Tuesday, May 31, 2005

All the Living, by Claudia Mills

Karla and her brother Jamie are spending a summer at their late uncle's cottage in Maine, and Karla can't cope with all the death around her. Her brother's problems are more immediate: an abusive and bullying father who sees his son as a complete failure. Mom sits on the sidelines and tries to cheer everyone up. This being a middle school book, no one is going to go through serious emotional trauma but there is a fair amount of self-discovery and tears.

This story had tremendous potential to become something hard hitting, but Mills steps back at each point that things get heavy. And even the fairly dramatic climax comes out of nowhere and departs pretty much without having changed much in the lives of its characters. It makes for an OK read, but one wishes that Mills had put more teeth into the story.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Changing Tunes, by Donna Jo Napoli

I had picked up this book because I had had another book by Napoli (Sirena) recommended to me and the synopsis of this one actually looked more interesting.

Changing Tunes is about a ten year old girl named Eileen who has to deal with her parent's divorce. An only child, Eileen doesn't have a lot of sources of comfort: she can't bring herself to tell her best friend Stephanie that it's even happened, every time she brings up the subject with her parents, they tell her to "accept it," and her piano has been taken away by her father. Throughout the story, piano playing is a constant theme that Napoli comes back to to explain Eileen's feelings and discoveries.

The story is a bit jumpy and the narrative tends to drift -- partially a result of having too much going on (a subplot about babysitting really doesn't add much to the story) and partly because this is a middle-school book, designed with shorter chapters and for shorter attention spans. Napoli has some of the lyrical poetic quality of Seven Kisses in a Row, but there's a lot going on here and it is a bit distracting.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Alice On Her Way, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

The Alice series was one of the first YA books I read when I started my adult rediscovery of children's books....

The charming part of the series is that Naylor takes us very slowly through the life of a young woman growing up in Bethesda, giving us the continuity of her experiences and friends, and doing so at only a few months at a time. Counting the prequels, we've watched Alice grow from 8 to 16, and this is simply the latest continuation of her life.

In Alice On Her Way, Alice McKinley takes a school trip to NYC, falls in love with Sam and then decides to break up with him, goes through a church-sponsored sex education class, and gets her driver's license. There's some realizations of her new life with a step mother and watching her older brother grow a more independent life.

When I first started reading the books, they seems so amazingly revealing and revolutionary, but I really didn't know much about the genre. Now that I've read more, they are not nearly as appealing anymore. Naylor, like Judy Blume, has a big mission to talk about sex as much as she can. And while teens are interested in the subject, Naylor really has a crusade on -- one which even her protagonist seems to find a bit over the top! And while Naylor has her story up to date (with the girls IM'ing each other, for example), there's a certain flat innocence to the story. In Alice's world, there are no metal detectors in schools and no drugs. There is sex, of course, but it has an innocence to it, that belies reality even in a posh suburb like Bethesda. Again, YA lit has gotten grittier and it is hard to imagine teens reading these books. Maybe for the pre-teen market, Alice would still be fun.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Faultline, by Janet Tashjian

Having enjoyed Multiple Choice, I looked up other tashjian books and found this one about dating violence. It's hard to read the book without comparing it to Sarah Dessen's Dreamland (one of my all-time favorite books).

Becky Martin is a high school senior in San Francisco, working on a budding career in stand up comedy, when she meets Kip, a very talented young comic with issues. Before she knows it, she's swept away into a torrid relationship with him that becomes emotionally abusive and eventually physically abusive as well. But Becky is no passive victim and she has the strength to break off the relationship as it goes bad, until she finds out that she isn't as strong as she thought she was.

The story is a powerful one of course, but I wish that Tashjian had kept the focus more on Becky's feelings and emotional state (which is basically how Dessen treated the story) and less time on the side story of Becky's comedy career (which is more of a Joan Bauer-esque way of handling the story). There is too much going on in this thin book (transvestite nanny, comedy practice, being a tour guide) and it keeps distracting the reader from the meat of the story itself.

Tashjian does make the powerful decision to include Kip's personal musings at various points through the story. As she relates in the afterward, she does this to avoid demonizing the boy. This adds a degree of subtlety to the book that other abusive-boyfriend stories have lacked.

