Friday, April 20, 2018

The First to Know, by Abigail Johnson

For her father's upcoming birthday, Dana decides to help him find his parents by secretly searching for his ancestors.  Dad was a foster child and never knew his birth family.  Thanks to modern DNA testing, Dana believe that she can find his family.  When the results come back and they identify a man named Brandon who is a 47% match, she thinks she's hit the jackpot and discovered her Dad's father.  But Brandon doesn't turn out to be her grandfather...he's her half-brother!  Reeling from the discovery that her father had a child with another woman and that he's never acknowledged the boy, Dana's life spirals out of control.  While doing so, she finds comfort in the unlikely arms of Brandon's cousin.

While an interesting story, the retelling was a too melodramatic for my tastes.  Dana spends an awful lot of time upset, crying, or fighting with the other characters. Ultimatums are brandied about that never get fulfilled (after a while, I got tired of characters saying that they would "never" so something since the word obviously carries a different meaning for them).  This is a story that would have benefited from trimming and some mellowing.  I was a bit surprised by the ending, but mostly for the way it plunges into a rosy happy ending where none was really even needed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Kids Like Us, by Hilary Reyl

Autism has enjoyed a bit of trendiness in young adult literature in the past five years or so, but this latest contribution stands out for two reasons -- its unusual setting and the strength of Reyl's depiction of the experience of autism.

Martin, largely educated in a special school, gets to experience a summer in a mainstream school.  Not only is it a "general-ed" school, but it is in a foreign country.  Being overseas actually proves to be a mitigating factor for Martin's assimilation -- he finds it easier to relate to others through translation.

Martin's mother is a movie director and she is spending the summer in Provence working on a film.  She brings Martin along with her and, to help him pass the time, suggests that he try attending the local lycĂ©e.  He does so and has mixed success making friends and fitting in.  When he discovers that the kids he thinks are his friends are actually only being nice to him because they want Martin to get them access to his mother's movie, he is heartbroken.  However, he makes an unexpected decision that surprises everyone.

As I noted from the onset, what makes this story is the insightful portrayal of Martin.  While we get a pretty good idea of how Martin presents himself externally, we also get far more about what is going on in Martin's head.  Admittedly, his thought prcess is described in a way that Martin's character could not realistically do (i.e., through the words of a non-autistic author) but it is done with great sensitivity.  At times, Reyl goes overboard in bringing up jargon and catchphrases from therapy, or in over intellectualizing behavior, but the detail is really helpful in following along with what might otherwise be hard to follow.  Moreover, it gives the reader an unusually detailed understanding of autism making Martin much more sympathetic.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Now Is Everything, by Amy Giles

Hadley lives in the perfect house with perfect parents, but behind closed doors, her family is riven by her abusive father's calculated destruction of Hadley and now her little sister Lila.  Torn between her need to escape and the desire to protect her little sister, Hadley plays the peacemaker, trying to manipulate the situation to keep her father's explosive temper under control.  That strategy fails her when she starts dating Charlie, in a relationship that her parents explicitly forbid.

Harrowing reading with a very unsavory set of parents.  Hadley is an opinionated character and strong in a way.  She has a single-minded determination to work through problems her own way, but an arrogance about her capabilities (probably nurtured inadvertently by her father) that ultimately proves tragic and provides the novel a good deal of its mileage.

It is extremely ironic that the author in an afterword speaks strongly in praise of getting outside help, since this is the one thing that Hadley's character repeatedly refuses to do.  And while Giles is willing to cut her character some slack, I actually want to take the author to task for the decision.  Because it is pretty obvious what the correct and strong decision would be and it is strikingly against character for Hadley to be so stubborn throughout the novel.  The only purpose that such stubbornness really ends up serving is to drag out the story.  I have a hard time accepting that the behavior is plausible and, to those of you who argue that it is, then an even harder time seeing Hadley as any sort of heroine.  In sum, child endangerment as entertainment always strikes me as a bit sick, especially in this case where the solution is a deus ex machina conclusion, reinforcing the passive an oddly ineffectual actions of the main character.

