Monday, October 31, 2011

The Summer I Learned To Fly, by Dana Reinhardt

Drew (or "Birdie" as her mother calls her) is burdened with a boy's name, an obsessed and entrepreneurial mother, and an unusual pet -- a rat named Hum. She doesn't really have any friends, so Hum is most of her life and working at her Mom's cheese shop with Swoozie (an ex-pat Wisconsinite) and Nick (surfer dude and mechanic extraordinaire) is the rest. Enter Emmett, the boy with a mysterious scar on his face, an evasive response to most questions, a strikingly deep knowledge of rats, and a plan that will take Drew away on the most amazing trip in her thirteenth summer.

The result is a charming and quirky romance about a moment when a shy girl left her comfort zone and made tentative steps to adulthood. Birdie, speaking as an eighteen year-old narrator of this story of her childhood, is endearing and insightful and imbues her story in a warm nostalgic glow. This is tear-jerking stuff and a perfect example of the types of things for which I am a complete sucker. In this respect, it is very much YA-for-adults (not just in topic, but also in its no-BS tone about human relationships between adults, children, and one another), but it is also a pretty story about a strong girl who learns how to unfold her wings. I can't say whether young readers will appreciate the beauty and honesty of the moment that Reinhardt captures, but I certainly did!

Hidden, by Helen Frost

When she was eight years old, Wren was kidnapped by a car thief who didn't notice that she was in the back seat of the car he was stealing. Scared, she hid and survived for several days before escaping. And while her feat required a lot of quick thinking, she was helped at the time by a girl of her age named Darra (who was also the thief's daughter). Darra secretly slipped her food and kept her existence a secret from her Dad. But when Wren escaped, the police came and arrested Darra's father, for which she blamed Wren.

The two girls never met up again, until five years later, when they end up - by chance - at the same summer camp. At first, they ignore each other, suppressing memories of what happened and pretending that they don't know each other. But the pain of it all is too much, and unsettled scores rise to the surface. Once aired, the two girls find common ground for an unusual friendship.

Told in alternating viewpoints through two distinct styles of free verse, this is a short but ambitious literary project. There are instructions on the end of the book for how to read the verses for hidden meaning and it is well-worth reading the book twice (once straight through and the second time following the author's instructions). It's clever but not the sort of thing that a lot of young readers will really care about. The verse itself is fairly bland and lacks intrinsic value. The idea for the story is interesting, but the end product is not so impressive.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Small Town Sinners, by Melissa Walker

As the youth pastor's daughter in her town's major church, Lacey is a fervent believer in it and her congregation's good works. The highlight of which has always been the annual "Hell House" (a melodramatic morality play used to acquire converts) that her church's teen group puts on to show the downfalls of sin. And while Lacey has come to see its flaws as she has grown older, she still longs to be a star and help save souls.

However, things are starting to change. A childhood friend named Ty moves back to town. He has secrets and hides his past but still makes her question her faith, with his ideas and statements. And around Lacey, things are happening that challenge her assumptions about moral questions being so cut and dried. Turning to her parents doesn't help. They don't have answers and even try to dissuade her from asking her questions. So she finds herself striking out on her own.

When it comes to teens and religion in YA, this theme of independent youth challenging rigid paternalistic faith structures is a common approach. And the idea of using an outsider bad boy to trigger the crisis of faith is a similarly familiar approach (think Footloose for example). The problem that most of these stories have is that the heroine's faith is usually a paper tiger -- easily challenged with a bit of common sense and then summarily vanquished. That's an easy out and certainly an issue in this book. Walker is obviously not a fellow-traveler of Evangelicals and shows that she can't accept that people would actually believe this stuff. But she also has the good sense to respect that her characters' faith would be difficult to dislodge. And so, while Lacey is shown questioning her faith, she does not simply toss it aside. That makes this story stronger than most.

