Friday, February 26, 2010

Fear of Falling, by Hannah R. Goodman

This is the third book in a series (I reviewed My Sister's Wedding and My Summer Vacation in previous entries) and represents something of a break in the narrative. While those two books dealt mostly with Maddie and her family's struggles with older sister Barbara's alcoholism, this book addresses the issues of gay teenagers.

Maddie is now back in school, trying to recover from her loss last summer and fighting off panic attacks. As editor for the school paper, she receives an anonymous letter from a student revealing that he is gay and is currently the victim of an abusive partner. Maddie is surprised to find that the school officials not only won't help her respond to this plea, but in fact actively forbid her from taking action. Convinced that something has to be done, Maddie and her friends hatch a plot to raise consciousness about the trials of gay teens. In doing so, Maddie confronts her anxieties and learns to take a brave jump forward.

Of the three books in this series, this third one does the best job with storytelling, creating a challenge that helps Maddie become a better person in the end. I still find Goodman's treatment of her younger characters a bit rough, but at least they are telling the story this time. There was a lack of logic to the actions and emotions expressed that rang true for me, giving a level of authenticity to this installment which helped me believe that kids might actually do these things. In the end, this story does not actually turn over any major new leaves about gay teens, but it would make a good discussion piece for a YA reading group.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Blue Plate Special, by Michelle D. Kwasney

Three generations of women from the same family, each one telling her story as a teenager, separated from the others by 15-16 years. Each one will make their own mistakes, which in turn sow the seeds for the next generation. In 1977, Madeline meets the boy who inspires her to get the strength to stand up to her alcoholic mother and to make an effort to turn her life around, but all of that changes tragically and quickly. 16 years later, Desiree pays the price for those past injustices, while being subjected to an entirely new set inflicted by herself. And 16 years after that, Desiree's daughter Ariel struggles with her own issues of identity.

All three timelines collide together when Desiree and Ariel are summoned to come to Madeline's bedside as the elder woman lies recovering from cancer surgery. The three women have to face up to how outside forces and their own choices have formed who each of them are. In the end, they will come to the realization that hatred will only take you so far in this world and that they each have a part to play in restoring their lives.

Told in alternating chapters from each character as a teen (and with Desiree's 1993 entries completely in free verse), this is an ambitious narrative about forgiveness, generational conflict, family, grief, and rebirth. It certainly maxes out the poignancy meter (so I'm obviously going to like it!). Seriously, it manages to pull on the heart strings without being exploitative. The characters were flawed enough to be real, but strong enough to be interesting. The themes (teen pregnancy, drug abuse, sexual abuse, sexual assault, abandonment, homicide, etc.) are dark, but are used for great effect. The story (both its structure and its pacing) is a memorable work of art. Kwasney's writing is not terribly lyric (and the verse chapters are nothing special) but I loved the way the story unfolded. And I really liked this book.

How to Say Goodbye in Robot, by Natalie Standiford

In something of the quirky tradition of YA buddy novels like Stargirl, this is the story of a new girl in town (Bea) who befriends an outcast named Jonah (or the "Ghost" as his classmates call him). Their offbeat relationship consists of hitting up a favorite dive bar, listening to the same late-night radio call-in program, and a series of outrageous stunts. A small amount of drama is introduced when Jonah discovers that his twin brother (allegedly dead for the past several years) may actually be alive. This discovery initiates a search and an adventure for the two friends.

More John Waters (the book is placed in Baltimore) than Jerry Spinelli, the book stays away from most familiar teen tropes, and without much doubt this is one of the more original books of the year. The relationship between Bea and Jonah is complex (admittedly bordering on romance, but never consummating it). The result is sophisticated and refreshing.

Quirky books can make for difficult reading and there will be people who love this book because it is so difficult, while others will long for something simpler and more straightforward. I'm generally a fairly lazy reader so I prefer less challenge, but I could see why this might appeal to others.

My overall criticism of the book, though, comes from trying to figure out what was the point of the story. Bea is supposed to have gone through some major character growth (transforming herself from a "robot" into a loving young woman) but I never got that sense of growth. And the subplot about her parent's relationship difficulties seemed poorly developed (and maybe even a bit too cliche for this type of story). Overall, not a lot to really grab you. So, kudos for a creative and quirky pair of main characters, but a thumbs down on what gets done with them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Breathless, by Jessica Warman

Katie lives in a troubled family. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father is overbearing (and ironically also a psychotherapist). As her older brother begins to lose his grip on sanity (implicit because of parental abuse), Katie is torn between her sibling loyalty and acknowledging the tragedy (which means allying with her parents). Katie's parents, recognizing that the environment has grown poisonous, decide to ship her off to boarding school. There, Katie tries to hide away the secret of her brother's illness and lose herself in team swimming. She's a great swimmer, but it's a talent that stirs up the jealousies of her classmates, particularly when she starts dating the captain of the boy's team.

