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.