Saturday, April 25, 2015

Lying Out Loud, by Kody Keplinger

Sonny has a problem telling the truth.  She's hiding out in her best friend's room -- for months -- allegedly because she was kicked out of the house.  She has trouble holding down an after school job because she keeps lying to her boss.  Despite the fact that her loose relationship with the truth is hurting her, she allegedly can't stop herself.

One night she finds herself texting for the entire night with a guy she thought she hated.  She's discovered that she really likes him.  But as they are signing off he calls her by her BFF's name and she realizes that she's been using her best friend's phone for the entire conversation.  She's afraid to correct him in case he should change his mind about her, and her biggest lie commences.

As any child knows, the more you lie, the more you have to keep on lying (although apparently Sonny's never figured this out and she continues to make her life worse and worse with her lies).  This goes on in painful layer or layer until, inevitably, it all blows up in her face.

I honestly hated this character.  It's pretty much de rigeur to have a character make a few mistakes, but Sonny keeps doing it again and again.  I also don't like liars (who does?) and Sonny's actions come across as selfish and mean -- not that there is any real cost to these failings.  At the end, we get the complete turnaround and the predictable forgiveness from all parties.

It's written well enough and, since it's based on the universe of the popular Duff, I'm sure there is an audience for this, but know what you are getting yourself in for.  For myself, I couldn't stir up any enthusiasm for a young woman with such a profound character flaw.

[Disclosure:  I received an unsolicited ARC of this book in return for my impartial review.  My copy will be recycled.  The book is slated for release on April 28th.]

Backlash, by Sarah Darer Littman

Lara has suffered from self-image problems since she was relentlessly bullied for her weight in middle school.  But now she's shaped up, earned a place on the cheerleading team, picked up a hot boyfriend who's a senior, and gained a lot of confidence.  All of that comes to a screeching halt though when the boyfriend cruelly dumps her on Facebook.  In the face of relentless bullying from her peers and the humiliation she is enduring, Lara tries to take her life.

The attempted suicide fails, but the trauma is just beginning for Lara as she discovers that the boyfriend was fake (she had yet to meet him in person) and in fact the whole thing was a set-up to hurt her.  Just as that realization sets in, another even bigger shocker occurs when she learns the identity of the people who were behind the scam.  The resulting backlash threatens to destroy two formerly-close families and an entire community.

Littman has set out to show how fast and out-of-control little cruelties can go, especially when amplified by social media and the internet.  And in this fast-paced novel, she's done a pretty good job of doing so.  Cyber bullying has featured in a couple other recent novels, but I found this one better than the others I've read so far.  It goes into far more detail about the impact of bullying on the entire family and also explores the roots of it beyond simple petty jealousies.

I cared less for the characters and the ending.  The people in this story are not terribly interesting in themselves (beyond the fledgling romance of Lara's young sister and the boy next door).  Rather, they are mostly a means to the end.  I found the mothers in this book particularly distasteful.  Part of that was for dramatic convenience (making them both self-centered and bitchy provided a convenient excuse for the out-of-control behavior of the families), but there was an overall message that successful working women care more for their careers than for their children.  That message -- intentional or not -- bothered me.  The ending was also a bit rushed.  Lara's recovery is very sudden and not really foreshadowed (as prior to a sudden turnaround she just seemed locked in endless repeat).  Those complaints aside, I still enjoyed the book and recommend it.

[Disclosure:  I requested and received a free copy of the book for the purpose of writing an impartial review.  I'll be donating this copy to my local public library.]

Friday, April 24, 2015

Love & Other Theories, by Alexis Bass

Aubrey and her friends used to suffer from jealousies and snarky cat fights with other girls.  This was all before they evolved and figured out that guys in high school just don’t matter.  The relationships are too short and it’s not like the guys felt any particular loyalty, so why should they?  So, the girls developed the “theories” and learned to take hooking up and “detaching” with a grain of salt.

