Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Clearing, by Heather Davis

After getting out of an abusive relationship, Amy decides to go live with her great aunt in rural Washington. Things don't go terribly smoothly for her and she has trouble making new friends in such a close community. Instead, she finds solace wandering through the woods. One day, she walks to a clearing and becomes curious about a deep fog on the edge of it. Passing through the mist, she finds a boy on the other side who appears to be from an entirely different time.

Henry (the boy) is in fact living in the summer of 1944 on a continuous repeating cycle. It all started after the death of his brother and shortly thereafter his mother. Praying to be able to avoid all of the horrible things that happened at the end of that summer, he got granted his wish. Now, he isn't so sure that it is what he wanted because he sees the costs of living solely in the past.

Each of them in their own way is living in denial of their past and fighting their future. The true question is not why they find themselves drawn to each other, but whether they can find a way to break out of the cycles they are in and move forward.

I found this to be a highly original and entertaining fantasy (and far too underrated in my opinion). Time travel is such a tired concept and the story will remind folks of Tuck Everlasting, but Davis has breathed an new life into what could have been a very trite story. I enjoyed Amy and Henry and found their search for redemption and rebirth to be uplifting. I would not go so far as to claim that it is some sort of literary classic (Davis is shooting more to entertain than to achieve that lofty status), but this is a nice story with characters who are meaningful and delightful. I recommend it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two Way Street, by Lauren Barnholdt

Two weeks ago, Courtney's boyfriend Jordan unceremoniously dumped her. Unfortunately, now the two of them are stuck in a already-planned cross-country road trip to Boston College, where they are both starting school in the fall. It's awkward to say the least! But there's a lot more to the story of their break up than immediately meets the eye (and in fact the relationship has always had a bit going on behind the scenes). Through a lot of flashbacks and told in alternating voices between Courtney and Jordan, we learn the truth about their relationship. And through the trip itself, Courtney and Jordan get a chance to reconsider their decisions.

The story is well-enough written, but it never took off for me. The conflict between the two of them is so contrived that it's neither believable nor even interesting. Instead, it is mostly based around ego and an inability to communicate. Courtney is extremely narcissistic and self-centered (even by teen standards). Jordan alternates between arrogance and horniness (or both simultaneously) -- in the ever-clever vocabulary of the book, he's a bit of a "tool." As a result, I nearly immediately disliked both of the characters. None of this was helped by the story. As road trips go, not a whole lot happens on this one aside from Courtney spending a lot of time barfing. So, the story becomes more about the author doling out the Truth is small dollops.

Nothing, by Janne Teller

When their classmate Pierre Anthon quits school, announcing that "nothing matters," his classmates in 7A are initially amused. But as Pierre takes up residence in a tree and starts mocking them for continuing to go to school and continuing to insist that their lives are meaningless, the students become obsessed with proving him wrong. Their method is to assemble a pile of "meaning" (items which are valuable to each of the children). And while the task starts out innocently enough, it escalates into cruelty and sadism. And yet still the meaning of meaning remains elusive.

Read literally, the book is disturbing and unpleasant, delighting in imperiling children and animals in the horrible way that Scandinavians seem to enjoy in literature and art much more than the rest of the world. Anyone with a weak stomach or low tolerance for cruelty will probably want to steer clear. However, take the story as a parable and it becomes more interesting and thought-provoking, but still not really YA. The search for meaning will of course be understandable to all ages, but the jadedness of the way it is presented reads more like an adult novel.

This is not a novel for interesting characters as everything is passively narrated from a single perspective and all of the characters are symbolic anyway. And it's not a novel for story since that too is simply an extended analogy and the action cannot be taken seriously. In the end, this is more of a book for discussions (ironically enough, about what it all "means") which, if we believe Pierre, simply brings us back to the book's title.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper

Fifth-grader Melody has a photographic memory and is incredibly smart, but no one knows it. She has cerebral palsy and is unable to speak. For years, people around her assumed that she was as dumb as she appeared. Until she gets a computer that helps her form sentences, she's been limited to a very small vocabulary of words on a tray chart, which hardly persuaded them otherwise. The only exceptions were her parents, a care-giving neighbor, and a few isolated teachers.

This may all change for her this year when she is granted the opportunity to compete in a national Whiz Kids contest. Despite the reservations (and outright prejudice) of her peers and teacher, she reveals a strong talent. But the struggle to be accepted by her classmates is far more important to Melody and may be the one thing she can't quite pull off, no matter how many quiz questions she can ace.

Draper has crafted an easily understood story about disability, pride, and struggle that will appeal to young readers. I got a little tired of the two-dimensional portrayals (the bad people are downright mean and evil, while the good ones are perfect), but one assumes that Draper was aiming down for her audience. Melody is a notable exception to this oversimplification and her complex feelings and struggle for peer acceptance is universally relatable. It's not all puppies and roses at the end, but you'll find it hard to suppress a cheer for her nonetheless.

