believe in -- is sufficiently unifying to both story lines.

I was mildly twitched by the obvious cover of Krispy Kremes (I really didn't get why Zielin couldn't have stuck with the real brand name) and on guard with my religion-fairness radar. The latter more so because Zielin conflates faith with stubbornness and hypocrisy. It isn't so much that I like Evangelicals all that much (in case someone misconstrues my criticism) but rather that I consider it a lazy target. It's far too easy to create a religious nut case with a secret sinister agenda. And it's far too easy to assume that people who have faith are incapable of having an open-minded discussion. Now, it is true that at the end of the book some of the characters come clean, but it's a little too little and too late for me. It also struck me as a bit cheap that the main conflict with the parents is resolved so easily (oh, you mean that all those times you said that you didn't like being cut out, that you were telling the truth, Emma? Oh, my, I'm so sorry we didn't do what you asked us to do!). I thus found the bad guys to either be too simple or too weak.

Into the Wild Nerd Yonder, by Julie Halpern

Jessie's talent in math (and school in general) along with her unusual hobby of sewing her own skirts out of goofy fabrics would probably get her branded with the "geek" tag if it weren't for her uber-cool older brother, his punk rock band, and his orange mohawk. Jessie's status is also secured by her two BFFs (Char and Bizza) who, while not the nicest of people, at least cut out a place for themselves (and Jessie by association) through their own outlandish tastes.

But as Sophomore year starts, Jessie is beginning to wonder what she really gets out of the deal. Her BFFs don't really support her or even care what she does. All they want is to flirt with the members of her brother's band. And when Bizza makes the moves on Jessie's long-term crush (the bassist of the band), Jessie has to confront the fact that she is being used.

Simultaneous with the realization that her friends really aren't her friends anymore is Jessie's acquaintance with a girl in study hall who plays Dungeons and Dragons and wants to recruit Jessie to sew her and her friends some garb for a live-action role-playing weekend in Wisconsin. To learn more, she surreptitiously joins them for a gaming night and discovers that it is a lot of fun! Now, Jessie is torn between being a borderline geek (with cool friends that lend her some status) and throwing it all away and plunging into the wild nerd frontier of D&D and a group of kids who are actually nice to her for a change.

You can almost certainly guess where the story is going, but with Halpern the fun is really in the trip itself. At the core of that fun are the characters. Jessie is a great character with the spunkiness and attitude of some of the best YA heroines (think Ruby Oliver or Cyd Charisse). She mixes vulnerability with strength (crushing seriously on her guys yet willing to take the initiative and kiss them instead of waiting for them to pick up the nerve) in a way that is really appealing. Her older brother is sufficiently annoying to be believable yet sympathetic and wise enough to be helpful and useful. The parents are unobtrusive but not clueless. Even the bitchy ex-BFFs are decent foils without being over the top.

The story moves at a decent pace, yet develops in a believable fashion. That is certainly a big challenge as Halpern needs to get Jessie from being credibly committed to her friends and her crush, yet, by the end, she has successfully morphed into a person who can reject that life and choose a new one. This hardly happens overnight (or in a few pages) and Halpern keeps a tight watch over the dramatic arc to deliver a story that you can accept and a metamorphosis that you can root for. Good fun!

Monday, April 05, 2010

Wild Things, by Clay Carmichael

After her neglectful mother dies, 11 year-old Zoe comes to live with her wealthy and famous sculptor uncle Henry. At his cabin in the woods, Zoe is free to mostly run wild and, while she's distrustful of most people, she eventually befriends a feral cat, a wild boy, and the boy's mysterious companion - a white fawn. Told in alternating voices of the Zoe and the cat (an unusual narrator to say the least), we gradually get to see Zoe open up. There are also a number of sundry subplots about local corruption and pushy customers.

While the story has plenty of original ideas and is well-written, it doesn't really carry itself like a children's book. Rather, it is more the type of artsy book that teachers read to kids. The heroine doesn't sound even vaguely like a kid, let alone an 11 year-old. At the very least, she is wise beyond her years and I honestly didn't find her very interesting. In fact, the most interesting character is the cat, which is not surprising as he has one of the most unique voices in YA literature and gets most of the good observations.

Mostly, I dislike books that attempt to be too literary at the expense of being entertaining. Too much of this book was trying to make a point. I'm not going to say that kids will all hate it, but I have a hard time imagining why they would enjoy it.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Forest Born, by Shannon Hale

This fourth outing in Hale's highly-successful Books of Bayern series introduces Razo's little sister Rin, who has a very different -- and more subtle -- talent than the previous heroines of the series. When she concentrates, she can hear trees (but not speak to them). She also seems to have a second power to read the truth and influence people (as well as an unspeakable fear of using the power).

While an obedient and helpful daughter to her large family, she feels lost in her home in the woods. Fearful of her talents, uncomfortable with her roles at home, she feels drawn to take a trip to the capital of Bayern to visit her brother. She arrives in a time of turmoil as mysterious events are taking place on the northern border with the Kingdom of Kel. Rin gets drawn into these events and comes face to face with the true nature of her powers (and why she fears them so much).

As fair warning, the series has now become so developed that you really need to start at the beginning in order to get its full flavor. Yes, there is sufficient backstory in this installment to catch you up with the important details, but to truly appreciate the characters it is worth the time to read each of their stories in the previous three books.

That said, I found this latest novel to be one of the most emotionally and psychologically complicated in the series. A true YA master, Hale recognizes that the key to writing truly outstanding literature for teens is both telling a good story and also creating characters whose struggles resonate with them. For teens who fear their own abilities (or even just taking the risk of exercising their talents), Rin's search for balance between action and observation is welcoming balm. This is fantasy for the thinking teen.