Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Burn, by Suzanne Phillips

At the beginning of his Freshman year, Cameron makes the mistake of showing up late for a gym meeting, and showing up with long hair and his Mom in tow. The incident earns him the name "Cameron Diaz" along with a slew of epithets from bully Rich Patterson and his football buddies. The name-calling escalates to physical abuse and then assault. In response, Cameron withdraws and starts to fail academically. Unable to get any effective intervention from the teachers or administrators, life at school becomes a living hell. Eventually, it all ends badly and tragically.

I found myself sucked in by the story as it progressed, but more out of horror than out of interest in the story. The book itself is well-written, with decent dialogue and realistic characters, but there were several things which bothered me about this novel:

1) The lack of sympathetic characters. As I've noted before, for me a novel has to have a character I like, one the redeems him/herself, or one that draws me in. Cameron isn't any of those things. He's abused and been through a lot, but he turns out to be just as evil as the bullies (and doesn't ever seem to face that fact). I was never able to warm to him.

2) The incoherent plotting. Somewhere in the book, we learn that Cameron suffered abuse from his father, but the idea is never really developed. Yet, despite never being introduced or developed as an idea, this abuse suddenly becomes important in the end. Another example of the plotting problems is that the story spends the first 166 pages being about bullying, but then suddenly becomes a half-hearted story about homicide and temporary insanity. While I get the link between the two that Phillips is trying to draw, it is never really connected (the best attempt is Cameron's Mom's pleas for mercy because of the prior assault and the damage it had on Cameron, but everyone - including the author - ignores her).

3) The aimless and unresolved subplots. Probably related to my previous point are all the ideas that are left out floating in this story, including (but not limited to) the special ed kid in history, Cameron's self-harming behavior, the arson in the woods, the relationship between Cameron and his brother, any of Cameron's friends, Randy's relationship to Cameron's family, and so on. In retrospect, it almost has me wondering if any subplot was resolved.

In sum, this is an easy book to get lost in and if that is what you want from a book, it will do the trick. I'll reiterate that the characters are vibrant and the dialogue is spot on. But it's not a pretty story, and push comes to shove, it isn't really that well-developed of a story either.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Spectacular Now, by Tim Tharp

In a bit of a departure for me, this is the story of Sutter, senior and party animal extraordinaire. Once he "fortifies" himself with whiskey and SevenUp, he's everyone's favorite dude (at least in his own mind). Told in a train-of-semi-consciousness narrative, Sutter lurches from one party to the next, never bothering to spend too much time sober. But he's the sweetest alcoholic you've ever met -- generous to a fault and insightful about others (yet blind to himself and his own faults). Given that we never see the world from outside of his blurry eyes, we can get a bit suspicious about his intentions and veracity, but it is obvious he has a heart full of good intentions. Meeting a shy withdrawn A-student named Aimee provides an opportunity for him to re-examine his ways, but it's not terribly reasonable to expect someone who is this far down the path to self-destruction to change their behavior. Think of this as Catcher in the Rye meets Leaving Las Vegas as Holden Caulfield and Ben Sanderson are merged together.

This is a beautifully-written story about a truly complex character. You feel torn between respect and revulsion at Sutter and his behavior. It would be easy to hate him for the way he destroys the people around him or for his own personal cluelessness, but then he does something terribly sweet or kind. And while one could say that he harms Aimee, it is also possible to say that he did her a world of good. Nothing simple and straightforward here. Tharp is a master at portraying this complexity and never quite letting us off the hook.

The story itself is so fluid that you never really want to put this book down. Part of the reason for this is that, while the story is terribly tragic, Sutter is so adamant about keeping us in a happy "now" moment (and Tharp honors his character by doing so) that we never really get a chance to wallow in the misery until we silence the narrator by putting the book down. Recommended.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dani Noir, by Nova Ren Suma

OK, I'll start off by noting a minor conflict of interest. I didn't realize until I read the jacket bio, but Nova Ren Suma attended a Summer writing workshop at Simon's Rock and credits it with starting her writing career. How cool is that?! So, how can I possibly say anything bad about her now?

Dani Noir is the story of 13 year-old Dani whose love of old movies (and Rita Hayworth in particular) combines with her dramatic sense of the world to make her one of the funnier narrators in Middle School reads. She's spending the Summer being bored and coping with her parents' divorce (and her father's plans to get remarried) the only way she knows how: by sneaking in to the local art theater and watching one classic film after the other. But when she discovers that her friend the projectionist is cheating on his girlfriend (her very own beloved ex-babysitter!), she decides to take matters into her own hands and expose the no-good cheating scum!

Dani is a pretty self-absorbed child, but younger readers will appreciate her good intentions and older readers can get a chuckle from her misadventures (and her obsession with the noir films). I have no idea whether younger readers will even understand what she is going on about, but this is one of those books that will probably hook a few 10-12 year-olds on classic films. No harm in that! If nothing else, it will give the kids something to discuss with their great-grandparents. That said, the story is a bit predictable so no major page-turning excitement here, but it flows nicely and Nova Ren Suma has a nice style which hopefully she can re-create in her next novel.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

(Re) Cycler, by Lauren McLaughlin

Cycler introduced us to Jill, the girl with an odd pathology of turning into a boy (Jack) once a month instead of getting her period. It was an unusual premise with a lot of promise that McLaughlin exploited to turn into a story about sex roles, gender identity, and teen angst all rolled up into a fun romp. (Re) Cycler picks up where the first story left off as Jill/Jack and Jack's girlfriend Ramie have moved to Brooklyn to establish some anonymity, get Jill a job, and give Jack and Ramie some quality time together. Jill's boyfriend Tommy drops them off before heading out West to find himself, leaving Jill as the odd person out. She struggles with how she feels about being abandoned by Tommy, how she feels about Jack and Ramie, and how she feels about Ramie herself. She also struggles a bit with the dating scene in NYC. Given the rather regular metamorphosis that Jill and Jack go through, things are bound to get confusing and complicated, especially when they start changing back and fro in front of their partners.

