Friday, September 30, 2011

She Loves You, She Loves You Not, by Julie Anne Peters

When Alyssa's father discovers that she is a lesbian, he throws her out of the house and she has to go live with her estranged mother in a small town in Colorado. Traumatized by the events that have led up to her exile (which include a powerful and ultimately obsessional relationship with a girl two years younger) and feeling alone and abandoned by family and friends, she tries to adapt to her new surroundings. In doing so, she discovers that her understandings of her own family and herself are not nearly as clear as she once thought, and that the path to recovery will take her to very different places.

Peters has made a great career out of writing insightful books about adolescent LGBTs. While they share that theme in common, each novel is strikingly unique. Her characters are thoughtful and introspective, but believably immature. Sexual orientation is core to the stories and she does a great job of illustrating both universal truths about all teens as well as the unique issues that young people face if they are gay. And so, this story shows us how the interference of adults (and the homophobia of society itself) complicates the already volatile nature of adolescent romance. How young gays struggle with their identity, not yet certain of which way they want to be (and thus mess with each other's heads as a result) becomes a story which is neither superficial nor didactic polemic. Instead, homosexuality is essential to the story that is ultimately not about sexual orientation at all.

The book does have some rough spots. We have numerous subplots (Alyssa's relationship with her parents and her step-mother, romantic betrayals both between children and between adults, some natural disasters, several road accidents, and a little workplace drama). As usual, these seem distracting from the story, as if Peters wasn't too sure where any of them were going when she wrote them in, and then couldn't bring herself to prune them out later. The stylistic device of doing flashbacks in second-person narration is awkward as well. Still, the overall sensitivity and sympathy of the story make this a great book for readers, regardless of which way they swing.

Flip, by Martyn Bedford

When Alex wakes up one morning, he notices that things are definitely wrong (wrong bed, wrong room) and when he looks in the mirror he has the biggest shock of all -- he's in the wrong body! Somehow, he's become another boy altogether -- Philip "Flip" Garamond. And the two of them couldn't be any more different: Flip is apparently a rap-loving jock with a lot of friends and a way with the women, while Alex is a shy nerd. Trying to maintain the pretense of being Flip on the outside while still being Alex inside is difficult to do, but no one will believe Alex that he isn't Flip. To them, their old chum Flip is just acting a bit peculiar.

Time is running out. As Alex learns more about what has happened to him (and Flip), it becomes clear that if it is ever going to be possible to switch back, it will have to be soon. However, the process is anything but clear (and maybe even impossible?). So Alex must hurry to figure it out or risk being trapped forever in the wrong body.

There's no major emotional lesson here, but plenty of good mind-twisting suspense and adventure. Bedford has excellent pacing and the story keeps you entertained and enthralled. I was definitely sucked in and found it to be a good read.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Close to Famous, by Joan Bauer

Foster and her mother are fleeing from Mom's ex-boyfriend (an abusive Elvis impersonator) when they end up in Culpepper, West Virginia. The town's seen better days (the local jam and jelly factory has been shut down and the only large amployer in town is a prison), but they find a home there.

Foster has a lot of things working against her (her codependent mothetr, illiteracy, and a fear of failure), but she also has perseverence, a strong memory, and incredible baking skills. So, it's her way in a kitchen (and the baked goods she produces) that will make a difference in her world. As she improves her own lot, she also inspires a boy who dreams of becoming a documentary filmmaker and an actress who has slipped into life as a recluse.

Bauer has a great formula, taking young women with a particular talent and showing take that skill places. Previously, we've seen it in waitressing (Hope Was Here), pumpkin growing (Squashed), and shoe sales (Rules of the Road), among others. It's a narrative that provides ample opportunity to show growth and achieve a feel-good ending. And it tends to work best when the story fixates on the plot.

Unfortunately, it's a lack of focus which really does this in. Bauer is fond of subplots and this book is drowning in them. In fact, it really isn't clear what is the main story. Is it Foster's culinary talent (hard to see it when there's no contest or climax to the baking story)? Is it Foster's struggle with literacy (that one's left unfinished and unresolved)? Throw in crazy Elvis dude, the manic actress, and the boy and it all feels rather random and unplotted.