But when Aubrey meets Nathan, things change for her.  The relationship matters and her feelings are real.  Realizing that that means calling into question the theories, she initially hides and denies the feelings.  But ultimately, she comes to realize what a poor defense the theories have been for her and her friends.

It’s easy to marginalize this story as chick-lit.  It’s just another relationship book about girls angsting about guys.  And there is certainly nothing new about a girl who thinks she’s figured out everything there is to know about love and then being proved wrong by the Right Guy.  Yet, there is something quite enticing about the depth and detail of the relationships depicted here.  The dramas, while adolescent and petty, are real and authentic.  Bass handles her subjects with respect and does a good job of showing why so much of this is actually inevitable.  In a word, she understands the girls and is sympathetic to their plight.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

What Waits in the Woods, by Kieran Scott

Four teens go on a multi-day hike in the woods.  The first night, the three experienced hikers decide to scare new girl Callie with ghost stories.  But as things on the trip start to go wrong (they lose their food and get lost) the scary stuff becomes real.  They are being followed and taunted by someone and, even with the help of a stranger they come across, it seems like they may never escape.  That's when the kids start turning up dead.

I'm not a fan of the horror/mystery genre and that probably is preventing me from liking this book, which is otherwise a decent specimen.  But if I step back, it had pretty good pacing and more than enough shocks and screams along the way (although I got a bit tired of having almost every chapter end with a false alarm).  The kids were sufficiently diverse and had a complex set of petty jealousies to put them at each other's necks (even before they started to get broken).  This provided the requisite reasonable doubt and suspicion to keep stuff interesting, and kept me off the scent of the real guilty party.  The key confusion for me was that the book is played like a horror story (teens in the woods getting knocked off by a lone psycho), but turns out in the end to be a simply mystery whodunnit.

[Disclosure:  I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.  I'll be donating this to my local public library where I hope it will find a fan of scary reads.]

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Gracefully Grayson, by Ami Polonsky

There have been a number of decent YA books on transgendered teens, but the offerings for younger readers have been a bit thin, which makes this recent arrival for middle readers particularly interesting.

Sixth-grader Grayson has a secret daydream where he's wearing a dress.  I simply visualizes the clothes he's wearing and transforms them in his mind into pretty girls' clothes.  He doesn't really know why he likes doing this, he just knows that it's something he longs for.  He also longs to hang out with the girls as one of them and join them in their pastimes.  But he also knows, of course, that this isn't done.

Being uncomfortable with boys (and generally excluded from the girls' social circles), he's kept to himself.  But on a whim, he decides to try out for the school play (an adaptation of the myth of Persephone).  And at the last minute during the auditions, he announces that he wants to try out for the part of Persephone herself.  An understanding drama teacher not only lets him try out, but goes on to cast him in the role.  At long last, Grayson will have the opportunity to wear a beautiful dress onstage in front of everyone!

Grayson discovers just how polarizing gender identification can be.  Friends and family stake out clear positions and Grayson has to deal with the painful realization that not everyone will accept who he is and what he wants to be.  His mother, in particular, blames the (gay) drama teacher for allowing this to happen. Through it all, Grayson continues to explore his identity, experimenting with clothing, socializing with girls, and even the dreaded topic of which restroom to use.

It's a revolutionary portrayal of a transgender pre-adolescent.  The book stands out both for its intended target audience and for its frank discussion of the issues involved.  Some reviewers have pointed out that no character ever comes out and says that Grayson's feelings are okay, but there is a good mix of supportive responses from adults and peers.  Readers may be surprised at the cruelty of some of the adults (the homophobic bullying won't surprise much, but is thankfully kept to a minimum), but it provides a good dramatic edge.

Another thing I liked about the book was its sensitivity to gender dysphoria.  Grayson, it is clearly laid out, is no flamboyant drag queen.  He wants to explore what it is like to be a normal girl.  And he is torn by his joy at the welcoming he receives from some of the girls at school and his ongoing fear that he is being mocked and patronized by them at the same time.  His longing to simply be accepted as a girl is portrayed with an honesty that will touch open-minded readers. 

