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 Ahley 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!).