Friday, July 29, 2011

This Girl Is Different, by J J Johnson

As a social experiment, after being home schooled for many years, Evie convinces her mother to let her attend public school for her final year. Her mother reluctantly agrees and things get off to an auspicious start when Evie meets two of her future classmates, Rajas and Jacinda a few days before classes start. Evie and Jacinda become close friends and Evie develops a serious crush on Rajas.

From being homeschooled by her independent and freethinking mother, Evie has developed a tendency towards being outspoken and she rebels against the cliques and social norms of the school. This hurts her ability to make friends but pales in comparison to the trouble she starts when she starts speaking out against the teachers! A plan to out an abusive gym teacher and a sleazy social studies teacher who is hitting on students backfires horribly and Evie finds herself in deep trouble.

The book can get a bit preachy at times, but Evie is a spirited and spunky character with a lot of appeal. The writing is sharp and fresh and more original than most of the stuff that is out there. I found that the ending dragged on a bit and fell into melodrama, but I liked Evie and her mother so much that I was willing to give the book some slack.

I especially wanted to give a special shout out to some very well written sex scenes. In my experience, sex in YA books fall into two categories: hot sweaty stuff worthy of a Harlequin novel and Judy Blume-style how-to's with lots of encouraging commentary about how wonderful/natural/beautiful it all is. Neither approach has ever struck me as meaningful. Johnson takes an entirely different approach: portraying the hormonal rush and the intense desire (coupled by regret and fear) that all gets mixed together. Nearly thirty years later, that's how I remember it and I think it's more honest than most other authors I have read. The feelings that Evie describes sounded painfully authentic to me. Serious props to Johnson for doing such a brilliant job!

In sum, this author is different and I loved her voice!

Somebody Everybody Listens To, by Suzanne Supplee

Like the ungrammatical title of this novel, Retta has some rough edges, but she's got a dream and the talent to support it. She plans to get out of her small town in Tennessee and make it in Nashville as a singer.

It's a well-worn cliche -- small town girl comes to the big city, suffers her fair share of set-backs and minor successes and gradually starts coming out on top. To make sure that we truly appreciate how cliche it is, each chapter is prefaced with a brief biography of a real country musician legend. The overall result is a tribute to the struggles that artists (and country singers in particular) have borne to become the stars that they became.

It is old territory, but even a classic story can be fun to read again when it is well-written. The trip becomes even more enjoyable when you have good company and Retta (despite perhaps a few improbably good twists of luck) is a fine nuanced character. She works hard, has sharp instincts, and a general basic decency, and the reader will be prone to find her sympathetic. Supplee thankfully avoids the temptation to introduce a romantic thread and instead keeps the story focused on Retta and Retta alone. This is a smart decision and allows us to focus on her efforts and her successes.

Another strength of this novel is Supplee's respect for the locale and the people. A story placed in such a colorful town as Nashville could easily have been exaggerated with stereotypes. Supplee doesn't fall into that trap and gets the cultural details (including the accents) down. The folks in the story are not dumb hicks and instead leap off the page like real people.

In sum, this is a bit of literary comfort food with decent presentation and down home charm.

Like Mandarin, by Kirsten Hubbard

Out in Washokey, Wyoming, everyone knows everyone else's business and life is as dull as it is usually portrayed in any stereotypical YA novel about rural America. Grace Carpenter is a loner, an A-grade student, promoted ahead of her peers and poised for greatness. Aside from her invisible social standing, Grace is a success, but not in the eyes of her mother. Mom hasn't really respected any of Grace's accomplishments since Grace purposely threw the Little Miss Washokey beauty pageant at age seven. Now it is Grace's little sister who bears Mom's hope and attentions.

All of this is OK with Grace. She's at peace with her lack of social standing and with the maternal neglect. To compensate, she has a budding love for geology (with a decent rock collection to boot) and her own ambitions, one of which is to become a bit more like local bad girl Mandarin Ramey. Since Mandarin arrived in town (coincidentally during that ill-fated beauty contest), Grace has idolized her silently from afar. In Grace's eyes, Mandarin is sure of herself, unafraid of the judgement of others, and utterly fearless -- all traits that Grace knows she lacks. If only she could be a little like Mandarin.

So, when Grace gets asked by her guidance counselor one day if she would be willing to tutor Mandarin, Grace is both exhilarated and terrified. At least, she will get a chance to know this local mystery and get to the bottom of all of the rumors about Mandarin. But as the two girls get to know each other, Grace finds that Mandarin isn't quite what she expected. And she grows to realize that becoming like Mandarin isn't what she should be aspiring to at all -- she should be aspiring to be more like herself.

