Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Absolute Value of Mike, by Kathryn Erskine

Mike's father is absolutely convinced that Mike should become an engineer. Never mind that Mike is hopeless with math or spatial relationships. Dad is obsessed. So, when Dad gets an opportunity to go overseas for the summer, he decides to send Mike to his distant relatives Moo and Poppy in rural Pennsylvania to help Poppy build an "artesian screw" and hone his engineering skills.

That's when the fun really begins. Moo is half-blind and confused, and her driving is downright terrifying. Poppy is grieving his dead son and completely tuned out. The entire town is obsessed (and united) around the goal of raising enough money to adopt a Romanian orphan named Misha. As Mike gets sucked into the plan, he discovers that he may make a lousy traditional engineer, but he's good at getting this oddball group to come together.

Erskine has a wonderful ability to come up with lively and original stories. So far, she hasn't fallen into a rut and each of her three novels has been unique. While stories about quirky small towns tend to drive me nutty (as they usually come across as big city stereotypes of what life in rural areas are like), this one doesn't fit the mold. For while the characters all seem like crazy hayseeds at first, their behavior is eventually explained. All of which sends a message to Mike (and the reader) that initial impressions are deceiving.

Mike is also an appealing character. He's quick tempered, jumps to conclusions and a bit stubborn, but these are traits that actually serve him well (and to which boys as a whole will relate). He occasionally comes across a bit too insightful for his age (14), but struggles realistically with self-identity and his maturing relationship with his Dad. While many classic YA books have done this too, it's fallen out of vogue. It's nice to find a good coming-of-age boy book. And it's particularly nice to find a book for boys that focuses on human relationships and not blowing things up or winning the big game.

As You Wish, by Jackson Pearce

After Viola discovers that her best friend and ex-boyfriend Lawrence is gay, she feels alone and invisible. The solution, she is convinced, is to find a way to get over Lawrence entirely and find someone new. If she could pull that off, life would be so much better!

So, when a jinn (a genie) shows up and grants her three wishes, it might well seem like a perfect solution. However, Viola is smart enough to realize that she cannot simply wish herself to happiness. In fact, she finds it difficult (if not impossible) to imagine a set of wishes she truly wants. But a strange thing happens: the longer it takes her to decide three things to wish for, the more clearer she becomes about how to achieve happiness. Ironically, it will come to depend on her ability to not use up those wishes. A battle of wills erupts with surprising consequences all round.

A fascinating twist on the Aladdin story. Pearce has fun reimagining the story as a more blatant exploration of adolescent identity and self-discovery than the traditional tale allows. All well and good and it might have made a memorable riff. The ingredients are all in place for a fable about how happiness truly comes from within. But somewhere along the way, Pearce decided that that wasn't the book that she wanted to write. Instead, she plunges midway into a more traditional romance. This is unexpected and will appeal to a particular audience, but seemed like a waste of a good story to me.

Friday, April 29, 2011

You Are Not Here, by Samantha Schutz

Told in verse, You Are Not Here is the story of Annaleah and Brian's short-lived romance, cut short when Brian suddenly dies. In the aftermath of Brian's death, Annaleah falls into self-pity and shuts herself off from her friends and family in grief. It doesn't help that her friends never liked Brian and that Brian never publicly acknowledged the relationship. Isolated, with her right to grieve unrecognized and unvalidated, Annaleah spends day after day at Brian's grave, trying to draw some sense of it all. Slowly, she manages to pull herself out of her depression, helped along by persistent friends and a chance for new love in the form of a guy at work.

Verse novels, I'm fond of noting, are very much hit or miss. I find them so risky that I usually avoid them altogether. This is one of the successes. It doesn't succeed so much on the strength of the poetry (some of which is good) or on the occasional poignant observation (far too easy when continuity is optional). It works in this case because of Schutz's keen sense of the human psyche. The grief that Annaleah is feeling is authentic and her feelings in general are real. Surprisingly, for a novel about grief, there are some really hot sex scenes in here as well (a particularly memorable shower scene sticks out). All of which is to say that Schutz sees a world that is full of many emotions, where a character can cry and laugh, grow angry and even lust -- all in one package. A fair share of sage advice about overcoming grief is a valuable side benefit.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Big Crunch, by Pete Hautman

June has been dragged from one town to another by her "never look back" father. She's learned that everywhere she goes, schools and kids are pretty much the same. That is, until she meets Wes. It isn't love at first sight, but after a few false starts, they fall for each other. Unfortunately, soon enough June has to move again. This time, though, is different and June and Wes struggle to stay together, realizing that friends in life are not always interchangeable.

While there isn't much of a plot, it's an interesting book. The romance, despite the hype of the dust jacket (which also strangely refers to the girl as Jen), is by-the-numbers. But that really isn't the point here. It's the characters who are interesting. Their language is refreshingly frank and sounds authentically real. And not just the kids -- the adults also sound painfully real. Cliches like the totally self-absorbed teen or the arrogant/clueless adult are tossed out, and replaced by real human beings. The result are people who are plain appealing to read about. So what if the story breaks no new narrative ground? I could read these folks reciting the phone book and would still be interested!

The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen

Jessica has nearly always thought of herself as a runner. From when she was little, running meant freedom. And running on the track team has been her favorite thing in the world. So when an accident crushes her leg and the limb is amputated, she has to redefine herself. How will she ever survive not being able to run again?

Step by step, Van Draanen shows how Jessica heals her physical and psychic wounds as best she can, and how she re-learns her abilities and her limits. Along the way, she befriends a younger handicapped girl who helps her in her recovery.

