Friday, July 30, 2010

The Life of Glass, by Jillian Cantor

Glass may be very fragile (forming cracks at an incredibly high speed if dropped), but it is also very durable (taking a million years to break down). Glass is a metaphor for the changes in Melissa's freshman year (whee friendships shatter easily but the basic roots are nearly impossible to dissolve). Her father has recently died from cancer, but the focus of this story is on Melissa's friendships and romances (and those of her friends and her sister). There isn't much of a plot to this story, but rather a series of dramatic events that exist to illustrate and highlight her growth.

Cantor's earlier book September Sisters bothered me for its lack of plot and its general formlessness. This novel is written in much the same style, but is more successful. Melissa is an interesting character and her relationships have a complexity to them (based as much upon acceptance and forgiveness, as they do about attraction). The friendships have the transience and insecurity of adolescence. Cantor understands the psychology of human interaction and depicts it well. One suspects that she would just prefer to write about those relationships than be burdened with a plot and a story. In this case, it works out.

Saving Maddie, by Varian Johnson

Years ago, when they were kids, Josh and Maddie were close friends. When Maddie moved away, she promised that she would stay in touch. The promise was easily broken, but Josh never forgot her. When she returns five years later, showing up at church in a scandalous dress, it is clear that she has changed. Josh's parents, fearing for his reputation, forbid him from seeing her, but Josh can see beyond her appearance. He is convinced that he can rescue her and bring her back to the church. But are his motives pure or does his own stirred-up feelings play a role in his desire to help?

The story is a bit hard to describe as it is about as much about what is not said as it is about what is. Overall, the pacing is a bit slow, but Johnson's focus is more on characters than storytelling. And he has created a pair of vivid characters, struggling to find their place. Maddie wants to regain her self-respect (and escape the label of being a slut) while Josh is trying to grasp at who he really is (and move beyond his reputation for being the goody goody minister's son). Neither of them knows where their search will lead and that exploration is really the point of the story.

In sum, this is a very basic example of a coming-of-age story (in the grand tradition of many classics) and deals with those issue of finding oneself and defining one's role in the community in the most basic sense. The story has a timelessness to it that promises the book long legs.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Love, Aubrey, by Suzanne LaFleur

It is rare for a book to shine new light on a tired topic. And what could be more tired in kidlit than death and grieving?

Aubrey loses her father and little sister in a car accident. A few weeks after that, her mother abandons her. After coping at home alone for a week, Aubrey's grandmother rescues her and takes her to live in Vermont at her home. In that new home, Aubrey befriends the girl next door and established a quirky friendship with an emotionally-troubled boy at school. All along, she copes with her losses and slowly recovers.

It's such a cliche plotline with my least favorite subplot (child abandonment) as an opener, that I didn't have a lot of hope for the book when I started. I expected to be able to predict every plot turn as it came and I was prepared to groan my way through it all to the tearful confrontation and life-affirming ending. I was only half right. Yes, the plot followed the predictable direction and LaFleur made no attempt to throw up any surprises in the action of the story. However, she managed to catch me off-guard with her totally original handling of how Aubrey (and her friends) actually handled the challenges.

There's a surprising clarity to Aubrey's behavior. One might even accuse it of not being age appropriate, but I think that would do a disservice to kids. And it isn't so much that Aubrey doesn't act her age as it is that she refuses to let herself be dragged down into melodrama. She certainly has her down moments and she doesn't always act calmly, but she is able to reason through things. She doesn't fight, but she stands up for herself. Through her difficulties, she is able to reach insights that are inspiring. I found that refreshing.
Far too often, authors create obvious flaws in their characters for the sole purpose of "solving" their problems by the end of the book. Aubrey is an eloquent and capable problem solver from the beginning, but she has plenty of problems to work through. In creating a more complex and vibrant heroine, the story is raised far above any sort of manipulative tear-jerking formula into something much more interesting.

If You Live Like Me, by Lori Weber

After three years of traipsing around economically-depressed sections of Canada, Cheryl is fed up. She misses her home and friends in Montreal, but instead of heading home this year, her father is dragging them to Newfoundland! She can't imagine a more forlorn place on earth. It doesn't help that their purpose in going (so her father can write yet another chapter for his book on dying cultures) is downright embarrassing. Cheryl is determined to find a way back home, even if it means stowing away on a ship. But then she meets Jim (the literal boy next door) and leaving becomes more complicated.

Too much effort is expended in this book on two things: providing a breathless tour of the Rock and making sure we know how frustrated Cheryl is to be dragged out there. Of course, we all understand that she'll be seduced by its charms (with some help by the right boy) and Cheryl's protestations to the contrary are weak and fairly pointless. So, the first 150 or so pages drag on. Weber obviously loves Newfoundland but her praise of its scenery and beauty gets tiresome. The romance, while inevitable, is not all that interesting and the similarly predictable parental confrontation doesn't thrill either. In sum, the drama never builds and neither did my investment in the characters.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Leftovers, by Heather Waldorf

After a lifetime of sexual abuse from her father, Sarah hates having her picture taken. When Sarah's mother's boyfriend tries to take her picture, not realizing what it will trigger, Sarah freaks out. She smashes the camera and flees in his car. She can't really drive (she doesn't even have a license) and her ride is quickly cut short when she crashes the car. In the aftermath, she is sentenced to do community service at a summer rehab camp for dogs. It is there that she befriends a young cancer survivor and a big sloppy dog. With them (and all of their combined emotional baggage) she is able to face her fear of photographs and of the sexual abuse that caused it.