This is a truly stunning novel, even if it is familiar territory. Certainly the mystery girl and the wallflower who idolize her has been done before. Hubbard's take on Wyoming will break no threshold for originality either. But the writing is simply breathtaking. Pick any page in this book and read a few lines -- the quality of the prose will blow you away. Characters "dance away into the throng" of the other kids at school; the men in town have "always found ways to get themselves killed. Often explosively"; Grace longs to escape it all and have "something to break up the monotony, [and not] fade into the hills like one of those solitary ghost-people, who spent their days listening to the wildwinds batter their corrugated shacks." Poetry!

And it isn't just the writing, of course. The characters are well-developed and intelligent. Their relationships are complex. The story itself is unpredictable yet flows naturally and believably. The cliches of drunken parties, geeky lab partners, clueless mothers, and so on are all present, but Hubbard waste no times on them (they are simply part of the landscape, placed in the story to make the scenery look familiar). Instead, she keeps the focus tightly on Grace and Mandarin's relationship and lets it unwind in a way that leaves the reader completely hooked to the end.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Living On Impluse, by Cara Haycak

Mia has a number of issues: she's addicted to the rush she gets from shoplifting, her friends are beginning to give up on getting her to go straight and are abandoning her, and she is fighting with her mother. Then, things start to get worse when she gets caught and is forced to take a job at an entomology lab in order to pay restitution. She compounds her troubles when she sneaks into a bar and gets assaulted. And, at her lowest moment, her friends abandon her and her mother starts drinking.

The overall result is a strangely uneven novel. Haycak does a decent job of setting up conflicts (although she probably makes her story overly complicated by piling on so many). She has good pacing and sets up realistic challenges, carefully explaining why the issues should not be easily resolvable. But, it's at this point that the narrative goes off the rails. Rather than play these out, we get sudden and far-too-perfect solutions to each of the problems! The more egregious examples include how quickly Mia's mother realizes that her alcoholism is a problem (one little bender causes an overnight conversion) or how Mia changes from snotty brat to conscientious scientist just by looking at a set of fresh bug larvae. Having set up the conflict, Haycak doesn't have the patience to shows us a realistic resolution, so basically cheats with happily-ever-after sentimentality.

I also found Mia to be unrealistic. She's a maddening mix of bad decision skills and mature intellect. She's able to rationalize why her choices are bad yet makes them anyway (which makes little sense at all). I'm fine with thoughtless bad decisions, but not consciously inappropriate ones. And her hypocritical turn against her former friend Gael seemed out of character and actually cruel.

There's potential here, but it is half-realized. What started as a story about addiction and compulsive behavior just becomes a muddle of too-good-to-be-true solutions that ignore the issues that were brought up.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Penny Dreadful, by Laurel Snyder

Penelope is bored with her ten year-old life and dying for an adventure, something more interesting than spending her days at home (more or less) alone, with only her tutor and her books to keep her occupied. But then suddenly, a whole series of things start to occur: her father quits working, their home and their finances fall into disarray, and the family decides to live the City and move to rural Tennessee to a house that Penelope's mother has inherited.

But that's just the start of an adventure as the family meets the odd inhabitants of the town of Thrush Hollow. From the girl who collects dead animals to the boy who's never allowed outside and is allergic to everything, and the crazy girl next door named Luella, there's far more going on than Penelope might ever have dreamed possible. Throw in a search for hidden treasure, Mom's new career in sanitation engineering, and Dad's discovery of his inner cook as well! Finally, there's some great lessons about stepping outside of your comfort zone and embracing diversity as well.

It's a frenetic and slightly random book, which defies expectations and conventions. The writing is light and lively, as one would expect in a book targeted at middle readers, and it never takes itself too seriously (even when dealing with some serious topics). Occasionally, reality (mostly in the form of financial woes) pokes up its head, but nothing gets too dark and most things wrap up nicely, but fairly believably.

What makes the book outstanding is how well Synder keeps us on our toes. A bit too often for my taste, this is accomplished by introducing another oddball character, but mostly the book just avoids predictable plotlines. I fear the book might be a bit too strange for many readers, but its quirkiness makes it at least an enjoyable bedtime read.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

XVI, by Julia Karr

In this version of the future, girls get tattooed with an "XVI" on their wrist when they turn sixteen. This is used to signify that they are sexually available to anyone who wants them (the girls don't get any say and are instead socialized to sexualize themselves for men). Not only that, but society itself is now ruled by a totalitarian regime that is run by the media, who monitor their subjects and bombard them with constant "verts" to convince them that they are actually happy (and also coincidentally to spend their money on products).