I actually got a bit worried as I started reading this that it was going to be a lame sequel. After all, it was a clever little idea that guaranteed that the first book would be fun, but where could you go with the story? The first 100 or so pages did not seem very promising and I almost gave up hope. However, by the second half of the book things really take off (the sex scene from pp 184-191 is a masterpiece). Characters (like Ian and Natalie) who seem totally boring in the beginning become much more interesting as the story progresses and they become multifaceted. Somehow, it all picks up.

The only thing that really bothered me was the ending (not to reveal the details, but when sworn enemies become friends I tend to twitch and there were no small number of major items that stay unresolved). Perhaps, the simple fact that Jack (never all that articulate) somehow becomes introspective enough to make the concluding remarks rubbed me the wrong way.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

TMI, by Sarah Quigley

Becca has a bad habit of sharing aloud whatever is in her head, which often leads to embarrassing situations. After her overly blunt appraisal of her boyfriend's kissing prowess (or lack thereof) gets her into a heap of trouble, she makes a resolution to start guarding what she says. Instead, she pours her private thoughts into an anonymous BLOG. But, as one could easily predict, the anonymity is fleeting, threatening embarrassment and far worse for Becca and her friends.

One major problem with this book is its intended target audience. Becca and her friends are tenth graders and their conversations can stray into some mature topics, but for the most part they act like Middle Graders and the story's fairly simple lessons seem more geared towards 11-14 year-olds. With a highly predictable outcome and mostly chaste storyline, older readers won't find much here. Quigley seems to recognize this issue and even apologizes for her heroine's immaturity at one point (for having Becca reading Forever so late in life). All things considered, I'll probably consider this a book for younger readers, but it's wildly inconsistent.

That comment aside, I found the story largely set-up and staged. The surprises are telegraphed so much that anyone who can't figure out that one character is gay and that the BLOG is going to become public knowledge is really just a poor reader. The major life-lessons (avoiding gossip, respecting others' privacy, and not sharing secrets in the first place) are driven home to death.

Finally, I do get so tired of YA writers who insist on making their characters share the author's own interests. Yes, the 1980s seriously rocked and I certainly am of the school that not much of cultural significance has happened since Purple Rain but I'm well aware that teens don't share that point of view. So, let's stop creating fictional teenagers who worship The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Enough!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fairy Tale, by Cyn Balog

Morgan and Cam are as close as a pair of nearly-16 year-olds can be. They've been friends since birth and are something of a star couple at school. But when Cam finds out that he is actually a changeling (a fairy prince swapped at birth with his human brother) and that he must now return to the world of the fairies forever, everything threatens to come apart. Morgan wants to fight to keep him, but as the day approaches even she begins to doubt her efforts. First of all, there is her uncanny ability to explain the future (which tells her that she will fail) and then there are her growing feelings for Cam's human brother Pip.

Morgan's ability to foretell the future is a bit of a red herring in this story (while an integral part of the introduction, it never really factors in to the rest of the story), but otherwise this is an interesting novel. It doesn't read so well on a literal plane (I've read some pretty scathing reviews of the lame characters and plot from teen reviewers), but it has an endearing theme: how much does a 16 year-old really know about finding the man of her dreams? While Morgan starts off the story utterly committed to Cam, even she has to admit that she can't see him in her future. And when Pip starts to tempt her, at first she blames evil magic and spells, but she quickly realizes that there are no spells. Rather, this is all her own doing. I found that a far more interesting storyline, but maybe not the sort of thing that teen readers will appreciate as much as I.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

One Lonely Degree, by C K Kelly Martin

Finn is a fifteen year-old girl living in Ontario with a whole series of problems and issues including:

1) A childhood friend Jersy who reappears;
2) A best friend Audrey who falls in love with Jersy and then is forced to spend a Summer away, during which the inevitable happens between Jersy and Finn;
3) The memories of a sexual assault at a party the previous Fall;
4) Parents who are separating and a mother who can't cope with the stress of the breakup.

Whew! It's hard just keeping track of it all.

And that's really the crux of my problem with this book. It's not that Martin isn't a good writer (she definitely is!). She's got a decent ear for dialog and throws in the right amount of chick-friendly stuff to help this qualify as decent consumer-grade YA, but the story has a terribly busy plot (or plots). Any one of these story lines would have made a good book (and many good books have been written using just one of these plot lines), but trying to do it all inevitably means not doing any of them well. The romantic triangle never develops any tension, the parental separation hangs out there, and the sexual assault plot remains underdeveloped.

I came away with the impression that in fact Martin didn't know what to do with any of these stories, which is why she kept piling them in and then jumping between them. That's a shame since a good book about cheating with your best friend's boyfriend or recovering from a sexual assault would have been fantastic in the right hands. A disappointment.

And then there is my ongoing criticism of bad book covers. This one really annoyed me. Finn makes a big point of telling us that she has no figure (even noting how flat her hips are). So, why does the model on the cover of this book have to be Ms Shapely 2009? It's bad enough when they have to put some sort of pencil-thin waif with a big butt on the cover of a book to sell it, but when the author has clearly indicated that the character is not like that? Shame on Random House for stooping to the lowest common denominator! And why don't they get an art editor on staff who actually bothers read the book!