Friday, April 13, 2018

I Never, by Laura Hopper

Judy Blume's classic Forever gets an update with Janey and Luke.  Janey is dealing with her parents separating and gets swept off her feet by the sexy, kind, and understanding Luke.  She's awkward, naive, and completely inexperienced, but Luke is the perfect first boyfriend and first lover.  In painstaking detail, Hopper draws out the day by day progression of their relationship delving into several pretty explicit sex scenes in the end.  Unlike Forever, which focused on the heroine's fretting over whether to lose her virginity (and then regretting it), Janey has an overall more positive experience and learns to embrace her sexuality.

It's a very intimate portrayal of adolescent romance and sexuality that reads like a diary and follows all the rules of YA relationships (from the entirely too-perfect boyfriend to the gossipy BFFs that Janey shares everything from petty jealousy to sex secrets with).  That said, it shares the fundamental flaw of Judy Blume books:  it's a far too perfect portrayal of the world and the book has a mission to sell a philosophy rather than actually tell a story.

As a novel that will encourage young women to relax and enjoy sex for its positive elements, it's a pretty successful and readable novel.  As a story about real people in real relationships, it's about as far away as it could possibly be.  Janey is astute and extremely well-spoken and has a voice that alternates wildly between the immaturity of a pre-teen and the wise thoughtfulness of a middle aged woman.  What she doesn't do, however, is sound like a seventeen year-old.  And Luke?  Well, he's just a fantasy creation (endlessly patient and kind, always saying the right thing, never has any interest beyond making Janey happy, etc.).  I liked the Janey's mother most of all, but I assume that was basically Hopper's voice, and I didn't buy the calm reasoned discussions between mother and daughter about sex and longing.

And yes, the sex scenes are a little too numerous and a little too explicit.  But if that's what you are looking for, I can give you some much better recommendations!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Far from the Tree, by Robin Benway

Sixteen year-old Grace's recent pregnancy and experience with putting her baby up for adoption gets her thinking about her own biological mother, whom she's never met.  And when she learns from her adoptive parents that her birth mother actually had two other children -- Maya and Joaquin -- she tracks them down and tries to convince them that they should try to find their mother together.  For differing reasons, her siblings want nothing to do with the idea, but still bond over their common roots.

It's a particularly traumatic time for Maya, whose parents are separating, but even Joaquin has issues as a survivor of the foster system (he was never actually adopted).  The three children's reunion serves as a catalyst for many hidden and suppressed problems to surface.

Billed as a story about the meaning of family, the novel is actually a bit more focused, looking at the emotional tie of adoption and what it means to bring in a child to the family unit without a blood tie.  That idea (and the exploration of it) will likely make adoptees and adoptive families uncomfortable, but Benway touches on it with great sensitivity.

That doesn't mean that this is light reading.  Particularly towards the end, this story becomes pretty traumatic reading as all sorts of heartstrings are pulled.  It ends as well as one could expect, but there's a lot of pain to explore and catharsis to be endured.  If you're like me, that makes this a great book.  If you prefer lighter reading, I'd suggest giving this a pass.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

If There's No Tomorrow, by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Lena is looking forward to a fun-filled senior year.  Her biggest concerns are her crush on her next-door neighbor Sebastian and whether they, as a couple, are on or not.  A near-kiss becomes the central crisis in her life and she seeks solace and advice from her friends.

But then, tragedy strikes at a party where some bad choices are made and Lena finds herself the sole survivor of a car crash.  Of her friends, three are now dead.  Lena herself, while alive, has to face serious injuries and a difficult readjustment.  And then come to grips with the loss and her grief.  Ironically, it is Sebastian who will become her means to reconnect with her life, as he becomes far more than a crush.