The very first chapter of this book is stunning and sets a very high literary bar for the rest. That one section alone merits this book special consideration.
Overall, the quality of the the prose is spectacular. However, the story itself has an odd pacing that eventually wore me down. An intimate story like this needs a tight timeline, but instead Warman decided to stretch her story out over three years. To make this work, you can't push the speed of events (that would destroy the intimacy) so instead she lets the story jump ahead long periods (often in 8-9 month stretches) at regular intervals. This advances the story but sometimes leaves us missing key details so she has the narrator recap key events that have occurred in the intervening months. Since this catch-up is distant and rushed, we lose the closeness we feel when things are evolving in real-time. Threads developed so carefully and meticulously in one time period become irrelevent in another (these are teens, after all, and nothing stays permanent for 8-9 months!). At the end of the story, Warman does make a good attempt to pull it all together, but after so many cases of narrative whiplash, this was a hard story for me to digest, no matter how beautifully it was written. A near miss for me!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Viola in Reel Life, by Adriana Trigiani

Because her parents have embarked on a trip to Afghanistan to film a documentary, Viola gets dumped at a private school in South Bend IN. It's a long ways away from her native Brooklyn. But while Viola is sure that she will hate things at the school, she quickly is won over by her three roommates and by the school itself. And she discovers that her talent for filmmaking makes her stand out as someone special in the school community. She contributes her technical expertise to the school play and leaves a big mark. When she is invited to a freshman mixer with a neighboring school, she decides to take a risk and attend it. Within minutes, she meets the perfect boy (a fellow filmmaker) and falls in love. The boy tells her about a film contest for high schoolers and now she has a goal -- to submit a film worthy of winning against her peers.

Trigiani is better known as a writer for adults and this is her first YA novel. This shows in certain ways. For example, Viola's voice is very hard to pin down. I found it a bit too mature but I have noticed that other reviewers think she sounds immature and too young. Let's just say that it doesn't always ring true.

Far more bothersome for me was that the story has no drama or tension and an almost flat dramatic arc (this is especially ironic as the lead character makes a big point about explaining the importance of an arc in telling a story -- so Trigiani obviously knows that it is important). I came to the conclusion that Trigiani purposely chose to avoid conflict in her story (to break the YA conventions, she made Viola happy, adjusted, successful, and popular). I guess it is something different, but what's really the point? I kept waiting for something bad to happen so Viola could have a growth experience, but that isn't what this book is about. As a result, I found it all rather dull.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Carter Finally Gets It, by Brent Crawford

S'up dog? Sometimes you have to go off the deep end and read a book from the other side...

Carter is 14, mildly handicapped by ADHD and slightly more so by his hormones. He has trouble making coherent sentences and even more trouble staying focused when there are bare midriffs and breasts in his line of sight. High school is a big shock for Carter and harder than anything he ever imagined. And no matter how much he tries, he finds his efforts are never quite enough. Each little success he experiences (becoming a kicker, dating Abby, getting a big part on the swim team, etc.) seems to fall through for him, but Carter keeps trying to do his best.

Carter is also often clueless and you'll spend most of the book shaking your head in disgust at how obnoxious, immature, and ...well...14 years old he is. There is a requisite amount of farting, ogling, puking, and boy humor to make anyone over the age of 14 want to hurl. Personally, I never was like Carter, but I have to admit that I knew people who were like this, so I'll vouch for the accuracy of the portrayal. For anyone who's ever felt that boys (or even men) were pigs, this will reinforce the stereotype.

But it's often outrageously funny. Carter can be such a moron at times, that you have to shake your head and like the kid. And in the end, that is what makes this story work as a comedy. He can be cruel and mean, jealous and violent, but in the end he's sweet and his heart is in the right place (even if his brain is in his crotch!). He'll do the right thing in the end without ever really understanding why, but he'll come through. And, in making a character like Carter, Brent Crawford has crafted himself a winner!