Compromised, by Heidi Ayarbe

Maya and her father have managed to get by. He always has a trick or a game, and Maya has sheltered herself in that comfort and in the world of the science documentaries and the scientific method. Living from one con to another, he's taken care of her. But when the Law catches up with Dad, Maya becomes a ward of the State of Nevada. Finding out quickly what that means (cruel orphanages, neglectful case workers, and scary foster homes), Maya decides to flee with a fellow orphan Nicole. Maya has found out that she may have an aunt (the sister of her long-dead mother), but given the source of this information (her father), it may just be one final con job. However, that doesn't dissuade her and Nicole from running to Boise to find out where this aunt may be.

What results is an unusual road trip story. Between Maya's obsession with the epistemological method and Nicole's more bizarre obsession with the Mob, we have the requisite odd couple dynamics. Joining them eventually is a troubled young boy with Tourrette's Syndrome. But what starts out as a simple quest to find lost family heads fast towards tragedy and death.

An engrossing but disturbing novel about at-risk teens. The story is definitely too intense for younger readers, but mature ones will find themselves locked in in anticipation of how it will end up. To get there, you will have to travel through vivid scenes of drug use, sexual violence, disease, death, abuse, and more than a little petty crime. But in a story like this, moral compasses are largely irrelevant. The ending is satisfactory, but definitely bittersweet. This is not the realm of the happy ending.

I actually liked the story. I don't think it had much deep meaning and I certainly didn't find much uplifting material here, but Ayarbe writes a taut suspenseful story that had me turning pages eagerly. Life on the streets is definitely not glorified but Ayarbe avoids becoming exploitative at the same time. Instead, I felt the genuine respect that she had towards her characters and the dignity of them that she wanted to portray. They are certainly very vivid kids with personalities and quirks that you'll remember long after finishing the last page.

It is a downer to read, however, so you may want to turn to something light and funny when you're through.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Gimme A Call, by Sarah Mlynowski

Reflecting on the painful end to her high school romance with Bryan, Devi wishes that she could go back in time and warn her 14 year-old self to stay away from him in the first place. If she had, maybe she would have spent more time with her friends (instead of losing them all) and even doing better in school. In the midst of that thought, she accidentally drops her cell phone into the Mall's wishing pool. When she manages to fish it out, it no longer works like normal. Now, it calls herself -- three and a half years younger!

So, if you could speak to your younger self, how would you use the power to change your future through the past? What changes would be for the better and what would simply complicate your life? And, in the end, with such a power would you ever be satisfied with what you had become?

It's a fascinating premise and delivered with great pacing and a good sense of humor. In many of her books, Mlynowski has had a lot of fun crossing supernatural events and fantasy with common teen angst, and this particular book delivers a fun adventure with some great life lessons. It's all very thought-provoking, yet overall fun. For being basic escapism, this novel still manages to pack in some substance. I enjoyed it and suspect you will too!

God Is In the Pancakes, by Robin Epstein

Assisted suicide is a pretty unusual topic for a YA book, so this is already off to a notable start....

When her father moves out on his family, Grace becomes disillusioned and bitter about the subject of romance. The fact that her sister's boyfriend is two-timing her doesn't help matters much either. But her perspective starts to change when she takes a job as a candy striper at an old age home and meets a man dying of Lou Gehrig's Disease. At first, he serves as an obvious surrogate father figure, but when he begs her to help him die, things take a more serious turn.

She struggles with what to do about his request, especially as she gets to know the man's family. But she has other issues with which to deal: helping her sister confront her boyfriend, wrestling with whether she wants to reconnect with her estranged father, and dealing with a romantic entanglement of her own.

For its originality and its sensitivity, I liked the main plot of the story (the assisted suicide), but the rest of the story seemed less well-developed. I got the fact that Epstein was tying all of the subplots together with the themes of love and loyalty (with each story illustrating a different perspective of the themes), but the subplots are tired cliches (awkward boyfriend, jealous sister, absent father). Only the elderly couple struggling to end their relationship in dignity and Grace's wonderment at observing it seemed fresh and new. In many ways, the story would have benefitted from a trimming.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Lucky, by Rachel Vail

Phoebe considers herself to be pretty lucky: she's beautiful, popular, and rich. So, it comes naturally to her to plan, with her best friend Kirstyn, the world's greatest middle school graduation party. But then things start to go badly. Her mother loses her job. Credit cards start to get declined. Her parents start having hushed conversations. Worst of all, her parents inform her that she'll have to cancel the party -- an act which would mean embarrassment in front of her entire class. All of which probably makes Phoebe look like a spoiled brat (and she is accused of being so on several occasions) but the issues are actually more complicated.

As one would expect, facing the dilemma of how to save face (and even protect her family's reputation) makes Phoebe evaluate her values and friendships. And she makes some startling discoveries that will take even the reader by surprise. In the end, it all is wrapped up neatly, but not before a carefully-engineered climax has the tears flowing.

The engineering of the conclusion says a lot about the book and the writer. Vail is a great writer with a list of successful books to her credit and she certainly knows how to craft a story. While certainly not as vacuous as some novels out in the mass market, this will still appeal to casual "Summer" readers. It sets no major literary milestones, but it is an enjoyable book with more than a few thought-provoking thoughts and heart-warming moments.

