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.