I'm looking forward to the sequel coming out this Spring!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Summer Vacation, by Hannah R. Goodman

Picking up a few months after My Sister's Wedding ended, this sequel continues the story of Maddie Hickman's struggles with family and friends, and in particular with her troubles with enabling her alcoholic sister. The story takes place mostly at a special art summer camp, where Maddie is serving as a counselor-in-training (CIT) and mentoring the creative writing group. She's gone to this camp for many years and is excited to see her old friends, as well as to get away from all the troubles at home. The summer, however, presents new problems: old friendships are ripped apart by jealousy and two new arrivals -- both boys -- challenge Maddie (the first one obsesses over the idea that Maddie looks like his girlfriend who just recently died, the other is obsessed with Maddie in a more romantic sense). But a summer like this is not challenging enough as is. Maddie also has to deal with her sister going off the wagon and her ex-boyfriend Justin trying to contact her.

The strengths and weaknesses of this novel are very similar to those of the first installment. Goodman does a good job with her grown up characters but struggles far more with making her teenagers come alive. Even as I read the book, I had trouble putting my finger on what the issue is. The situations are believable and the squabbles that Maggie and her friends get into are plausible. There's the old annoying bit about a teenager with an obsession for movies from the 80s (and a 70s-era obsession in music) but I've seen it in so many books now that I tend to forgive it. No, what I came to realize by the end of this book is that Goodman just pushes through her youth scenes too quickly. The result is that she (through narrator Maddie) is more telling us what is going on (like an anxious teen recounting an adventure) rather than showing it to us. Surprisingly, the same thing doesn't occur with then grownups. The contrast is quite disconcerting.

This particular book also committed the cardinal literary sin of having a dramatic shift (completely out of the blue) occur in the last 20 pages of the book. I won't spoil it by telling you what it is, but it is safe to say that absolutely nothing in the book provides foreshadowing for it. And none of it was really necessary. The story being told (Maddie continuing to work on taking control of her own life) was interesting enough (even if it was being told at breakneck speed!). To add an entirely new twist in the final inning and allow so little time to develop it is frankly bizarre!

Let me conclude on a positive note. If I was impressed with the way that alcoholism and its effects on loved ones was portrayed in the first book, this second book just takes that to a higher level. Goodman has done her homework (or speaks from a good deal of personal experience) because I not only found myself learning things about addictive behavior, but was genuinely interested in what was being taught. To the extent that these novels are really about Maddie's alcoholic sister and how Maddie and her family deal with that part of their lives, there is some really good stuff going on here. It feels true and also reveals a great deal about the human condition. Oddly enough, there is a real gap in YA lit for books like this and so this contribution recommends this book.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Once Was Lost, by Sara Zarr

Samara and her father, the pastor at a local church, have a fair share of problems to cope with. Sam's mother, whose always managed to exude a stable presence in public has been ordered into rehab, having proven unable to hide her alcoholism and crashing her car. Dad, not used to being a single parent, is both struggling to keep the house and their finances together and trying to find the words to talk with his daughter about the changes in their home. Sam is just sad and unable to express her feelings about what has happened to her family. But then things get much worse when a girl from their church is abducted by a stranger. In the ensuing two weeks, Sam comes to question her friends, herself, and her God.

Prior to this story, Sara Zarr has written a strong book (Story of a Girl) and an outstanding classic (Sweethearts -- which is in the very small number of books with a **** rating from me). This third novel doesn't really live up to those. The plot is quite ambitious but entirely too busy and unfocused. In addition to the recovering alcoholic mother (a storyline done much better in the recently-reviewed My Sister's Wedding) and the abducted child, there is an awkward romance, a possible adultery, a few struggling friendships, and a promising subplot about a boy who feels a calling to minister (or something like it). In my opinion, the family struggle is the most interesting of the storylines and the abducted-child story just distracts from that plot.

It also does not help that we have character problems. Samara is a difficult heroine to like. She is pretty good in her inner dialogues at analyzing what is going on, but she is so bad at communicating her needs that it is mostly a wasted effort. That difficultly communicating is usually a good dramatic device in YA, but when the character doesn't overcome their inability to speak by the end of the story (at least partly), it just becomes plain annoying. The overall promise for character growth never is realized and so we are left with frustration rather than sympathy.