Nina is on the verge of turning sixteen and, unlike her best friend Sandy, is not so sure about becoming a media-vaunted "sex-teen." While Sandy eagerly laps up the media's message of sexual commodification as a means to escape her economic disadvantage, Nina's mother has been covertly teaching Nina that there are alternatives. The state is on to Mom's dissident activities as a "non-con" and eliminates her. Mom's suspicious murder prompts Nina to fight to uncover the truth about her society, her family's role in a resistance movement, and her own importance in changing the status quo.

While full of many interesting ideas, Karr's writing can be a bit heavy handed. I like the idea of highlighting the hypersexualization of "sex-teens," but much of the rest seems undeveloped (like the intentional malnutrition of the poor) or silly. Karr stumbles particularly as she attempts to link the present with this future to show the reader how we got there -- an exercise which mostly seems to be driven by an attempt to propagandize for the other side.

The writing is strangely clumsy as well, but here I blame the editor. There is a fair amount of repetition (where things get restated multiple times), as if various drafts had never been vetted for continuity. The grammar also sounds a bit off (although sometimes this seemed like an attempt to add a few blemishes to the narrator). The sense I got is that the story had a lot of great ideas, but that the editor neglected the necessary effort to pull it together. As if selling the book on its ideas (instead of its writing) was more important. Media controlling our lives indeed!

What Happened To Goodbye, by Sarah Dessen

A new Sarah Dessen novel is a magical moment to be savored....

As much as I love Dessen's writing -- a beautiful combination of self-reflection and southern charm -- it is quite valid to point out that she isn't original. Her last four novels have basically followed the same formula: older teen girl with an unusual uniquely Southern name (Mclean, in this case), has odd obsessive father and overbearing mother. The girl's intellectual but not into school, makes friends easily, and meets moody oddball boy early (and then sort of dates him). The boy will make an interesting conversation partner, but won't really play much of a role in the story beyond being a useful resource. It's a successful formula, but not terribly suspenseful and the books have basically all been little variations on the theme.

The little twists this time are that Mclean has lived a nomadic life recently and not bothered to put down roots. Each time they move, Mclean changes her entire personality and style, and even changes her name. It's worked OK for her, but this time things are different and the right combination of friends (and boy) convinces Mclean that things have to change. It isn't anything that Mclean can't work through with some talk therapy and some bonding with her new friends.

In comparison with other Dessen novels, the troubles with mother are a bit more intense than usual. There's good reason for this as Mom bears the responsibility for cheating on Dad and abandoning her family. As a result, Mclean is at the center of a nasty child custody battle that continues on and off through the story. Divorced parents are not new territory, but this novel seems to dwell on it a bit more than its predecessors. Still, the basic dynamic is informed by Mom's selfishness and daughter's exasperation. Once they can finally start talking and listening to each other, you know that everything will work out alright.

What makes Dessen's books work well is her sense of detail and the odd mix of subthemes that are effortlessly woven in (ranging in this case from model building to astronomy, restaurant management to food psychology, etc.). She also remains the champion of YA poetic prose, creating writing that puts most contemporary YA verse writers to shame. It is probably only because that skill is recognized (and translated to commercial success) that she is underappreciated by professionals, but can someone please tell me why she hasn't won a Printz?

All that said, I've had trouble really outlining what makes this particular book special, because frankly it doesn't stand out. It is an excellent book but it differs so little from her recent offerings that it is almost interchangeable with Just Listen or Lock and Key. I miss the gut wrenching narrative of Dreamland or Someone Like You, or even the light nostalgia of That Summer.

Finally, it seemed like even Dessen got tired of this book. The last 100 pages of this novel are obviously rushed and forced. The pace goes haywire as the narrator starts to summarize and jump forward. Perhaps it is time to start to write something different?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Popularity Papers: Research for the Social Improvement and General Betterment of Lydia Goldblatt and Julie Graham-Chang, by Amy Ignatow

Lydia and Julie are a pair of fifth graders with the desire to become popular before they reach Junior High. To do so, they want to research the popular girls in their grade and learn how to emulate them. With luck, they will successfully master the secrets of popularity and avoid the fate of becoming like Melody, Lydia's older goth sister.