Ten Things We Did (and Probably Shouldn't Have) by Sarah Mlynowski

When April's father announces that he's gotten a new job in Cleveland and that they are going to have to move away from Connecticut in the next few days, April is devastated. She's just gotten up the nerve to have sex with her boyfriend Noah and there's also a lifetime of friends that she will miss. But her best friend Vi has another idea: April can come stay with her. The problem: Vi's mother is going to be gone as well so the girls will be alone in the house. While it seems impossible at first, April manages to convince her father that she'll be properly chaperoned and the girls embark on a teen's dream of home alone and unsupervised parties.

However, the independence is not anything like April imagined. She has to struggle to sort through her life (learning to cook, start a dishwasher, etc.) and makes plenty of mistakes along the way. While she makes some bad decisions, she also learns that she can live with the consequences. What she doesn't count on is how lonely it is to live on your own.

This is a book to give any parent the chills to imagine, but moving beyond the premise, there's a nice story here about growth, making a few mistakes, but overall owning your life. It could have all turned out a lot worse, but there are enough downturns to be realistic without melodrama. Things do wrap up a bit too sweetly in the girl (with life's problems solved through girl bonding and donuts) but you root for these kids and their path to self-realization. Fun!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bumped, by Megan McCafferty

In the near future, a virus has turned the majority of people sterile by the time they turn eighteen. Now, only teenagers can have children. And that has had two important consequences: becoming a pregnant teen has become both cool and the economic value of pregnancy has given young girls a new (and mostly false) sense of agency (with no small irony, being a professional surrogate mother is now so lucrative that girls do it to put themselves through college!).

Enter Melody and her twin sister Harmony. Separated at birth, Melody has grown up in this pro-natal culture and dreams of signing a major contract as a professional surrogate. Harmony, in contrast, has been raised in a religious commune where girls marry in their early teens to fulfill their child-bearing duties before they are too old. Both young women have totally swallowed the myths of their culture, but meeting each other opens their eyes a bit. And a case of mistaken identity (which is both humorous and tragic) that causes the two of them to swap roles sends both girls in very different and unexpected trajectories.

McCafferty is probably best known for her light beach-readers, so the cutting nature of this dystopia will surprise her fans. While she certainly has a few harebrained ideas, McCafferty's story provides some wonderful observations about popular culture, the commodification of bodies, and the similarities between our culture's worship of youth and of motherhood. It's an edgy idea and if it sparks some thought about the way that the glamor of youth and motherhood are basically sold the same way to children, so much the better.

As for the writing, the story starts a bit slow and the slang used in the book is a bit hard to digest at first, but it has a wonderful irony to it that hooked me (although digs against social networking will probably not age well). The characters themselves are not terribly interesting and things wrap a bit too fast towards the end (with the exception of the inevitable loose end that was left for the equally inevitable sequel), but this is a story about an alternative reality more than a book about characters or even plot. Decent social satire.

Miles From Ordinary, by Carol Lynch Williams

Given how crazy Mom is, it falls on Lacey to protect her mother from flying off the rails. Sometimes, Mom is OK, but if Lacey isn't careful, Mom will go and do something nutty (like spend all of their money on food to survive an impending war or she'll wander half-naked into other people's homes). Aunt Linda used to help out some, but after fourteen years, Lacey has come to understand that she's the only one who can take care of Mom.

All of that may change on a special day when Mom is trying out working her first day as a cashier at the Winn Dixie. Lacey hopes that this may give her Mom a sense of purpose and some focus with which to straighten out. Lacey, meanwhile, is on her first day of volunteering at the library, which may give her an outlet away from Mom. Things don't go well, but in the midst of the crisis that develops, Lacey befriends a boy who may inspire Lacey to take some hesitant initial steps towards changing the downward trajectory of her life.

I'm not a fan of kids-in-peril stories and this novel takes the parts of that genre that I despise most (hapless adults, abusive manic-depressive mothers, and codependent families) and puts them on steroids. Reading a story like this basically begs the question: why? Why write a story like this? Is it supposed to be inspirational? I'm tempted, instead, to see it as exploitative.