While this certainly contains the sort of meaty material that could drive a good book and is well-written by an experienced YA novelist, the novel is a strangely lifeless affair.  Lena is a decent enough character but there's just not much depth here.  And the writing, while pretty good, doesn't really stretch beyond competent storytelling.  Death and grieving stories have been told before and this one doesn't add much in new insights or present the story in an aesthetically interesting way.  It's not a bad read, but it doesn't stand out in any particular way.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Starfish, by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Kiko struggles with low self-esteem.  She dreams of attending art school in New York City.  When she is rejected by the school, she fears she'll remain stuck in her Nebraskan town, under the thumb of her narcissistic and emotionally abusive mother.  That fate starts to change when she reconnects with an old flame and decides to explore schools in California.  Free from her toxic environment at home, she spreads her wings and discovers her own potential and a sense of self-worth.

The novel is burdened by a number of YA cliches and a heroine who partially struggles from self-inflicted woes (I grow tired of characters who know that they are the cause of all the world's woes, since every reader can guess that the character will be proved wrong and their problems will then magically disappear!).  But there is a lot more to love in this debut novel than hate.  The toxic relationship between Kiko and her mother is as authentic as it is heartbreaking.  As depicted, it captures so insightfully the dependency of mother and daughter and how the child is so unable to break free.  I wondered at times where Kiko found her strength to break the cycle, but I was inspired by it.  I also loved the subjects of each of her drawings (a literary device used to close almost every chapter).

Now, if someone could please explain why the cover features a jellyfish?

Monday, March 26, 2018

Lights, Camera, Disaster, by Erin M. Dionne

Hess Greene loves movies and everything about making them.  Given the option, she would love to do nothing all day but work on them.  But there's always school in the way!  That attitude towards school causes her to ignore her assignments and miss her tests until it seems that it's gone too far and Hess runs the risk of being held back a year.  Can she find a way to fix her life without losing her ability to work on movies?  Or will she in fact fail at both?

A middle reader about a girl with a lot of artistic inspiration but not very much inner discipline.  That makes for a difficult read because her problems, while potentially rooted in physiology, seem mostly to do with an inability to simply sit down and do the work.  It doesn't help that she is also prone to tedious bouts of self-pity that annoy parents, teachers, and friends (and thus the reader as well).  That she eventually turns her life around is what mostly saves this story, but it's a hard trudge.

That said, a character strong enough to annoy you is at least a well-written one!   And Dionne's ear for modern middle school life is admirable.  Young readers will get this story and, if they are forgiving enough about the narrator's faults, may well enjoy her journey.

[Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book from Scholastic Press, in exchange for an unbiased review.  The book goes on sale on March 27, 2018]

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Psalm for Lost Girls, by Katie Bayerl

While she was still alive, people said that Callie's sister Tess was a saint (of the type that performs miracles).  That she might not have lived the life of one was neatly overlooked by the needy town and their overzealous mother.  And when Tess dies young, the fervor to have her beatified grows out of control.

Everyone seems to have an agenda except for Callie, who simply wants her sister to regain the life that others stole from her to make her something she wasn't.  But is Callie really son altruistic?  Does she really have a sober vision of Tess or has she simply found a way to beatified her in her own way?  As the community suffers from a seemingly unrelated child abduction (and then "miraculous" reappearance), questions about Tess's sanctity and Callie's inability to let go come to a head.

The very interesting premise of this novel -- the fine line between grief and honoring the dead -- gets muddied by so many other things in this literary debut.  The story I most wanted to read (the tension between mother and living daughter) is there but clouded and eventually overrun by the psychopath child abductor subplot.  And the similarly interesting story of the two sisters, compounded by their attraction to the same boy, just drops off the radar.  Added to the mix are elements about church conspiracy, a struggling New England community, and a complicit media that make for interesting swirl but largely distract from the meat of the story.  There are so many wonderful ways this story could have gone, but instead it just limps to its meager conclusion amidst unrealized ambitions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Little Something Different, by Sandy Hall

Lea and Gabe are in love with each other and everyone knows it, except them.  So, why not let the rest of the world write their love story for them?

This is the basic premise of Sandy Hall's original and quirky NA story:  a love story between two college students told from the perspective for fourteen different narrators.  Obvious suspects like friends, roommates, and siblings are joined by less obvious voices (teacher, teacher's spouse, bus driver, waitress) and even a few silly ones (the park bench and a friendly neighborhood squirrel).

