Friday, December 15, 2017

Words on Bathroom Walls, by Julia Walton

Adam suffers from schizophrenia, seeing and hearing people who are not there.  He knows that there is no cure and it is a condition that he will always have to live with, but a new drug trial gives him hope for a means of coping with his hallucinations.  And, if he can cope, he might be able to live a normal life.  That’s important to him for fitting in at school, and also for winning over his new girlfriend Maya.  But what if Maya learns of his condition?

Tracing the difficulties of managing adolescence and a serious mental illness at the same time, Walton touches on a variety of different facets including school, family, and long-term survival skills.  Still, the story never really sought great depth.  I get that it is difficult for writers to express the ways that adolescent boys really do have feelings, but it gets frustrating to have Adam toggle between the cliché horny/thoughtless/violent impulse that I have complained about here before, at the neglect of the hurt and frustration of living with an illness.  Maya is an interesting character but told through his eyes, we don’t really get much chance to get to know her.  And we don’t really learn all that much about mental illness either.

The Gallery of Unfinished Girls, by Lauren Karcz

Mercedes’s grandmother is dying back in San Juan and Mom has gone back to care for her, leaving Mercedes and her sister to their own devices.  Mercedes should be working on a follow-up to her hugely successful painting, Food Poisoning #1, but she is stuck in a rut.  At this rate, she'll have nothing to submit for the annual show and her chances of getting into art school are dimming.  But she is simply not able to capture any inspiration and instead endlessly listening to her favorite band The Firing Squad.

But then neighbor Lilia offers to take Mercedes to her own studio, which turns out to be an abandoned apartment building.  It is a magical place.  Seemingly alive, strange things occur, but it is also a place where one can find one’s muse and where Mercedes is able to create amazing works of art.  There’s only one big catch:  the artwork can never leave.  She is faced with a choice:  between living in this space where her art can bloom or denying it all and being stuck outside in the real world.

An odd and dreamy work which explores artistic creativity as a concept through this rather unusual setting.  The studio itself is creepy, but never entirely scary.  And the story never quite commits to being fantasy or horror, just as it never quite commits to realism.  That leaves it in an uncomfortable place.  The pace is slow and dream-like, with most of the action – so to speak – taking place in alternate realities.  It’s hard to know where we are heading.  I found it hard to focus on and missed a few details (having to go back and re-read passages) so that part was frustrating.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Gravity, by Leanne Lieberman

Ellie and her sister struggle with how to fit their Orthodox Jewish faith in with their other needs.  Ellie's sister wants to go to college and study business.  Ellie's problem runs deeper:  she likes girls (or at least she thinks she might).  When she spends the summer at her aunt's cottage, she falls in love with an adventuresome (but disturbed) young woman who is willing to experiment with her.  And while the relationship is a revelation to Ellie, it triggers a crisis of faith as she explores how Orthodoxy views homosexuality.  At the same time, Ellie's mother is also experiencing challenges to her faith and the two women's journeys are nicely juxtaposed.

I have a soft spot for intelligent books about faith.  And while this one doesn't resolve its central crisis, it introduces and explores it in a very informed way.  Orthodox Judaism would be easy to caricature or demonize (think of the novel Hush) and Lieberman touches on some of the community's darker corners.  But the key focus of the story is the spiritual journey of Ellie and her family -- each of whom have slightly different paths to explore. I also appreciate that as far removed from her faith as Ellie got, Lieberman still wanted to depict the tie it holds over her and honor that rather than see it as a burden.  This is not a story about breaking free from faith, but of finding new meaning in faith.

The Lake Effect, by Erin McCahan

Briggs has what ought to be an easy summer job: helping an old lady take care of her beach house on Lake Michigan.  He’s good with old ladies – charming them the way he charms most women.  The summer is just a minor detour on his long-term career plans to go to college, law school, and make a lot of money.  Spending some time on the beach, taking care of an elderly woman, and perhaps meeting a local girl for some fun is just a chance to relax.

But he isn’t expecting stubborn and determined Mrs. Bozic. Nor the girl next door who is resistant to his charms.  And during a summer of home improvement, the quest for the perfect blue paint, funeral shopping with Mrs. B, and more than a few discussions about death, Briggs will learn a lot about life and plans.

At times charming and hilarious, I found myself ultimately defeated by the unevenness of the novel (the overuse of chapter breaks didn’t help much either!).  The story's strength is its characters.  Mrs. B was, of course, hilarious and a lovely foil to Briggs’s cavalier arrogance.  Girl next door Abigail seemed less valuable (this is not a story that really needs a romance and it did not get too far).  Briggs was the usual snarky crude boy with a heart of gold that YA writers love and girls will apparently tolerate.