However, I'm still seeking a book abnout teens and religion that does not walk us through the process of how the characters reach the conclusion which the author has already decided that they should have. In my mind, Walker's antipathy to Evangelicals is almost as bad as the Christian Inpirational novels that I occasionally pick up. It's a disservice to readers to portray religious faith as something so easy to resolve. So, you can put this in my want-to-read category: a book about a young person seeking faith who finds it in the end, but where the particular direction the book will take is not a foregone conclusion from page one. (My other big literary wish, of course, is the warrior princess who enjoys embroidery and slaughtering her enemies with a kick-ass sword!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sean Griswold's Head, by Lindsey Leavitt

When Payton discovers that her father has MS, the shock that he is sick isn't nearly as great as her surprise at learning that she's been kept in the dark about this for the past six months. Even her older brothers have known about it the whole time. However, her family has kept it a secret because they felt she was overly sensitive and wouldn't be able to handle the truth.

In shock and in anger, she gives her family the silent treatment. Her reward for this is getting sent to her High School guidance counselor for talk therapy. There, it is her counselor's idea that she needs to find something to focus on to journal about and sort out her feelings about her father's illness. But Payton finds it difficult to choose a worthy subject to center upon. In desperation, she chooses to focus on the back of the head of Sean Griswold, a boy who sits in front of her in biology class. Her first entries are silly and frivolous, but gradually she starts learning more and more about her subject until Payton realizes that she is falling in love.

An above average romance for younger teens. It gets some gravity from its topics of death, dying, and grief, but at its heart there's the romance, which doesn't have a lot of steam (the younger target audience probably doesn't need much -- it's all in the anticipation!). The subject of Payton leaning to cope with her father's illness is also handled pedantically (but again that's probably a requirement of the target audience). So where the story really shines is in Payton's appealing personality and some funny situations.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Shine, by Lauren Myracle

Over the past couple of years, Cal has shut herself off from her friends and become a loner. However, when an old friend Patrick is found badly beaten, bound to a gas pump, and with the nozzle shoved down his throat, Cal finds she can't continue to be shut down. The brutality of the crime (far too easily blamed by the police on out-of-towners) drives her to try to uncover the culprit. But as she starts to poke around, she quickly learns how far people will go to hide the truth and how much the people of her town have to fear. Rather than discourage her, the search emboldens Cal to dredge up the facts of what happened, even as it threatens to reveal her own truths to the world.

A surprisingly complex story of rural America. This isn't the simpleton hillbilly America of so many novels, nor is it an innocent and sweet place. Myracle's country, instead, is a world where meth production and consumption has invaded, driven by the despair of a world without jobs or future. It's a place where people cover up the truth because they realize that there is no point in knowing it. It's a grim world with its own sense of justice and reciprocity.

The book is impressive. The explanation for what happened to Patrick (and why it happened) is only arrived at through an honest (and painfully slow) unraveling of layer upon layer of smaller hidden truths. The pacer is pitch perfect. On only on a few occasions did I find myself ahead of the narrator in figuring things out. That kept me hooked and made the reading (aside from a fairly slow start) into an addiction.

If there is a fault, it is the nature of the story. I found myself disliking the characters so intensely that I began to not care what happened to them. That again is actually a credit to Myracle's writing. The characters are so well-formed that my dislike came because of who they were not because of how they were drawn up. So, while the story and its characters disgusted me, I still found myself drawn in.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

When Jacob's grandfather is killed, Jacob seems to be the only person who realizes the truth that grandpa was killed by monsters. Jacob himself doesn't want to believe it. He had always been skeptical about his grandfather's stories about evil creatures.

Grandfather was always telling stories. About the boy made up of bees, or the girl who floated in the air, or the invisible boy, or the large bird who took care of all the "peculiar" children when grandpa was still a child himself. But Jacob's own experience convinces him that these stories, which always seemed like fairy tales, must have an element of truth. And now Jacob wants to figure out what that truth was.

Along with his father, he travels to an isolated Welsh island and finds the ruins of the orphanage where grandfather lived. And, while the initial search is fruitless, Jacob eventually finds clues of what happened to the peculiar children, and what dangers lie ahead.

The most striking thing about this book is not so much the story, as its presentation. Through some friends who collect antique photos, Riggs has found several dozen unusual anonymous photographs and created a story that links all of them together. Spread throughout the book, these reproduced images are creepy and yet also beautiful. As a collector myself, this was an innately appealing concept and I enjoyed the design immensely.

