Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dirty Little Secrets, by C. J. Omololu

Lucy's Mom has been collecting and saving stuff over the past couple of years. What began as an aversion to throwing away stuff needlessly has turned into a full-blown psychosis. The house has become so cluttered with garbage that one can barely move around it. Living conditions have deteriorated. For Lucy, the biggest struggle is to appear normal so that the other kids don't notice the problem. That's a challenge: she never invites anyone over, she makes up lies to keep her friends at a distance, and she is constantly in fear of someone discovering her family secret.

Just when she thinks she is getting ahead, she comes home to find her mother dead. Now she is faced with the reality that her mother's death will bring her unwanted attention and guarantee that she will never be "normal" again.

On the one hand, I like a story that introduces me to a new world. I had read about "hoarders" before but liked getting to understand the phenomenon in more depth. I also liked the way that Lucy's attempts to dig through the layers of garbage in their house served as a means to sift through the years of her mother's decline. Those parts of the story worked quite well.

I'm not a big fan of the child-in-peril plot line though. This is so obviously a case of a child in over her head that it is hardly something I could enjoy. I'm also not a big fan of the moral ambiguity in the decision to leave the dead mother just lying there for a day (a la Weekend at Bernie's). But mostly I didn't like the way that the story drifted. Exploring the relationship with Mom (and even with the siblings) was interesting, but the romance, Lucy's friendships, and the little boy next door were all plot lines that were so far removed from the story that they mostly distracted me from the dread of what was to come. Finally, the ending is something of a complete cop out as it comes completely out of left field, and doesn't provide emotional pay off.

Flash Burnout, by L. K. Madigan

The book's title refers to what happens when you misuse a flash, causing a photograph to be overexposed and washed out. It's the perfect metaphor for what happens to 15 year-old Blake's life when he gets sucked in to helping a friend (Marissa) cope with her troubled home life. There's also a difficult juggling act with his girlfriend (Shannon) and plenty of trouble with his peers and various adults (his parents, his girlfriend's parents, and his teachers).

It's pretty much required that any book about teen-aged boys focus on their raging hormones. I'd never be a fool enough to deny that 15 year-old boys are obsessed, but it doesn't make for interesting reading. So, kudos to Madigan for understanding that lust is not an end in itself, but rather a low-key roar in the background of everything else. Blake and his buddies may spend a lot of time talking about sex and posturing for each other, but he comes off as sympathetic and interesting at the same time. Sure, he'd like to get his girlfriend into the sack, but he's got plenty of other things going on in his head.

Just about every character in this book has a bit of depth in them: Blake's parents are embarrassingly geeky while still being clued-in and responsible parents, Blake's older brother is a wonderful foil, and both the boys and the girls act in a realistic and believable fashion. The only part that didn't work for me was the DJ girl (Cappie) who seems more like she is supposed to be symbolic of something than that she really exists in the story. And Shannon's parents are probably intended more for comedic value than anything else.

The story is funny, moves swiftly, and keeps you interested. It's also the sort of "boy book" that is targeted as much at female readers as male ones.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Indigo Notebook, by Laura Resau

Zeeta and her mother are wanderers. Just when Zeeta gets settled in one place, her Mom decides to pull up stakes and take them someplace else. This time, they've come to South America.

In the town of Otavalo, Zeeta meets an American boy named Wendell who is looking for his birth parents. Zeeta (whose Spanish is much better than Wendell's) helps him in his search, which ends up in a remote village with a series of dark secrets. Meanwhile, back at home, Zeeta's mother Layla has found a new boyfriend who has finally convinced her to settle down. But after wishing for this for so long, Zeeta gets cold feet when the reality of returning to a "normal" life appears to be becoming a reality.

Like Resau's other books, this one is filled with loads of beautiful cultural details. However, I found the story itself more disjointed and muddy than her previous books. There are a lot of characters and having the narrative split in two (between the Wendell story and the Layla story) didn't help. Subplots (like the romance between Wendell and Zeeta, and Faustino's relationship with his family) remain sketchy and underdeveloped. It's simply a case of trying to do too much.
And as for the meaning of that blue notebook? Forget it! That never really gets any decent explanation.

The Girl With the Mermaid Hair, by Delia Ephron

Sukie has a serious problem with narcissism. When she can't see her reflection, she will use her phone's camera to take a "selfie" (a picture of herself) just to make sure she looks OK. Her mother's present of an antique full-length mirror is thus very welcome. But weird things start to happen: at a tennis match, a strange man man attacks her father, her mother disappears to a "spa" and returns with a nose job, and the mirror itself mysteriously develops holes and cracks. Only the family dog Senor seems to know what is going on.