I do wish we could move beyond the idea that boys’ books need to have fart jokes and petty humiliation to attract male readers.  It’s a tiresome cliché and ultimately promotes the idea that boys should be callous and rude to each other (if there is a more fundamental cause of rape culture, I don’t know it!).  And in this case, it is such a contrast to the decent things that Briggs does.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Secret of Nightingale Wood, by Lucy Strange

Since her older brother Robert died, Henrietta's mother has been depressed and secluded in her bedroom.  Dr. Hardy says she needs to be left alone and he gives her strong psychoactive drugs to control her hysteria.  Henry is convinced that the doctor's treatment is hurting Mom and she longs see her.  But with father away, the staff obey the doctor and mother's condition grows worse.

So, it falls on Henry to rescue her family from the doctor and his nefarious ambitions.  With the help of the neighbors, an old family lawyer, and a witch in the woods, Henry will do so.  And in the process uncover some historical mysteries along the way.  Set in the early 1920s, this story will appeal to fans of The Secret Garden, with its combination of adventure and personal development.

Either derivative or a tribute to that long tradition of young girls exploring scary woods and saving the day, there's not much new here, but it's an enjoyable read.  I found the ending drawn out and full of far-too-neat wrap-ups, but the story itself contained suspense and a brave girl to root for.

[Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  When I am finished, I will donate the book to my local public library]

Summer Unscripted, by Jen Klein

When Rain becomes the recipient of heartthrob actor Tuck’s impassioned monologue, she’s starstruck.  He needs her!  She knows that she has to spend the summer with him, which is going to be difficult because he's away for the summer playing a role in the cast of Zeus! (a musical based loosely on Greek mythology). She knows nothing about the theater at all and spending the summer working musical theater has surprises.

But the biggest surprise of all is finding out that Tuck doesn’t turn out to be quite the pick that she imagined.  Instead, it is moody staff photographer Milo that captures her fancy and takes her to parts unknown.

Pretty silly stuff in all.  And, as Rain’s roommate protests, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for a girl with two cute guys who like her.  The summer stock stuff is fun, of course (especially, if you’ve ever done the work) but there’s not a whole lot else here except the usual escapism.  Light entertainment.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Aftercare Instructions, by Bonnie Pipkin

When Genesis emerges from the abortion clinic, she finds that her boyfriend has abandoned her.  And in the days that follow, his avoidance sends Gen over the edge.  Not that he's her only problem.  Back home, her father is dead her Mom can't take care of her.  Adding a horrible boyfriend to the mix shouldn't matter!  Interspersed with flashbacks (told as a script) that cover the start of her relationship, the novel details the week immediately after her procedure as she struggles with the unexpected end of her relationship.

Strikingly, the one thing not discussed in this novel is Genesis's feelings about her pregnancy or its termination.  Beyond a few fleeting references to the procedure itself, Pipkin skips over that subject.  It doesn't seem very realistic, but it's a shrewd move to keep the focus firmly on Genesis's struggles with her self doubt.  That makes her come off as self-centered (an accusation that more than a few of her friends launch against her) and her steady problems with amnesia don't help much either.  She's a hard character to sympathize with.

Furthermore, the story is a mess.  Important plot details (like the boyfriend's feelings about the abortion) are slipped in at inopportune moments.  The subplots (like the mother's depression) struggle to make sense within the rest of the story.  And the script format for the flashbacks is awkward.  Of all of the devices, the convention of juxtaposing aftercare instructions as chapter titles with story developments worked pretty well though.  This is a rough work.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Grit, by Gillian French

Small town Maine is not much fun for a teenager with bigger dreams.  And spending the summer working a cranberry farm is grueling work.  It gives Darcy something to do when she isn't going crazy in the evenings.

That wild girl side has given her quite a reputation, but it's hardly deserved.  Still, everyone seems to have a pretty low opinion of her, including her aunt (who's convinced that Darcy is a bad influence on Nell, her cousin).  What no one realizes is that Darcy and Nell share a secret that is eating them up and losing themselves at mindless parties is how they cope.

This novels works best as a mood piece for me.  French brings lots of color and character to her rural Maine setting, but the story is muddled and I found the characters largely interchangeable.  The great shocking conclusion comes pretty much out of left field (or so it felt).  Truth be told, I just couldn't get into keeping up with all of the characters, so that probably made it hard to track the nuances of the story.  I do know that I enjoyed just reading it and letting the characters and the events float by me.  Sometimes, you just enjoy reading a book for the places it shows and the mood it gives you.  And that's pretty much how I ended up feeling about this story.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Bad Romance, by Heather Demetrios

When Grace gets Gavin to notice her after years of crushing on him, she is ecstatic.  Finally, there is a chance for something good in her life. Her home life is horrific.  Her stepfather is abusive to both her and her mother.  And Mom has retreated into a private insanity, taking her anger out directly on Grace.  Somehow, Grace has managed to be a stellar student and kept her focus on graduating and getting out of town, dreaming of going to drama school in New York.  Now, with Gavin in her life, she's hoping the time will go by faster.