Most of the novel is good but average -- a well-researched story about amputation and rehabilitation. There's lots of nice details about how prosthetics are fitted and how they work. I was reminded of a similar book I read a few years back by Priscilla Cummings called A Face First (about a girl recovering from significant burn damage). It's one of my all-time favorite books. The challenge with this type of story is taking all of that research and making the story still flow -- combining entertainment with the education. Cummings pulled it off, but I didn't feel like Van Draanen did as well here. For its majority, the book is more a string of episodes -- related to each other but never quite flowing together.

All of this changes in the last sixty pages or so, when Van Draanen seemingly discovers the unifying theme for her story and brings it all home. Having gotten 2/3 through the book, I wasn't expecting such a strong finish, but it easily made the rest of the book (which isn't bad!) worth reading.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Jumpstart the World, by Catharine Ryan Hyde

When 15 year-old Elle's mother decides to settle down with her new child-hating boyfriend, Mom decides that Elle should be settled down in her own apartment. Despite feeling hurt by the abandonment, Elle doesn't really mind because she's always been a loner (and also because Mom has never been very attentive in the first place). Elle has learned that she can't really allow people into her life.

That starts to change through the adoption of a rescue cat and her hard crush for the older man next door. The cat isn't terribly friendly and the man next door is a bit different. In fact, Elle's entire new world is full of misfits and colorful characters, but somehow she finds what she needs from the diverse group.

"Jumpstart the world" as a phrase will probably not resonate as well as Hyde's earlier "pay it forward," but she is attempting to weave the same magic: telling a story that is deceptively simple while delivering a bigger message. As a story, though, it didn't work. In this case, the message is hindered by the narrator, who is maddeningly contradictory. She's astute and well-spoken, but immature. She's capable of taking care of herself and articulating complex feelings, yet prejudiced and selfish. Being so articulate, her self-realizations sound fake (you find it hard to believe she was ever so ignorant in the first place) and her changes are too sudden.

The supporting characters are also very thin. In some cases like Elle's Mom or Molly this works very well, leaving open plenty of room for reader-supplied elaboration. With others, like Elle's schoolfriends, the flatness seems a bit lazy.

Matched, by Ally Condie

It starts with the matching ceremony where Cassia, against all odds, ends up betrothed to her childhood friend Xander (she can't believe her luck, since the matching ceremony usually links you up to a complete stranger!). But when the face of another local bad boy named Ky accidentally appears instead of Xander's on the forms, the mistake triggers a series of events that has Cassia questioning the rules and customs of her society.

In this future dystopia, choice has been replaced with statistical predetermination and planning. Even the act of teenage rebellion is carefully charted, observed, and controlled. Cassia though is one tough nut to crack and for every revelation of official control, Cassia has a couple of secrets up her sleeve to strike back.

While the novel starts off as some sort of YA love triangle (and occasionally drifted back into that territory), author Condie is sharp enough to not dwell on that for long. Cassia knows that there is more at stake in this world than her romantic feelings.

I liked Cassia. She's bright, brave, and insightful. Condie lets her be girlie enough to make her realistic and relatable, but she has strength. Her rebellion against unjust authority will universally resonate with her readers (and it's nice to remember that Huxley's Brave New World appealed to the young in his day as well).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Absolute Value of -1, by Steve Brezenoff

Told mostly in three separate voices of allegedly close friends, this is the story of Lily, Noah, and Simon -- three teens finding love and getting high. Noah's dad beats on him and Simon's dad is dying. Lily seems to be mostly obsessed with trying to go out with Simon (while Simon's interests lie mostly elsewhere). Is there a point to all of this? It's hard to find one!

There are plenty of clever ideas and some smart dialogue, but I found myself getting lost while trying to follow who was whom and what their motivations were. By the time I was half-way through the book, I wasn't really able to tell anymore how the action fit together. The characters are numerous and largely indistinct. The overall result is a messy read with an inconclusive ending.

Freak Magnet, by Andrew Auseon

Charlie is a definite freak. He says whatever comes to his mind (often with hillarious results) and gets worse when he's nervous. Gloria is a self-described "freak magnet," who somehow attracts the attention of every strange guy she meets. Their initial disastrous encounter is no surprise. What is a surprise is how well they eventually hit it off, discovering kindred feelings driven by similar hardships and dreams.

The result is a charmingly off-beat romance. It can get a bit weird at times (the narrative is terribly random), but Charlie and Gloria are endearing. While Charlie's flaws are immediately apparent, Gloria's take some time to reveal themselves. Their self-absorption is both realistic and dramatically interesting. And you'll find yourself liking them in spite of it all.

If you like a tight tied-up ending, this one's loose ends will drive you nuts, but it drives home the message that the ending is really not the point -- it's the trip we take to get there.

The Complete History of Why I Hate Her, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Nola loves her little sister Song, but after years of worrying about Song's health (she has a brain tumor), Nola needs to get away and have some time for herself. She goes up to Maine to spend the summer waitressing, and immediately befriends Carly. At first, Carly seems the perfect antidote -- energetic, fun, resourceful -- and Carly is drawn in. But slowly, Carly reveals a possessive streak that borders on a pathology and her behavior becomes more and more threatening.

The story starts a bit slow and I was left wondering where it was actually heading, but once Carly's dark side started to appear, I got sucked in. What that tells me is that Carly was a much more interesting character than Nola. Evil is generally more enthralling and Carly has a lot of interesting stuff going on (and so much more that wasn't even discussed -- why is she the way she is?). Nola goes through some growth and re-bonds with her sister, but she's terribly passive and easily manipulated. It's hard to really care very much about her.