A mixed review then. Excellent potential, strong writing, but needed a tighter focus.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, by Deb Caletti

Sometimes, there is too much of a good thing....

This is the story of a young woman sucked into the sphere of a Bad Boy, in a relationship that goes from risky to dangerous to harmful. Bordering on an abusive relationship, Ruby's infatuation with Travis takes her into a minefield of dependency that even her mother has not managed to overcome.

This is a richly poetic book, chock full of metaphors and allusions, and colorful observations about life and love. It addresses at least one of my recent concerns -- the portrayal of parents in YA lit. In this one, the mother (while a real human being who must sometimes make decisions in Ruby's best interest) genuinely cares about her daughter and works with Ruby to overcome her issues. Ruby does rebel and Mom is not always perfect, but this is a story of a mother and daughter working together...and that is a beautiful thing.

So, why do I have a luke warm feeling about the book? I think the primary issue for me is that the writing is SO dense that it is a very slow read. At one point, I began to observe just how dense -- nearly every page had at least two pithy observations or clever sound bites. I began to feel that Caletti was just dumping a journal-full of these quotes into the book, finding a place to slam as many as she could. It gets overwhelming. And in the end, it makes for a pretty turgid read. I love Sarah Dessen's writings for her ability to bring out these lyric moments, but restraint is a blessed thing. There can be too much of a good thing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler

Another really good book (I seem to be doing better these days!).

Life in upper class Manhattan for Virginia Shreves is a hell-hole of low self-esteem, living up to brilliant siblings, and dealing with cluelessly abusively parents. The book, as is almost predictable in a book of this genre, is about Virginia coming out of her shell and changing her life, with some help from her friends and a few third-parties.

More like Meg Cabot than Sarah Dessen, Mackler ties things up a bit too neatly at the end, but at least some things are left open (Virginia never quite conquers her eating compulsions, for example). It's a good read and leaves you cheering at the end. It might even make a great movie, if Hollywood could ever get itself to make a teen movie with an overweight heroine.

But let me digress on something I've noticed a lot of in YA lit that bugs me: the depiction of parents. Now, my own parents were utterly clueless in many ways and I certainly had my reasons for disliking them, but parents are overwealmingly portrayed as either permissive or arrogant. Either the parents let the kid get away with EVERYTHING or they cut their children off and punish them for expressing themselves. Are there parents that fit this mold? Certainly! But how many more parents are there out there who try to reach their kids but don't know how to do it? It's a cheap shot to always have such two-dimensional parents. Should I ever write YA (one of my dreams), I'd like to write a story where the parents are trying, but just not getting it. Sure, they can do something mean (for dramatic effect), but let's give them some depth. I think young readers would appreciate that.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

What Every Girl (except me) Knows, by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Gabby Weiss is stuck with a annoying older brother and a no friends at school, but worst of all, she has no mother, so she must spend her time observing women to figure out all the secrets that a mother tells their daughters to make them ready for the real world. But over a year, Gabby makes a special friend, nearly gains (and then loses) a step-mother, and learns that the secrets of adulthood cannot be neatly placed on a list.

An absolutely stunning and beautiful book. To begin with, the story itself is delightful (albeit with some of the typical cliches of YA novels), the writing is strong and poetic (with plenty of insights and observations), and the characters are interesting and even fun. Partly, I suppose, it is nice to read a book that takes place in a familiar setting (New Paltz NY), but the characters are truly interesting and real.

Maybe not one of my all-time favorites, but a stellar read nonetheless.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Forever, by Judy Blume

Finishing up the survey of Judy Blume (for now) with a really steamy entry...

Forever is the story of Kath and Michael (and Ralph!) and their first love -- a very hot torrid physical relationship. The story recounts everything from falling in love, to having sex, to dealing with separation, and to the eventual breakup.