With so many different points of view, it does become a bit mushy telling the story.  Success relies on each point of view having its own special offering.  And here, I think Hall has overdone it.  The voices are very similar so their distinctiveness relies entirely upon offering a unique viewpoint.  The squirrel and the park bench serve this role quite well (I'm partial to squirrels, so I may be biased), but some of the others blur together.  For example, the bus driver and the waitress are largely the same character and Lea's roommate and Gabe's brother serve basically the same role in the story.  The many perspectives sometimes become redundant and the story loses speed.  There is also the small issue that an obvious romance can only be milked out so long before you just want to shove these people in front of each other (as, in fact, their friends try to do).

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Map for Wrecked Girls, by Jessica Taylor

Ever since Emma betrayed her sister Henri, the two have barely talked to each other.  But when a freak boating accident leaves them stranded on a dessert island, things change (although not for the better).  Along with them is Alex, a boy with a tortured past, that Emma falls in love with.  Meanwhile, Henri drifts away becoming more and more anti-social and distant.  And throughout, the three young people struggle for survival in a very hostile environment.

While the point of the story is supposed to be the loss and reconciliation between two sisters, I found that portion of the story tedious and strained.  The resolution was particularly unsatisfactory, relying on an implausible explanation and a far too easy solution.  The survival tale proved more thought out and mildly suspenseful.  And the juxtaposition of the two very separate stories was ultimately awkward.  It was a hard slog to get through.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dress Codes for Small Towns, by Courtney Stevens

Billie and her friends make up the “Hexagon” – a gang of rowdy and inseparable teens in their small Kentucky town of Otters Hollow.  They’re prone to mischief and pranks.  As the story opens, they’ve managed to nearly burn down Billie’s church in an experiment involving a dirty sock and the church’s aged microwave oven.   

But the kids love their town and they love the annual Corn Dolly Harvest Festival.  The Festival is endangered after the passing of the town’s patriarch and the Hexagon decides that they are going save the Festival.  They launch a massive fundraising campaign and incidentally get Billie nominated for the Corn Dolly Contest – an award given to the woman who is judged to be the epitome of femininity and generosity in Otters Hollow.

That description couldn’t be any further away from androgynous, scruffy, boot-kicking Billie.  And for her, even the idea of “femininity” is hard to grasp.  She’s still trying to figure out if she’s straight or gay – a fact not helped by her interest in both a boy and a girl, or by her desire to keep things platonic.

Part of the key of the Hexagon’s bond is that everyone stays as friends only.  But as they have grown older, that promise is starting to fray.  All of which makes Billie’s sexual orientation an object of speculation.  And in a small town not being easy to compartmentalize is a problem, which complicates her relationship with the town -- a town that she loves, but which may not love her back.

A nice genre defying novel that blows apart stereotypes about the rural South, Christian fundamentalists, and teen gender identity angst.  Billie is a true original – a tomboy who kisses both the boy and the girl (and stays friends with both!).  She can be kind and generous, and still make bad choices.  And her friends are full of mischief and trouble.  Sometimes the cast of characters gets overwhelming but this story feels new and special.  There's lots of energy and personality in the characters and a real small town feel.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

How to Make a Wish, by Ashley Herring Blake

Grace’s mother Maggie is a train wreck, but since the day her Dad was killed overseas, Mom has been the only parent she’s had.  Dragged from one of her mother’s unhealthy relationships to another, Grace has never had much stability.  But she’s had dreams and friends.  The dream: to audition for a piano scholarship in New York.  Her friends: Luca and his Mom who look out for her when things get real bad.  And then, a new girl Eva, who’s just been orphaned and bonds with Grace in ways neither of them expect.  But what good can any hopes, dreams, or wishes do when Grace’s Mom is always there to drag her down again?

A complex story that takes the central conflict between Grace and her mother and ties in so many complicated and wonderful side plots. While Luca and his mother are largely throwaway sidekicks, Eva the orphan girl becomes quite central: as a lover to Grace and also as competition for the affection of Grace’s mother.  The nuanced story between the two girls touches on friendship, romance, and jealousy, and is ultimately critical for Grace’s moment of transcendence.  I’m never a fan of the destructive mother motif, but at least this one focuses on Grace recognizing her codependence and learning to cope with it. That it manages to fit in a meaningful and authentically touching teen romance as well is impressive.