Overall, the story just felt rough. It all probably seemed like a good idea when the writing started, but somewhere before this got published, someone should have raised a sharpened red pencil to the manuscript and started to slice it up. As for me, I'd have dumped the abducted kid and then worked on developing what was left. But regardless, some editing would have really helped.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Sweetheart of Prosper County, by Jill S. Alexander

Austin is tired of being picked on by Dean Ottmer. In the midst of watching the annual No-Jesus Christmas Parade, she comes to a realization of how to get him to stop: she will win a place riding on the hood of a car in the parade in a sexy dress, waving at the crowd, and rising above her tormentor. But to do that, she first needs to raise a champion rooster and win the County Fair, join the FFA, and get elected as their Sweetheart so she can be in the Parade. Determined to realize her dream, she sets out to do exactly that. Along the way, she struggles against her own insecurities and her mother's possessiveness to find herself in this heartwarming story about personal growth. Some good friendships, a potential romance, and a softly-pitched story about racism and adult hypocrisy also figure in.

This gentle book presents plenty of potential tension and drama, but never falls in too deeply. Austin has her share of danger, but comes through everything just fine (as does her bird). The relationships are largely platonic, the friendships rock-solid, and the bullying surprisingly tame and amateurish. One reviewer called this "a teen book for tweens," and I agree. The heroine may be 14 years old, but much younger readers will enjoy her story.

The plotting of the story can lurch at odd speeds, sometimes lingering for too long on unimportant details and sometimes jumping quickly ahead when Alexander decides that some part of the narrative doesn't deserve telling. But in the midst of this novel, there are some breathtakingly beautiful pieces. The description of Maribel's quinceanera is one of the best-written passages of YA that I have ever read. The grappling scene with the catfish is bizarre yet an extremely ambitious literary accomplishment. The author, in sum, can certainly write. So, if this book suffers a bit from unevenness, it certainly seems possible that we could expect great things to come in a future novel.

As a result, I'd recommend this book both as something fun to read and also for its occasional brilliance. It's not the best recent book out there, but it's in a small crowd of contenders.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

My Sister's Wedding, by Hannah R. Goodman

Madeline Hickman reads a lot of self-help book. In some other story, Maddie's obsession might be the cause for some amusement, but when your older sister and your boyfriend are both alcoholics, learning about the dangers of enabling might be considered self-defense. Add in a brother-in-law, mother, and father who are in denial and you have a massive dysfunctional family on your hands. Surprisingly, the wedding, from which the book's title comes, is actually only a minor part of this story about family and the ways that people lie to each other to get through life -- a description that probably makes this slim novel sound a lot more depressing than it it. Comedy it may not be, but Goodman keeps everything light enough to get us through.

There are plenty of books about alcoholic parents and alcoholic teens, but I don't remember reading one about alcoholic older siblings. And combining both an older addict with a younger one, and putting the heroine between them, is a powerful literary tool. As a result, this book stood out as something different.

I did have some problems with the tone of Maddie herself as she fluctuates maddeningly between mature and insightful and downright clueless. Similarly, younger characters in the story suffer from underdevelopment. Goodman is better with the adults, particular Maddie's mother and grandmother (and their relationship with each other), than she is with Maddie's boyfriend and friends Peter and Susan. I never really could tell what the purpose of the Peter-Susan subplot was (and don't even get me started on the non-story of the super nice could-become-a-boyfriend Sean!). In this book, the kids and their problems are fairly unimportant to the plot.

I DO look forward to Maddie's further adventures and hold out hope for her development, but this first book is really a story of Maddie's family and for that it succeeds remarkably, painting a much more complex family dynamic than we usually see in YA. It is nice seeing adults acting like adults (being neither checked-out nor stellar role-models). And we have a nice realistic foundation for future stories.

Monday, February 01, 2010

I Need You More Than I Love You and I Love You To Bits, by Gunnar Ardelius

According to the blurb on the jacket, this is the story of a young couple who struggle with their feelings for each other and with the boy's fear that he is becoming like his mentally unstable father. However, I'm not sure I got even that much out of this book, so I make no claim to that interpretation of the book's contents.

Honestly, I really wanted to like this book, which was deemed significant enough to be translated from Swedish into English. Told in nicely written short prose vignettes, the unusual style and design of the story seemed interesting and unique, and when you've reviewed 700 books or so, you're desperate for unique! But no matter how much praise people want to heap on this book, the reality is that it is a vague and inconsequential piece. And I'm not one of those folks who dotes on difficult-to-read tomes and declares them good. The characters are undeveloped, the vignettes are sometimes so vague that you can't tell who is involved, and the story is largely undeveloped and untold. As a mood piece it might work, but there's no real mood to express.

The book can boast pretty words on the page and the occasional moment of melancholy, but the emperor has no clothes and this is no literary achievement!