Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Secret Language of Girls, by Frances O'Roark Dowell

I'll be reviewing Dowell's latest book in a few weeks and thought I should go back and read some earlier ones. This particular one is something of a minor classic in tween reads.

Kate and Marylin have been best friends since they were in nursery school, but when they enter sixth grade things start to change between them. At first it is the influence of Flannery, a girl who moves into the neighborhood, who seduces Marylin away from Kate. But in the end, Marylin and Kate find that they just want different things from life: Marylin wants to become popular and Kate wants to just enjoy life and her friends. Strangely, no matter how apart they drift, they both come to realize that they will always share a bond.

Each chapter in the book stands on its own as a short story exploring the strains and pulls on the friendship between Kate and Marylin. Told in a passive first person voice (usually from the point of view of one of the girls, but sometimes through the eyes of Marylin's little brother), each chapter takes on a different theme (friendship, kissing, divorce, marriage, etc.). The writing is fairly basic and the tone fairly preachy (there are obvious morals to draw from each story). Dowell is clear to avoid any language that would lose the younger reader. This could have made the book unreadable, but there is a basic sweetness to the stories that redeems them.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

After, by Kristin Harmel

After her father dies in a car accident (how have I managed to end up with this whole series of books about teens grieving over death?) Lacey has thrown herself into taking care of her remaining family (her distant mother, disconnected little brother, and substance-abusing older brother). Having those responsibilities keeps her together. When a girl at her school loses her mother to cancer, Lacey gets an even more ambitious idea to form a club for kids with deceased parents. The idea takes off and brings her closer to a new boy who's suffered from losses of his own.

While a little bit preachy (Harmel wants to introduce readers to the real-life Kate's Club for children who have lost parents), this novel is overall entertaining and interesting to read. It's not great literature but Harmel has a good sense for the nature of the suffering that the kids are going through and realistically portrays their frustrations. I like books that show me a new world and this one does a nice job of doing that.

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

Caitlyn struggles to get through life as it is. Suffering from Asperger's Syndrome, the only person around her who ever really Got It was her older brother Devon. But after Devon is killed in a school shooting, she tries to both cope with her grief and to articulate her feelings to others. Her father, while unimpaired, is in his own way unable to deal with his emotions either. In these difficult circumstances, Caitlyn proves to be wonderfully insightful, reaching the right conclusion through significant struggle and solving the problem in her own unique way.

There have been several other children's books which attempted to explain Asperger's to readers, but this one strikes me as the most successful one to date. Without sacrificing entertainment value, strong character, or realism, Erskine has Caitlyn shows us clearly how she thinks and gets through her communications with others. It can be a difficult ride at first to follow the narrative but by the end of this poignant story of loss and perseverance, you really find that you are putting yourself completely in her mindset. In her words, by the end of the story, I finally Got It.

Even beyond the tremendous achievement of Erskine's portrayal of Caitlyn, her ability to develop even her "normal" characters is notable. The father is nicely portrayed as difficult and troubled in his own way. Caitlyn's friendship with Michael is developed in both a beautiful and realistic fashion.

I suppose that one could fault the book for its sentimentality (I'm a sucker for books that make me fight back the tears), but the story never became syrupy. Rather, I found my spirit both moved and uplifted. This is, by far, the best book I've read in 2010 so far and it is hardly an outlier. I had not noticed before I started reading this book that Erskine is also the author of Quaking (a near miss book I reviewed some years ago) and all I can say is that she keeps getting better and better. You will want to make a point of catching some time to read this one!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Secret Year, by Jennifer R. Hubbard

After Julia is killed in a car accident, Colt has a need to grive. After all, the two of them were in a close intimate relationship for an entire year. But she was from the Mountain where the rich kids live and he is from the Flats, and their relationship was always a secret. They met only at night and she never led on in public that they were together (even keeping an official boyfriend from a well-to-do family).

In the year that follows Juliet's death, Colt learns to cope with and overcome his grief, while never being allowed to make it public. Along the way, he learns that there are plenty of other people with secrets. And he also begins to question not just the relationship he had with Julia but also the divisions between rich and poor and between the Mountain and the Flats.

A fairly brisk read which has some good depth to it. While I expected a book that dealt with grieving, this actually is more about class divisions and the difficulties that adolescents go through dealing with them. The writing is sharp and the story moves along. The characters are well developed and sympathetic.

Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Samantha is part of a totally It clique -- four girls who rule the school and don't mind putting everyone else in their place. But after a party in their senior year, the girls are in an accident and Sam dies. When she wakes up in the morning, she's convinced that it was all a horrible nightmare, until she discovers that she's woken up on the previous day and now must live the last day of her life over again. It won't really surprise anyone that the point of this exercise is to learn to fix the wrongs of her life before she'll be free of the cycle. What is a surprise is how it all will work out -- with a conclusion that will keep you totally in suspense until the very end.

Now, my initial thought was: who on earth needs to take Groundhog Day (a totally sweet movie) and make a YA version of it? Especially since Wendy Mass wrote a similar book called Eleven Birthdays which had essentially the same premise. And why make the story an amazingly long 460-odd pages? But once you read this book, you realize that Oliver really has a much more ambitious agenda. Certainly, the story starts off as one YA-cliche after another (popular girls, unpopular girls, self-absorbed boys, parties, beer, feminine hygiene references, etc. etc.) but once that groundwork is laid out, the story takes some significant jumps forward.

The key, as always, is great characters. Sam is the epitome of great YA heroines. Getting to live through the same day again and again, we really get to see her grow as different choices in each day allow other events to happen. She's multifaceted and her growth has a great and natural progression to it. Supporting characters like Lindsay and Juliet are also quite moving. Neither is quite the villian or victim that would be shown in a typical novel. Instead, their particular "flaws" blur the edges of their characters. The result is depth everywhere you look.

For a first novel, this is truly a stunning work and I look forward to seeing more from Lauren Oliver!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Flightsend, by Linda Newbery

After the death of the baby who would have been Charlie's sister, her grieving Mom decides to make a full break of things, quit her job, break up with her lover, and move out to the country. Charlie is pretty messed up over the whole thing. While the death of her would-be sister is traumatizing, Charlie is most upset about the loss of her Mom's partner (even if he had no legal status as her stepfather). She is keen to get them to reconcile.

She doesn't have much success with getting them back together, but she does spend the summer in their new home (Flightsend) making new friends and discovering herself.

While the writing is strong and Newbery occasionally strikes gold, I found the book overall to be quite dull. Despite the book's subtitle ("a summer of discovery"), there really is surprisingly little of that in the novel. Charlie adopts a dog, takes a job, babysits for a child who reminds her of her dead sister, meets some people, addresses some feelings of infatuation, but not a whole lot of actual growth here. And given the slow pace and low energy of the story, I had trouble tracking all of the characters and/or their significance. In the end, I couldn't find much of a point to the book.

Tangled, by Carolyn Mackler

It starts in the Caribbean as four teens (Jena, Skye, Dakota, and Owen) meet at a resort. While Dakota and Owen are brothers, the four of them share almost nothing in common (except perhaps being all from New York). In the subsequent months, their stories overlap in unexpected ways. To drive home this overlap, the novel switches storytellers at key junctures giving us a fresh perspective on the events.

At its heart, this is a fairly pedestrian teen romance. While it has some of the Mackler-trademarked humor (more on that below), it does not especially break new ground. The big shtick in this one is the shifting viewpoints, which is done in entire sections of the book rather than in alternating chapters. Thus, a full quarter of the book is told by Jena and then the second quarter is passed to Dakota, and so on. Key revelations are doled out sparingly (and frequently much later in the book) to conserve the ah-ha! moments.

Mackler's made something of a name for herself with spunky and funny heroines. In comparison to her earlier books, this one is not terribly funny. That doesn't mean that she's trying her hand at drama, but rather more a mark of the low energy of the story. Part of the problem (and its true with any book that shifts POVs) is that, just as you are starting to get interested in one of the narrators, it shifts to the next and the story you were following (if character is what you are into) gets lost. It's more true in this case since once the story switches to a new character, the others get sidelined.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Some Girls Are, by Courtney Summers

Regina has enjoyed being part of Anna's top clique. Sure, it's involved plenty of dirty work -- helping Anna ruin the lives of other kids -- but it gave her a place to belong. Regina may have felt uncomfortable doing what she did, but she was always too afraid to challenge the order of things.
But when Regina is nearly raped at a party by Anna's boyfriend, Anna is convinced that it was really the other way around and she turns on Regina. Soon, Regina finds out what it is like to be on the receiving end of Anna's wrath. Pranks and taunts turn to abuse and violence, spinning very definitely out of control. Adults prove ineffectual and the situation escalates. In the midst of it all, Regina finds some solace with one of her former victims -- a loner named Michael.