Erroneously billed as YA, there really isn't much in this story (aside from the age of the heroine) that is teen. Instead, this is one of those bizarre "modern novels" of which I am such a fan (not!). The mirror is probably symbolic, but I didn't get it. The characters are numerous and largely forgettable, and thus hard to track. And, in the end, I couldn't figure out what the point was. Read at your own risk.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Lonely Hearts Club, by Elizabeth Eulberg

When Penny's lifelong crush crushes her heart, Penny swears that she is done with least until after high school is over. Curiously, she begins to notice that so many of the girls around her (friends and non-friends) have had similarly bad experiences with boys and an idea is born: the Lonely Hearts Club. The mission of the Club is to provide each other support as its members swear to be true to each other and forgo romantic attachments. Pretty soon, it's a movement. Penny can hardly believe the transformations that the young women around her undergo and could never have predicted where it all will lead.

You won't have much trouble seeing where the story is going to go (no one ever said that a romance is supposed to be suspenseful), but this novel takes an unusually interesting trip to its destination. Now, with the wisdom of age, I could easily point out to these young women that they would all be much happier focusing on their friendships and spending less time in messy romances (and given the selfishness and inexperience of your typical adolescent, does anyone expect the romances to be anything other than messy?), but it's fun to see a group of girls figure this out for themselves. And if the story inspires some real-life teens to take charge of their lives and empower themselves, so much the better!

As for the story itself, it's hard to dislike a book with such a winning heroine. Penny is strong and opinionated, but she backs up her convictions. She can be shy and occasionally have a lapse of judgment, but she really is the kind of person that you would want as a best friend. My one grievance with the book is the unevenness of the story telling. For every strong section (some of the more caustic observations about boys had me rolling in laughter from pain self-recognition) there are painfully weak sections (the Principal, for example, is a throwaway and a pointless addition to the story, as in fact are all the bad guys). Eulberg has a terrible problem creating realistic motivations for her characters, instead making every villain a bad guy simply on the basis of being shallow. Every kind person is just doing the decent thing. And Eulberg quickly runs out of original ways for her characters to express emotions (affectionate or combative). To compensate for this problem, I coped by glossing over the more embarrassingly poorly-written sections. Thankfully these are few!

Overall, this is great fun. It's grl power stuff and obviously intended to be secretly shared by female readers, but I think boys could read it without getting cooties or having their manhood excised. And maybe they could learn a bit about how to avoid being such creeps!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead, by Julie Anne Peters

Daelyn has decided that it's time to stop being a failure. This time she is determined that she will actually killing herself. She discovers a website called Through The Light that encourages her to plan it right and actually "complete" the plan. The website assigns her 23 days to wrap things up.

This book then traces those next 23 days. Daelyn recounts the traumas and losses that have brought her to this desperate point. We learn about a history of bullying, physical and sexual assault, and near-constant harassment and humiliation from her peers (and indifference from the adults). We also get introduced to two of her peers (Santana and Emily) who reach out to her and we get a hint that there might be something for her that is worth living for.

This short book is a quick paced read and, like so many of Peters's other books, is thought-provoking and well-written. Peters has a knack for picking out interesting troubled teens (Luna, Define "Normal", etc.) and I tend to like her books. The themes of bullying, abuse, and suicide will resound with a lot of young readers. I suspect that this book is going to be one of her more popular books and get a wide and positive reception. It's easy to sympathize with the fear of being bullied (we've all gone through it) and the ending will provide plenty of room for discussion (whether informal chatter or a classroom group).

While it is a good book and I totally get why people will like it and recommend it, I'm not going to join that chorus. I didn't like the book and most of all I didn't like Daelyn. That may sound like a cruel and heartless thing to say, but I just found it hard to stomach the constant woe-is-me whine that permeates the entire book. As Daelyn herself acknowledges in the end, that sort of self-pity is probably her worst enemy. I'm not convinced that readers will pick up on that subtlety. Now that I'm grown up, I realize that the melodrama that she relishes so much just isn't going to solve anything. And enduring it for 190 pages really grated on me like nails on a chalkboard (sorry folks, it's a dated analogy!). Now, that feeling is totally personal. It in no way reflects on the fact that the book is well-written and thought-provoking and 99% of folks who read it will love it and find it moving. All of that is true as well. So, I'm going to praise it as an excellent book that you may or may not like (but which I personally didn't enjoy).

Oh, yeah, one thing I think we can ALL agree to criticize this book for is its cover. Daelyn is allegedly this totally overweight girl. Do not even pretend to tell me that the girl on the cover of this book is fat. Julie Anne Peters should SHOOT her publisher for the ironic decision to put Little Miss Twiggy on the cover of a book about body image. And yes, technically, Daelyn does mention that she's recently lost weight, but you KNOW that isn't why the art department made the decisions they made about this cover.