And as for the close minded folks (well-represented by Grayson's principal and his own mother), they can start plotting their book banning plans!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Oblivion, by Sasha Dawn

Callie suffers from graphomania (a condition which causes her to experience an irresistible urge to write).  A year ago, around the same time that her father (an abusive fallen priest) and a young woman in the parish went missing, she was found writing "I killed him" endlessly on the walls of an abandoned attic.  While she seemed an unlikely culprit, the authorities did suspect that her condition was brought on by having borne witness to what  happened.  So they have her working with a counselor to try to regain her memories.  That work and the help of a guy at school trigger more episodes that begin linking her writing (while seeming nonsense and gibberish) to solving the mystery.

It's a complicated story and a hard one at first to latch on to.  There's a lot of violence as well as disturbing imagery.  While almost everything gets tied up in the end, it's hard in the first read to see how this will all gel together.  As always, I tend to favor simpler and more direct stories.  Pushed to streamline things, I'd point to the needless conflict between Callie and Lindsay (the daughter of Callie's foster parents) -- it never really came together and didn't have much purpose.  However, this is well-crafted and you may prefer the complexity.

Complicit, by Stephanie Kuehn

The social worker considered it a miracle when she was able to place Jamie and his sister Cate together in the same home, and even more so that the adopting family was a rich couple.  The children’s mother had been murdered and the children themselves were hardly the babies preferred by most adopting parents.  From the start, Jamie was the difficult one (nightmares, painfully shy, etc.) while Cate easily adapted to the new family. But as they grew older, Cate’s behavior became anti-social and violent until the day she confessed to an arson and was sent away to a juvenile facility.  Jamie, meanwhile, grew out of his behavior issues, but was haunted by Cate’s misadventures and her threats.

After years of being bullied by his sister, Jamie was relieved when she was sent away.  The news that she has now been released terrifies him.  And when she starts making threatening phone calls, his own behavior problems begin to reemerge.

A dark psychological thriller.  The plot twist in the story is fairly strongly telegraphed so it is not a major surprise.  However, the ending is definitely a shocker.  In this respect, the story seemed well-plotted.  However, there are a lot of loose end and unanswered questions (What are his adoptive parents up to? What does his therapist actually know?  What’s up with his girlfriend?).  These are not major plot points and it leaves you wondering why they were present at all? Eliminating and tightening up the parts of the story that mattered would have improved my impressions of the novel, yet there’s no denying that the story kept me on the edge of my seat and had a suitably creepy and haunting ending that made it all worthwhile.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Edge of Falling, by Rebecca Serle

Caggie lives in the lap of New York luxury, in a world where everything is possible and costs don't matter.  But her picture perfect family is shattered when her younger sister dies in a drowning accident.  Caggie blames herself for the accident and it is obvious that her family doesn't entirely disagree.  Her life has become flat and the things that used to matter to her (her boyfriend, her position on the school paper, her friends) no longer do.  Even the attention given to her for saving another girl's life last year (after her sister's accident) feels hollow.

Then she meets Astor, a boy unencumbered by a past and willing to leave hers alone.  He's the only one who doesn't force her to confront her grief, and instead just lets her live in the moment.  However, what is he hiding from?  And is it even more dangerous than what haunts Caggie?

A story ostensibly about grief, but with so little to say about it that it instead relies on other themes to fill its pages.  For the first half, that theme is life in Manhattan as a super rich and famous teenager.  Serle delights in name-dropping places showing us in great detail what it is like to live without a financial worry in the world.  That type of voyeurism never did much for me, but will appeal to the Teen Vogue crowd.  The latter part of the book (and it's quite late!) sees the story shift into a weak psychological thriller.  Astor gets creepy (but not too creepy) and we worry for a bit about Caggie's safety.  There's also some attempt to have her break through her grief, but I didn't really buy it.  Serle does a great job of creating a setting and building the scenery but doesn't do as good work with directing her actors.