Harrowing, disturbing, and mildly exploitative, the book sucks you in and leaves you madly digesting every page. In fact, I found it a bit sick just how interested I got. After all, what joy is there in reading a story about kids doing horrible things to each other? My guess would be that you would enjoy this if you had never been a victim of bullying before. But for the rest of us, this just hits a bit too close to home. So, I wouldn't decsribe the book as fun reading.

Very LeFreak, by Rachel Cohn

Essentially two separate stories loosely tied together, this is a novel about a freshman at Columbia named Very (short for Veronica) LeFreak who is a combination of a technophile and a party animal. She spends the first half of the book hosting parties, mooching off her peers, losing herself in emails, browsing, and texting her friends. In the process she fails her classes, alienates her friends, and generally loses touch with reality. In the second half of the book, she goes in to "rehab" trying to recover from her tech obsessions and come to grips with her real life (which she has been avoiding with all of the tech gadgets).

The first half of the book, which generally worked for me, is sort of an updated retelling of Party Girl. The Middle Eastern falafel seller is replaced by a mysterious South Asian online companion, but the obsession with hosting good parties and the conflct between wanting to do something real with her life and escaping into hedonism is pretty familiar territory. There's enough of a hint in those early chapters about why Very has trouble with reality and also about her own acknowledgement that the current situation cannot last. It has a good sense of tension and Very is an interesting character to watch.

However, the second part really falls apart in my opinion. Even the concept (a summer camp in Vermont where addicts recover from their tech obsessions) just seemed downright silly and impractical. Yes, I understand that obsessions come in all flavors, but the program laid out is goofy. Worse, the storytelling declines significantly. The timeline turns jumpy, plot points are lost and recapped later, romantic lines that were barely hinted at in the first half are sloppily developed. Worst of all is the two dimensional counselor Keisha who is an amalgam of every literary stereotype psychologist and less. Frankly, I just tried to plow through part two as fast as I could. I'd recommend that you skip it altogether.

Rachel Cohn the author has grown to disappoint me. Her first books (Gingerbread and - to a lesser extent - Shrimp) were outstanding original works with a great sense of humor. I loved them. But since then, her writer has weakened noticeably. Very could have been an interesting character, but it seems as if once she hits rehab, Cohn doesn't know what to do with her.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

It's Raining Cupcakes, by Lisa Schroeder

When you're working 50-60 hrs/wk for your job and feeling the pressure, sometimes you really need to regress back to good middle reader, so for a little break from both work and the teen reads, we have this one...

Twelve-year-old Isabel has never been out of Oregon, let alone to all of the exotic places in the world she'd like to go to, but she hopes to change all that by winning a trip to New York City as a finalist in a baking contest. Before that, however, she's got to help her mother open up a cupcake shop called It's Raining Cupcakes. She'll have plenty of adventures along the way: a babysitting job from heck, eccentric neighbors, an ill-advised trip out on the fire escape, and some falling out with her best friend. She'll also discover that she's got a pretty decent head on her shoulders even if she doesn't always make the best decisions.

It's cute and fun. Not very substantial and probably fattening (just like the cupcakes!). The book has a nice whimsical tone to it and, although it drags a bit towards the end, it's light and quick reading. There are lots of cute touches, including (to name a few) a series of knock knock jokes, chapters named after cupcake flavors, recipes for cupcakes at the end, and Isabel's passport cover journal. Nice!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Broken Soup, by Jenny Valentine

After her older brother Jack died, Rowan had to step up to keep her family together. Her mother had retreated into herself in grief, her father had left them, and her little sister Stroma was too little to manage without someone to help. But it's been hard going.

Then one day a stranger (an American boy named Harper) hands her an old photographic negative in a shop. She's never seen it before but he claims it fell out of her bag. When she discovers that the negative is actually a picture of Jack, the mystery deepens. But that mystery is only the beginning of a series of revelations that help Rowan come to terms with Jack's legacy.

While this sounds like a lovely book and it's gotten several rave reviews on other sites, I couldn't get past how deadly dull the story was to me. The characters were not interesting and their struggles were meaningless to me. It seemed like every time Valentine ran out of things to write, she'd just introduce a new crisis. The book lacked direction.