The idea of the story is pretty compelling and the narrative sucks you in pretty quickly. The writing is functional and flows well enough. However, I found myself feeling detached from the characters and simply wishing that the story would end as soon as possible (perhaps because having exposed the sexual abuse Sarah experienced right up front, I wanted it resolved as an issue as soon as possible). In a story like this, you start flipping the pages simply to get on with it. And, while there is a twist or two, the story essentially delivers what you expect in the end. That's not a fatal flaw but leaving so little else in the story makes the journey seem less worthwhile.

Split, by Swati Avasthi

After years of watching his father beat up his mother, Jace finally stands up and hits him back. As a result, his Dad throws him out of the house and Jaces goes off to find his older brother Christian who fled many years before. Reunited, Jace and Christian face their horrifying past together. It's a rocky road as the brothers find that the years of witnessing the abuse have left them far more damaged that either of them realized. Initially, they have the help of a few friends, but it becomes very clear that the two young men have to battle their demons for themselves.

This is a truly outstanding book, albeit with a harrowing narrative. You'll need a strong stomach to get through the abuse scenes as well as to witness the realistic portrayal of what being witnesses to such acts has done to the boys. The book is an extremely strong character study. Nothing about Jace or Christian is simple. Their personalities and problems unravel slowly through the story, revealing only a little at a time (not so much for suspense as simply to help the reader digest the complexity of the issues. I like that complexity a great deal and in my mind Avasthi accurately displayed the impact of abuse within families.

In sum, this is not an enjoyable book to read, but it is a necessary one. To better understand the horrors of abuse and its long-term impact on children, this is a superb place to start. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book for light summer reading, but I feel it is a great book nonetheless.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

And Then Everything Unraveled, by Jennifer Sturman

When Delia's mother disappears in Antarctica and is presumed dead, Delia is sent to live with her eccentric aunt Charley in New York City. But rather than grieve about her loss, Delia attempts to figure out what happened to her mother. It quickly becomes apparent that things don't add up and Delia grows convinced that her mother is still alive and being kept against her will. In the midst of her sleuthing, there's a bit of romance as well with a boy from school who is also the son of a man apparently tied to Delia's mother's disappearance.

It's a nice fast-paced read with a bevy of memorable characters. Not very realistic, but the humor keeps things moving along. I'm also not a big fan of the ending (or the lack thereof) but it will lead well to the inevitable sequel (which hit store shelves on July 1st). I'll also note my usual protest against gratuitous references to 80s teen movies.

The Carbon Diaries 2017, by Saci Lloyd

In this sequel, two years have passed since the flooding of London from global warming. Laura's parents have moved to the country but Laura has stayed in London, occasionally attending art school classes and trying to get her band Dirty Angels off the ground. The times are definitely unusual: climate change has destroyed most people's livelihoods, the government has turned authoritarian, drought in Africa has triggered a mass exodus northwards and set up massive anti-immigrant sensibilities. When Laura isn't jamming, she and her friends are protesting the government and just trying to stay alive.

The first book was an uneasy balance between science-fiction and YA, but the second installment is even more untenable. When one considers the true horror of the political situation described in the book, it's really hard to figure out why Laura puts so much effort into her band. She may simply be obsessed, but for the reader it is hard to know where to throw one's focus: massacres of dozens of people or canceled gig? The writing is wooden and the characters are largely forgettable. Since I didn't find the people worth paying attention to, I turned to the unfolding events, but everything is told so flippantly (albeit a bit like a teen would process things so I'll give it points for realism) it is really hard to figure things out and the violence just seems arbitrary.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Alice in Charge, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

In this twenty-fifth installment of the Alice series (Wow! It's hard to believe the sheer stamina of this project!), Alice is finally entering her senior year. She's struggling with her intense workload and applying to colleges. She's missing Patrick (who's now at Chicago in his freshman year). There's a new student from the Sudan for her to help acclimate, a developmentally-challenged girl named Amy for her to support, and a club of neo-Nazis to shake things up.

One of the interesting things about Alice and her development is observing how her priorities have changed. While friends were very important in the earlier books, so much of her life now is spent doing things. Relationships have become a much lower priority for Alice (or at least for Naylor). The chief casualty is the relationship with Patrick (which is a poorly maintained plot thread now) but there is also surprisingly little in this book on her relationship with her best friends like Pamela.

Beyond that, there is a certain tiredness with the story these days, as if we are just going through the motions of a contractual obligation. Naylor has promised us that she'll continue to follow Alice's life until at least she graduates and that puts us one or two books away from the end. That achievement is certainly worthy of notice as no other YA writer has documented so minutely every developmental moment in the life of their heroine. However, Naylor's abandonment of tracing the nature of Alice's friendships in these later books (in favor of highlighting as many actions as possible) is a sign that things are truly wrapping up.