How to Steal A Car, by Pete Hautman

A friend asked me while I was reading this book, "It's not an instruction manual, is it?" Not really. It's ostensibly a work of fiction, but the moral vacuum in which it is written (combined with the details which it describes) left me wondering what the author's intent really was.

It's a story about Kelleigh and her decision to start stealing cars. Step by step, we see how a whim becomes a prank, and blows up into a criminal career. Told in first-person past tense, the tone is more of a confessional, which implies a bit about how you would expect the book to end. Surprisingly, it doesn't wrap up so neatly.

When it comes to YA books that deal with crime, I have a pretty hardcore viewpoint that they need to end badly (for the criminal). But aside from a small amount of lip service to the idea that what she is doing might just be wrong, this story never really gets to the idea that crime does not pay. So, the ultimate message is that it is dangerous but fun to steal cars. And I'm not sure about what is the value of that position.

It also seems that Hautman avoided the issue by filling up the book with too much other stuff. From the unimportant fact that Kelleigh is color blind to the red herring that Kelleigh's Dad is having an affair, the story is awfully busy with subplots that neither are resolved nor related back to the main plot (would it have been so hard to have her - because of her colorblindness - steal the wrong car or run a red light?). With the affair thing, I suppose that we're trying to set up a justification for Kelleigh's behavior, but it's a pretty lame one and we certainly never connect the dots. What a mess!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Beautiful Between, by Alyssa B. Sheinmel

In Connelly's mind, her high school is some sort of fairy tale feudal state. The nobility sashay around, barely noticing the commoners like herself. But then one day Prince Charming (in the form of her classmate Jeremy) does take notice and sits with her at lunch. Ostensibly, he only wants to get help on his vocabulary for the SATs (and he offers physics tutoring in exchange), but something else is up.

He lets slip that he knows how her father died -- a statement which shocks Connelly for two reasons: first of all, because she has never told anyone that her father was dead (instead, she has maintained a lie for years that her parents were just divorced), but more importantly she is surprised because even she does not know what caused his death. This is because, even after thirteen years, her mother won't tell her.

The truth of the matter is that Jeremy is struggling with an impending loss of his own. He hopes that somehow Connelly can help him cope with his problems. Between Connolly's grief for a father long passed and Jeremy's fear of the future, the two of them find an uncommon bond and form an unusual friendship.

This is truly an amazing book and probably one of the best books I have read so far from 2010. Connelly is an insightful and observant narrator -- wise beyond her years, but not distractingly so. She's eminently sympathetic as well. I found that I totally got her and really felt like she was a kindred spirit. And yes, I don't know much about being an adolescent girl, but you don't have to in order to understand Connelly's anxiety and insecurity. These are far more universal feelings and she articulates them well. Sheinmel has a gorgeous writing style that articulates complex feelings in simple but beautiful prose.

I also liked the friendship that develops between Connelly and Jeremy. Rather than have them fall into a predictable romance, they become close friends. This is an unusual approach and, in the end, it is so much more powerful than a romantic relationship would have been.

Finally, the relationship between Connelly and her mother is both realistic and painful. Both of them are hurting and it takes some effort to overcome the barriers they have erected in the years since Connelly's father's death. While this part is less original, it is still powerfully written and highly effective.

I have no issues with wholeheartedly recommending this book. It will totally blow you away!

Nothing Like You, by Lauren Strasnick

Holly knows that there is no future in her relationship with Paul. For one thing, he's way out of her league. For another, he's got a girlfriend (the equally fantastic Saskia). But when Paul makes the moves on her, she finds it hard to resist and she'll do anything to hold on to that feeling. The relationship that starts with no future becomes a serious danger to her other friendships as she finds it harder to hide what is going on from her best friend Nils and as she grows closer to Saskia. But even though she knows it is wrong, she continues to fall in deeper and deeper.

While I'd like to be an optimist and hope that not everyone can personally relate to this story of betrayed friendships and infidelity in the halls of high school, I imagine that most of us have been there. It would be easy enough to despise Holly and her lack of will power (as well as her constant mistakes) but Strasnick does a fantastic job of making her believable and sympathetic (and the pure evilness of Paul makes this a bit easier as well). And she does it without resorting to some more obvious tactics. For example, the death of Holly's mother some months before the story opens would form a perfect justification of the lapses of judgment, but Strasnick never plays the cards that way. Holly's mistakes are truly her own.

Holly's (mostly) platonic relationship with Nils is a wonderful part of the story. On the one side, he perfectly illustrates the unevenness of the sexes in these romance games, but he also provides a nice foil for Holly. And the stresses and strains in their relationship share the authentic flavor of the rest of the story.

If I have any complaints, it is probably with the adult characters. Holly's father Jeff is definitely not checked in on his kid (probably because he is blinded by the loss of his wife, but it is never explained). Holly's drama teacher is a throwaway -- I kept expecting something profound to come from the relationship but it just never got there. Given the total lack of adult supervision going on here, I think that the grown-ups could have been left out altogether with little harm done.