I kept hoping for some relief from the continuous dark grind, but what I got was 195 pages of child abuse (with the slight possibility that an adult might come through in the end to look out for Lacey). The whole experience is made more painful by a broken timeline, heavy on flashback. This is probably intended to make the grind easier to bear, but it mostly makes us passive recipients of the horrible things which we already know will come. The supporting characters (the boy, the aunt, etc.) are largely throwaway. Gratuitous animal death appears as well. What's to like?

Friday, September 02, 2011

I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan

When Emily humiliates herself singing "I'll Be There" at church and Sam happens to witness the event, a string of events ensues that would defy reason, except for the careful chronicling of author Holly Goldberg Sloan.

Sam (and his little brother Riddle) have spent their lives being dragged around by their mentally unstable outlaw father Clarence. Having never known any other sort of life, the hardships that they endure seem normal. That is, until Sam's chance meeting with Emily introduces the boys to a possible alternative life. But as the story patiently explains, everyone has different motivations and conflicting needs, and these can have entirely unexpected consequences.

This story's unusual calling card are all of its digressions. The tale itself might have been told in a third of its pages, except for Sloan's practice of backing up and letting each new character essentially tell their life story. In some hands this might be quite annoying as it inevitably leads to delayed gratification for the resolution of the latest plot twist. But here, each detail is somehow important to the plot and it all comes together in the end. Moreover, you know it will all come together in the end, so you just ride this slow train and enjoy the scenery along the way.

While I enjoyed reading the book, I am unclear who is the intended audience. As an adult reader, the maturity of many of the situations (and the adult details of many of the characters) was a draw. But how much patience would a younger reader have for taking in all the details of someone's failed marriage or career frustrations? And as a story so long on action (and low on emotions or feelings), it really seemed better written for younger readers. So, I'd argue that it is a book for younger readers, but like a children's movie, there's plenty here for the adults to enjoy. That would work in a film, but in a book it seems a bit more muddled.

I'm Not Her, by Janet Gurtler

Tess lacks the popularity, good looks, and confidence of her older sister Kristina. She's a wallflower and utterly ignored by her sister's friends (unless they are drunk guys hitting on her). However the fates change suddenly when Kristina is diagnosed with bone cancer. Now, as Kristina struggles with chemo and withdraws into self-pity, it is Tess who takes center stage at school as she becomes the point of contact with the outside world. And as their parents start to come unglued, it is Tess who surprises everyone (not least herself) by stepping forward and being the strong one.

The story could so easily fall into melodrama, but even as one trauma after another piles up, the story somehow never grows to be too much. The ending is bittersweet and some of the losses are completely unexpected and will hit you in the gut. However, the messages of the story (standing up for yourself, staying loyal to your family) are presented powerfully. It's a heartwarming story of sisterly devotion presented in a satisfying fashion.

Fixing Delilah, by Sarah Ockler

Delilah is going through a rough patch. Her Mom is too busy to notice until Delilah gets caught shoplifting and skips out on her curfew to be with her dead-end boyfriend. But all of this gets swept aside when they receive the news that Delilah's maternal grandmother has died -- the same grandmother that Delilah hasn't been allowed to see for the past eight years. And so the summer of Delilah's seventeenth year is now suddenly full with returning to her grandma's town, helping her mother and aunt clean the house to sell it, and confronting the ghosts of her and her family's past.

One review on the book jacket compared this book to Sarah Dessen's writing and I can see the parallels. For example, we have the distant and self-absorbed mother who makes the daughter's interest in others look like Mother Theresa. But the similarities are superficial (the boy interest is nowhere near as prominent and the heroine is not nearly as introspective).

It will come as no surprise that the mother and daughter will eventually reconcile and provide decent reader catharsis in the process. The similarly predictable trajectory of the love interest is less satisfying: while the boy-loses-girl moment felt honest (and maybe a bit harrowing), their reconciliation seemed forced. And while the book is good at piling up conflict and challenges, the ending is overall a bit too happy and rosy for my taste.

Overall, it's the unevenness of this book that did me in. The middle sags and key moments (first kiss, for example) get lost in the midst of endless mood setting and exposition. The strong climax is weakened by the lame ending. It's a mixed bag.