Ultimately uplifting and hopeful, this book beautifully describes a young woman learning to overcome on her own terms the traps laid by her destructive parent.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Wild Bird, by Wendelin Van Draanen

The story opens with Wren, a troubled young teen, being forcibly removed from her home and relocated to a desert boot camp for rehabilitation.  There isn't much mystery about why her parents have taken this drastic step (she's a real handful from the beginning) but as the story starts to fill in the details, the depth of her problems keep growing and growing.

Naturally, as this is a story about healing, Wren comes back from the edge and really rebounds, but it is rough going and fraught with set backs.  Through the harshness of the environment and some really stellar counselors, she develops the self-confidence and self-respect she needs.

Some of this story is a bit overly rosy, but the core of the story (Wren's rebirth) is lovingly handled and beautifully told.  I really did despise her in the beginning and her growth could be maddeningly slow.  But in the end, I could look back and see the progression and feel it was truly authentic, and really appreciate how she had fixed her life  Pacing a story like this (where you know how it will end) is so challenging but Van Draanen gets it right.  That the ending is a tear jerker should come as no surprise, but the way it is becomes the surprise.  A lovely book!

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Impossible Vastness of Us, by Samantha Young

India Maxwell, a childhood abuse survivor, has plenty of issues with trust.  She’s learned to survive by being tough and being on top of her school's social hierarchy.  But when her mother announces that she’s remarrying and that they are moving across the country, it throws off everything India’s worked for.  And it triggers more than a few of her fears.

When they arrive, India finds that the situation is even worse than she feared.  Her stepfather-to-be is immensely wealthy and his stepdaughter and her friends, while India’s age, couldn’t be more different.  Initially hostile to her, India has to struggle to settle in to her new environment.  And as she does so, she finds that not everyone is who they seem and that the secrets that they hold could destroy each other and take India down with them.

Mostly non-remarkable romance material, Young focuses on the relationship between India and her stepsister Eloise.  This proves a good choice as Young knows well how to write the complexities of adolescent friendships.  The romance (a love triangle between the two girls and a boy named Finn) is less inspiring (at least its boy-girl parts) and serves as a better foil between the two girls.  So, read it for the girl-bonding sweetness and ignore the rest.

What should go down as the most perfunctory sex scene in Teen Harlequin history graces this novel on page (page 320 – blink and you’ll miss it!).

Friday, February 23, 2018

This is Not the End, by Chandler Baker

When you turn eighteen in this alternate reality drama, you receive a one-time opportunity to resurrect someone.  Only one person and only on your birthday.  Since her brother’s accident, which left him crippled, Lake has known what she was supposed to do.  She promised to resurrect her brother so he would be whole.  Despite the fact that he’s become mean and bitter, she’s been willing to uphold her promise.

That is, until the day that she survives a car accident but loses her best friend and her boyfriend.  Now, her choice has become more complicated.  Does she honor her promise to her brother (and her family) or does she pick one of her friends?  And if one of them, should it be or best friend or her boyfriend?  And in this decision, friendships are shattered and families divided.  Unable to find decent counsel, Lake finds herself turning to an outsider, a boy with only a fleeting connection to her life, but whose own life offers lessons for hers.

An intriguing (if somewhat implausible) premise that raises many ethical questions.  Baker’s heart isn’t really into those questions and the novel drags when she goes through the motions of exploring them.  The far more interesting parts of the book are spent on Lake’s journey towards acceptance of death.  This subject may or may not interest adolescents but it is the sort of thing that is an interesting topic for others – how youth processes death.

Much of the rest of the novel is predictable, but Baker throws in a serious twist in the last fifty pages that picked up the consequences and turns out to be pretty catastrophic for the storyline.  Much of the earlier conflict in the story gets sidelined.  The most glaring example of this is the sudden pacification between brother and sister that provided much of the interesting drive to the story.