At first, Gavin's kindness (and frequent escapes to his supportive family) seem to be providing the escape she was wishing for.  But the relationship sours and slips into a destructive cycle, eerily echoing her mother's own abusive relationship with Grace's stepfather.  Gavin is jealous and paranoid.  He demands that she stay away from her friends and starts spying on her.  Without warning, his mood turns dark and his behavior violent.  And Grace, groomed to take this type of abuse from her stepfather, willingly accepts and embraces the dynamic.  Despite constant efforts by her friends (and even her parents), Grace is unable to pull away.

The result is a harrowing and unrelenting tale of a destructive relationship, which unfortunately rings true.  It takes a special level of dedication (or masochism) from the reader to work through it.  I did so in hopes for redemption in the end.  It comes, but is far too brief and rushed to offer a good pay off for the suffering that we endure along the way.  Instead, the major value of the book in the end is its unflinching portrayal of an abuse.  That has education value but makes for a grueling read.

I'd recommend Sarah Dessen's very similar novel Dreamland over this book -- a novel that is just as devastating, but did a better job at focusing on the psychology of a young women slipping into madness.

Friday, November 10, 2017

What To Say Next, by Julie Buxbaum

In the aftermath of her father's death, Kit finds her popularity (and the effort it takes to maintain it) exhausting and seeks refuge by hiding out at a lunchroom table occupied solely by social outcast David.  David has trouble communicating with others or reading their expressions, but is something of an expert observer of his classmates, even if none of them will speak to him (making Kit's surprise visit quite a shock).  But to their mutual surprise, the two of them hit it off nicely.  And while David still struggles to communicate and understand others, Kit finds David's honesty refreshing and his social awkwardness liberating.

A romance of sorts between two complete opposites.  Some great pain is expended to explain the plausibility of this odd couple, which in the end kills some of its magic. David is apparently quite handsome and comes from a family of social royalty (his older sister spins in Kit's world). Kit is more open-minded than her peers.

Overall, the two of them do make a great couple.  I ran hot and cold on Kit.  She could be nice and kind at times, but was mostly self-absorbed.  Some of my lukewarm reaction is due to the harsh way she deals with her mother's indiscretions, but in general Kit is self-absorbed and has trouble showing sympathy towards other.  David, on the other hand, is hard not to like.  He puts himself in some pretty awkward situations, but his honesty and kindness shows through.

Certainly, when one can critique a character that is complex enough on paper to have faults and strengths that one can have strong opinions about, something is going right.  I found the plotting and storytelling a bit drawn out (and cared very little about Kit's various micro dramas), but I enjoyed Kit and David enough that I didn't really care what they were doing.  So kudos to Buxbaum for crafting a complicated relationship that is fun to read about.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Flying Lessons & Other Stories, ed by Ellen Oh

Ten short stories that share little in common (the first and the last one are about basketball) except that they feature unusual (and underrepresented) protagonists.  That rather forced motivation to promote diversity in YA is tempered by the high quality of the contributions.

All of these works are solid, but there are a few that really stood out for me.  Matt de la Pena's story of a boy's quest for an understanding of basketball and of his father is poignant and touching (as the topic lends itself towards being) but transcends the usual male-bonding-over-sports theme.  For different reasons, I also enjoyed Grace Lin's brief historical fiction about a female Chinese pirate.  It's entertaining, yet fits in a nice plug for female literacy along the way.  Finally, I give an honorable mention to Tim Tingle's Indian fable for making me laugh and for being the story most imbued with ethnic color.

I wish that we were at a stage where diversity didn't need its own collection.  These are good stories that would have enhanced any anthology of short stories.

The Education of Margot Sanchez, by Lilliam Rivera

In a misguided attempt to impress her friends, Margot took her father’s credit card and ran up $2600 in charges.  Now, to pay it off, she has to spend the summer working at her family’s grocery store in the Bronx.  She hates the place and everyone there thinks she’s a stuck-up princess (which she sort of is).  But she thinks she can survive the summer (and hide the shame from the girls at school whom she is trying to impress).

But just when she feels like she's working things out, an annoying boy from the neighborhood has a habit of showing up her hypocrisies.  And with everything going on around her, Margot is struggling to keep things together.  The store is missing money.  Her father and her brother are acting weird.  And the neighborhood is changing too – gentrification threatens the community and the family store may not survive.

Sassy and trendy, with a firm grasp on urban argot, Rivera captures the setting well.  But that color aside, she also builds a great story full of vivid characters.  There are so many things going on in the story that people can pretty choose whatever they want.  My own choice was to latch on to the socioeconomic tensions between the rich white world of her Margot's prep school and her family’s roots in the (poorer) world of the South Bronx, and her valiant struggle to bridge that gap.