The Summer of Skinny Dipping, by Amanda Howells

Rebounding from getting dumped by her boyfriend, 16 year-old Mia is looking forward to spending the summer in the Hamptons with her aunt, uncle, and two cousins (the youngest of whom - Corine - Mia has always been close with in the past). But this summer, things have changed. Corine has grown more worldly and the two girls find that they have little in common. In Corine's mind, Mia hasn't grown up, but Corine's drugs and alcohol lifestyle repulses Mia.

When Corine dumps Mia at a party, it provides an opportunity for Mia to meet the boy next door (Simon) and the two of them hit it off. Meeting late at night on the beach, Mia finds herself being drawn into a romance that she never expected and didn't even think she wanted. Meanwhile, family relationships are being sorely tested as just about everyone is confronting each other. By the end of the summer, Mia realizes that many of her impressions of herself and of her family need to be corrected.

On its face, this novel follows a pretty familiar trajectory and thus provides nice summer comfort reading. In that respect, it reminded me for the most part of the Au Pairs series. However, this novel runs deeper than that sort of mindless fluff. Both the romance and the relationships between the other characters are fairly thickly drawn. There's plenty of character flaw lying around and both adults and children behave in a fairly realistic fashion.

The real difference with this story is the ending and I'm less thrilled about that. Without giving away the specifics, the book takes a sudden and serious shift into tragedy in the final chapters. I'm never a fan of last minute twists, but it does provide a heavier sense of pathos to the story and provides some good emotional weight. The danger is that it also drowns the other plot lines. When tragedy strikes, the seemingly important spats and conflicts seem insignificant. And the rushed ending sweeps most of them under the carpet.

Bad Girls Don't Die, by Katie Alender

Alexis is a bit of a high school misfit with a reputation for causing trouble with her peers. Alexis's little sister Kasey is no better. She has hardly any friends and is attached to her dolls, risking ridicule at the age of 13 for doing so. With all of this outsider vibe going on, Alexis is surprised when a popular boy named Carter starts to show an interest in her. Before she has much time to worry about that change of fortune, Alexis begins to notice strange things going on around the house (doors closing on their own, strange noises, etc.) and odd behavior from her sister that seems to suggest that Kasey is either developing multiple personalities or is becoming possessed. These disturbances take on an increasingly sinister character.

This is a strange novel with a split personality of its own. One angle is the story of an outcast learning to accept that she too could be popular. On the other side, it is a ghost story (part mystery and part horror) -- consider it like Sixteen Candles meets Poltergeist. And I'm not convinced that it really works. The ghost story is the strongest part, as the romance with Carter and the friendship with cheerleader Megan end up becoming annoying distractions far removed in tone from the rest (and are a less developed part of the story).

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Not My Daughter, by Barbara Delinsky

Note: Sometimes books hit my reading list as much because teens are reading them as that they are YA. This is one of those books. I would guess that it is actually mothers that are reading the book and their daughters are curious about what Mom is reading. As I am neither of the above, I have no idea what that makes me!

Susan is dismayed enough to learn that her 17 year-old daughter is pregnant. It doesn't reflect well on her as a mother or as the principal of the high school. It also hits close to home because she herself was a teen mother. The far worse news appears soon enough, though, when two of her daughter's friends reveal that they too are pregnant. This can hardly be a coincidence.

As Susan attempts to control the rumors and protect her family's privacy, the issue quickly escalates into a battle between the town's traditionalists who have found the excuse that they have been looking for to dislodge Susan from her job, and Susan's supporters who are determined to keep the focus on the issues at hand.

The novel is a good read and the characters are well-developed. If you are looking for a book that describes what a mother would go through in this circumstance, I would think this is a good book for that. Delinsky does an excellent job of balancing Susan's disapproval for her daughter's decisions with her need to support the girl. The relationships in this story are drawn maturely and respectfully. Only a few of the bad guys fall into flat stereotypes.

If I have a complaint, it is really for what the book is not. I regret that the story never explored the girls' point of view. That wasn't really the point of the story so it is hardly a valid criticism, but it is a lack I felt profoundly. The decision of the daughter and her friends to form a pregnancy pact would have been interesting to explore (the motives are hinted at but hardly developed). Also, it is obvious that the girls' perspective about their decision to have babies changes throughout the story. That would have been interesting to develop more fully.