Sunday, December 28, 2008

Shelter, by Beth Cooley

When Lucy's father is killed in a car accident, she and her family lose everything, moving from place to place until they end up at a homeless shelter. Things have gotten as low as they can get. But as life hits rock bottom for Lucy, she discovers there is hope. And while she, her mother, and her little brother struggle to rebuild their lives, they also discover new talents and skills.

A light and fast read, but superficial and predictable at the same time. Cooley is an uneven writer. The setting was fresh and the characters engaging, but the dialogue and the narration gets very clunky and artificial at times. Fun enough to read, but don't expect much from it if you do.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Almost Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In the latest installment of the Alice series, Alice is now finishing up her junior year. As usual, there are plenty of adventures (a Sadie Hawkins dance, working for the Gay Student Alliance and the school newspaper, a production of Guys and Dolls, a friend from work choosing to become a priest, etc.) and a few deep issues (mostly dealing with sex and forgiveness). But for the most part, the rather frantic pace of Alice's just continues forward. Long-time readers will be excited that she goes to the prom with Patrick.

In my mind the franchise is mostly treading water at this point. She's a fun character to catch up with and I get the appeal, but aside from chronicling what Alice eats for dinner and the latest goofy adventure she has, Naylor seems to have run out of things to actually say in these books. Some of the installments (Alice In-Between and Alice the Brave, for example) were beautiful stories that just happened to be snapshots of her life. Now, it seems more like we are cramming in a lot of activity, skimping on the reflection, and full speed ahead. Alice seems shallow in comparison to her younger days.

I'll probably get savaged by the multitude of Alice fans out there, but I think it is fair to say that something has truly been lost. I've always been taken by the idea of the project (documenting a single person's life from childhood to adulthood) but I want it to be an emotional journey where I can see the insides of the person, not just a diary account of all her nutty adventures. Let's slow down a little and smell the roses!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Undone, by Brooke Taylor

Serena has always been drawn to the mysterious Kori and tried to emulate her. But Kori has always lived her life just a bit closer to the edge, being sexier, sluttier, and darker than Serena would ever dare. But when Kori dies in an accident, Serena must try to rebuild her life and identity without Kori. In fulfilling five of Kori's last wishes, she learns as much about Kori as she does about herself.

A striking surprise. I really wanted to hate this book. It combines the worst of YA (death and gloom) with characters who seem terribly stock (outcast goth, snotty cheerleaders, etc.) but Taylor is always one step ahead of you keeping things interesting. The book has a very nasty habit of throwing in unexpected curve balls (some of which seem artificially created just to generate surprise), but there is just so much originality in this book that you have to cheer it on. The plot still annoys me and the characters did not engage me, but the story is just too damned good! Read this book to read one of the truly most original treatments of a tired theme you will ever find. Brooke Taylor is a powerhouse of a good writer.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Call Me Hope, by Gretchen Olson

Hardly a day goes by where Hope's mother isn't yelling at her, calling Hope "stupid" or a "dumb shit." As Hope turns 12, she has grown so tense that she grinds her teeth at night and throws up her food. Despite her attempts to please her Mom, nothing seems to work and Hope wonders if she can get by. Taking inspiration from The Diary of Anne Frank and from Life Is Beautiful, she draws parallels between her life and the lives of Jews in the Holocaust.

Written more as an advocacy piece for alerting children to the dangers of verbal abuse, there isn't much room for subtlety in this story. Hope herself is well-developed but most of the other characters (Mom, the school counselor, friends, etc.) are basically just talking heads for the cause. That's a bit of a shame because a more nuanced story would have been more compelling. But the target audience appears to be younger middle school readers and Olson probably wanted to spell things out in black and white.

The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, by Lisa Graff

When Bernetta's alleged best friend frames her and gets her suspended from school (as well as grounded for the Summer), Bernie is devastated. However, it gets worse. Because of her alleged cheating on a test, she is also going to lose her scholarship at Mount Olive and her parents can't afford to send her there in the Fall without the financial help. How, she must figure out a way to earn $9000 in the Summer to pay for the bills. But how do you do that when you are only 12 years old? Her surprising answer is to become a con artist.

It took me a major act of will to overcome the morally questionable premise (you can undo a wrong by committing many more) and a flimsy righting of those wrongs at the very end. But if you can put those scruples on hold, the book is breezy and fun to read. This is one of those stories that you can pretty much tell what the pay off will be, but it's entertaining.

Lobster Land, by Susan Carlton

Life on an island off the coast of Portland ME is fairly bleak (pun intended) but Charlotte has plans to escape to boarding school. However, there's her boyfriend, hapless (but potentially fugitive and definitely Scrabble-obsessed) Dad, and her siblings with whom to negotiate. And there's the small matter of getting the applications done as well!

A book which scores more from its witty writing than its story. The constant sarcasm gets a bit tired by page 90, but it has appeal (reminding me a bit of Cyd from Gingerbread). I really wanted to like this girl. But the story treads water.

I'll have to also admit that my opinion was impacted more than a little by the liberal use of profanity in the writing. This is a source of intense debate in YA (whether to swear or not). I see how it can add authenticity and emotion to a story (and I'm certainly no prude in my own life) but the rather heavy use of F-bombs and A-words by Carlton dilutes their utility. I think less is more in this case.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Santa Claus in Baghdad, by Elsa Marston

This collection of eight short stories profile a different young person in a different Middle Eastern country, focusing predominantly on areas which have been beset by violence (Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, etc.). While some of the struggles are familiar YA themes, the setting i scertainly not. So, like last year's In the Name of God, Marston illustrates both what is similiar and what is different.

Marston is a bit overly conscious of her role as an introducer of a culture to the West and some of the stories can get preachy (and politically slanted as well). Moreover, as a collection of stories, there is a wide variety of strength in the work. The first story (which lends its title to the book) is a particularly beautiful retelling of O Henry's Gift of the Magi and is one of the most haunting stories in the collection. Other stories, like "The Olive Grove" (about the Intifada) or "Honor" (about honor killing in Syria), falter under the weight of their political agendas. Politics of course has its place (and novels like the aforementioned In the Name of God or the haunting Tasting the Sky have successfully melded politics and teen angst) but Marston is at her best when she keeps her focus on the kids. And Marston does succeed at times. "In Line" manages to tell a story about friendship while still highlighting class tensions in modern Egypt.

Walking Naked, by Alyssa Brugman

When Megan lands up in detention with the "Freak" (as Megan and her friends call outcast Perdita), she realizes that she has never given Perdita much thought. And as she gets to know Perdita better a la Breakfast Club, she realizes that she actually likes the girl. But now, Megan must try to juggle her position as an It Girl with the social suicide of her new friendship. The effort that this balancing act takes makes her realize that her own perfect world may not be so great after all.

Fairly predictable and tame YA fare from Australia. (Wouldn't it be cool if we had a YA book where the popular snooty girl actually turned out to have a better life than the outcast? Yes, snooty A-List girls don't generally read YA so there wouldn't be much call for such a shake-up in the convention, but wouldn't it be fun to see something a little different?) No major revelations in this one. But if you are looking for a pleasant tale about the importance of being true to yourself and the perils of popularity, this will fit the bill.