The result is a series of misadventures ranging from sprained ankles and bleach burns to embarrassing auditions and broken hearts. It's all in good fun and wonderfully illustrated by the two girls (through the creativity of Ignatow) in a "notebook" style that simulates notes that the two girls pass back and forth. Lydia's cursive writing and stick figures are perfectly offset by Julie's cartoons and block script. The result is a fast-reading, but authentic and touching, story of the friendship of two girls. So realistic, in fact, that I found the experience voyeuristic.

I'd like to think that young middle readers would enjoy the girls and their misadventures and find the multi-media format of the book appealing. Older readers, while finding the girls' behavior childish, might still find something to love in the honesty that they bring. And there is plenty of inside humor for adults in here as well.

Julie's non-traditional family (she has two dads) is treated matter-of-factly. Only a single mention of prejudice from one of the girls' peers even acknowledges that there might be any sort of issue here. As another reviewer remarked, it's nice to have LGBT themes in an MG book without any screaming highlights.

Personally, I probably won't read the latter books in the series (there are at least two more), but that's because I tend to not read middle readers (and I get really weird looks from my neighbors on the plane when I read something like this). However, I think the series is good and worth reading.

Pink, by Lili Wilkinson

Ava has been dating Chloe for some time. Chloe is funny and sophisticated. Ava is awkward and shy, and feels insecure when she compares herself. It doesn't help that Ava's parents love Chloe (in Ava's mind, this is because Chloe is the self-assured intellectual that they wish their own daughter would be). Ava's doubts lead her to wonder if maybe she really isn't in the right relationship. Is she even gay? Ava really likes being with Chloe but she also wants to do things that Chloe doesn't, like wear pink.

So, when Ava is offered the opportunity to transfer to an elite private school, she sees it as the opportunity to reinvent herself (the first thing she does when she gets there is covertly start wearing pink!). But the change is also an opportunity for Ava to change everything else about her. She decides to not mention her relationship with Chloe and she hangs out with the popular (straight) girls who try setting her up with a boy.

What Ava discovers from this is that there are no simple answers. She is no closer to fitting in with these kids than she was with the ones in her old life. Far worse, she is now living a double life (still with Chloe at home, but now trying to play it straight at her new school). Nothing feels right. Of course, it is inevitable that the two worlds will collide. When they do, Ava makes a mess of it -- not so much because she has been sneaking around, but because she cannot choose between the two lives.

In the world of LGBT teen fiction, we've seen plenty of stories about teens coming out, but I don't recall reading a book about a teen who was already out but struggling with whether she was really gay, straight, bi, or none of the above. Ava is a complex character and feels quite true-to-life as she finds that she really doesn't fit into any pigeonholes (try as she might to do so). This makes her feel familiar and sympathetic and teens who struggle with identity issues will be drawn to her. This is a novel then that doesn't feel the need to preach any particular orthodoxy, but rather presents the idea that it is OK to not have a sexual orientation figured out (good words are also written about the right to embrace geekdom). Wilkinson's writing is honest and insightful.

It helps that this is also a smartly written book. It is funny and moves at a decent pace, while making a number of good points about its topic. While the overall themes of identity and personal growth are well-established, Wilkinson manages to deal with them as if this is entirely new territory. The key is that she is brave enough to not present a solution, but to say that coming out is not a solution in itself (it may, in fact, only be the beginning of a journey to become comfortable in your skin). Original and highly recommended!

Clarity, by Kim Harrington

How can I NOT read a book with this title?

Clarity (or "Clare," as she prefers to be called) has the psychic ability to see the past by touching objects. In her family, that's pretty normal: her mother reads minds (which can be a very annoying trait in a mom!) and her brother can speak with the dead.

In her small town on Cape Cod, Clare is considered a freak and an outcast. But all that has the potential to change when a young woman is murdered and Clare is recruited by the police to help solve the crime. Along with the good-looking detective's son and some help from the mayor's son, Clare is on the path of the killer. But it seems like the killer is on to her as well!

OK, you need totally to put on hold any sense of disbelief that a town would turn a murder investigation over to a group of teens (imo, a plot twist which is far more implausible than that one of them would be psychic!). It's a silly premise, but the story itself is a reasonably interesting whodunit and a classic love triangle. Surprisingly, the psychic angle is fairly played down (thus, Harrington avoids the totally boring nature of the Wake trilogy) -- it's there, but not very important for the plot. Instead, Clare is interesting and boys are suitably smoldering. The result is a light summer beach read that we can enjoy for the unpretentious fun that it is supposed to be!