There actually isn't much more story than that, although Blume does fit in teen suicide, teen pregnancy, birth control, and even drinking and drug use. There's a lot going on in this book and it is pretty explicit. In fact, it's basically NC-17 (or XXX to use the jargon in which the book is written). As before, there are lots of moments that date this book (most notably, that this group of 18 year olds go to a bar and have drinks). The most dangerous dated reference (having sex without a condom) is actually addressed by Blume in a new forward to the book.

There are certainly lovely moments in the book, like recounting the awkward physics of having sex with a new partner or the cuteness of pet names (although I used "Richard" instead of "Ralph"), but again it is a rushed book. And like so many of her other books, Blume is on a crusade and it shows. Kath is so comfortable having sex and so uninhibited (as, in fact are the adults) that it is surreal. Even for adults, it does not go that smoothly. But in the end, the whole experience is just so clinical -- Blume is basically trying to show young readers that sex is awkward and wonderful -- that the story is hollow and empty. To have written a book about how beautiful young love and passion can be would have made a fantastic read. Instead, we have a clinical and political manifesto....and one that left me feeling a bit dirty.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Lifted Up by Angels, by Lurlene McDaniel

OK, so I give up on this one. The first book in the series was borderline, but my suspicions were bourne out in the second installment...

This is the continuation of the story begun in Angels Watching Over Me and picks up six months after Leah's stay (and recovery). Longing for her Amish friends (and her love Ethan in particular), Leah spends the summer in Napannee IN, near where the family lives. She learns a lot more about the Amish and has a few adventures. A dramatic tear jerker ending that comes out of nowhere will elicit a sob or more.

The writing style grows more stilted in this book, with such amzingly bad prose as "the rose fingers of dawn" and some amzingly bad dialog. McDaniel gets her style from adult romance novels and this is basically one of those, with a slightly younger heroine. The man is a wooden figure, his stoic boring nature explained away as being Amish. Leah's swooning, recounted repeatedly through the book, never quite seems justified or real.

The book came on a recommendation from a young reader, and maybe if you hadn't read a lot of romance novels yet, this would be appealing, but the story has little to do with growing up or learning to become an adult (like a decent YA novel) or with young people coping with disease (as the author claims her goal is).

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Lizzie at Last, by Claudia Mills

Elizabeth is a math whiz, with a penchant for wearing Victorian dresses, writing poetry, and imagining that she would be better off in the time of Emily Dickinson. Her quirkiness gets her labeled as a "nerd" by her classmates, but her academically-minded parents don't get Lizzie's desire to become "normal" and popular as she enters seventh-grade.

It's a bit of a hackneyed plot, with the predictable self-discovery at the end that has Lizzie deciding to be true to herslef rather than what people want her to be. However, it's lightened on the way by Mills's ability to recreate Junior High in wonderful technicolor. Again, the book suffers from being written in the third person, but Lizzie emerges nonetheless as a three dimensional character, albeit a bit of a stereotype.

Still, anyone who grew up quirky (like me) will appreciate some degree of familiarity in Lizzie's personality.

The book itself is part of a series which includes stories of several of her classmates as well. That is bound to be fun, but a bit lost on me as I'm joining the series mid-way.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Angels Watching Over Me, by Lurlene McDaniel

Now, I venture into Christian-romance territory....

The first of a trilogy about angels, McDaniel's book is about Leah, a young woman who spends a week alone in a hospital (her mother is away in Japan on a Honeymoon) with a broken finger that becomes a diagnosis for bone cancer. Her roommate, an Amish girl, and her roommate's family teach her a number of lessons about simplicity and faith in God. Along the way, there is a strange mystery visitor who no one else knows of and who the book strongly suggests (but avoids outright stating) is an angel.

I get a bit scared with books with strong religious undertones, but I have to admit that this one (I'll reserve my judgment on the next two installments) was pretty good about keeping the preaching to a minimum. Stories about Amish (I'm thinking of Plain Girl) can be great fun so I enjoyed that part of the story.

It is a bit hard that the book is written in third person. As a rule, I prefer the first-person style for YA literature. Written this way, the author has distanced us from the main character. Overall, the style is more adult romance novel than YA literature as well. There is some obligatory references to adolescence, but everyone seems terribly grown up here, and so I may eventually lose interest with the story if we don't return to some more age-appropriate action.