Beyond the artistry and the sheer great look of this book, the story is also fun. More time could have been spent describing and developing the peculiar children themselves (who remind me a bit of the teen X-Men), but Riggs has a story to tell and he moves that along quite well. There isn't tremendous emotional depth here, but it's still a decent fantasy-adventure read.

The Mermaid's Mirror, by L. K. Madigan

Lena loves to be by the ocean and dreams of learning to surf. However, for some reason, her father (a legendarily good ex-surfer himself) won't let her try it. But that is just the beginning of the mysteries. There's also the disappearance of her mother when she was younger (which neither her father nor step mother will discuss), a deranged man who wanders the beach looking for someone, and sightings out in the water of strange creatures that look surprisingly human. But as Lena finds out the answers to these mysteries, it forces her to make decisions about her future that have no good solution.

A surprisingly limp telling of the typical YA mermaid tale. It lacks the humor of Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings or the warm appeal of The Tail of Emily Windsnap. Instead, we get a familiar story of a half-human, half-mer child who seeks out her absent mother. As if that wasn't uninspiring enough, dramatic points bob up to the surface in this story and then sink to the bottom with little notice. At least two separate romances are introduced but left undeveloped. The end result is a story that covers the bases, but never really engages any particular theme.

Through Her Eyes, by Jennifer Archer

Tansy, her mother, and her grandfather move every year or two, so that Mom can live amidst the setting for her next novel. Mom claims that she needs to be immersed in order to write, but Tansy suspects that Mom is afraid of setting down roots. Regardless of the reason, they have lived in many different places, including Nashville, Seattle, and Boston. This time, they end up in small Cedar Canyon, Texas, which happens to also be her grandfather's hometown. While that ought to please grandpa, senility has made him largely uncommunicative. Still, it certainly seems like he isn't too happy to be back home.

For Tansy, small-town Texas certainly isn't a terribly friendly place to live. Most of the kids ignore her, except for a strange but precocious girl several years too young for her grade. But Tansy's social life is only peripheral to this story, because there are strange things afoot! The house they are living in is rumored to be haunted and Tansy has noticed a fair share of unexplained phenomena (seeing people from the past through the viewfinder of her camera, hearing a nightingale's call (even though they are not native to North America), and eventually finding a way to actually enter the world of old photographs). It all points to a horrible event in the past that must be resolved if the hauntings are to cease.

This is a busy supernatural thriller, and poorly paced. While it takes a while to sort everything out, the story meanders so slowly that you find yourself well ahead of the characters. The result of this is that I found myself getting bored waiting for them to figure out what had already become clear to me. More pruning to make the story taut would have helped. The conclusion gets pretty muddy as well, but here it seems intended to leave the ending ambiguous. That didn't work for me either. Overall, I found this a pretty average read.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

I Am J, by Cris Beam

J has always known he was a boy, even if his body didn't agree with him. When his mother wanted him to wear dresses, he knew something just felt wrong. And as he hit adolescence, those feelings grew stronger and more complex, even as his body changed in the wrong way.

Now, in his senior year, J reaches a crisis point where he has become tired of being accused of being a dyke by his classmates. He can no longer hide his feelings from his parents. So, he learns how to bind his breasts to hide them, and attempts to strike out on his own as a boy. He practices talking and walking like a boy. He picks up a girl, but finds that the fear of revealing the truth about himself drives a wedge between them. And he dreams of starting hormone treatment to start the physical transition. Along the way, he is confronted by confused and angry friends and family, and realizes that if he's going to actually do this, he may need to do it on his own.

In touching and insightful detail, Beam shows us the inside of an adolescent transgender mind and gives us a taste of the trans community. It's complicated and, while the plot itself hardly moves, the complex mix of frustration, anger, hurt, hope, and naivete that make up J's world is unique enough to make the path interesting. Beam is able to draw effectively on her experience working with trans teens and acknowledges that J's character contains numerous pieces of her clients and friends. In fact, the true love and devotion that the author feels for the trans community shines through on every page of this sympathetic portrait.

At the same time that I was impressed at the groundbreaking nature of this work (that goes far beyond existing novels like Luna or Debbie Harry Sings In French) I was frustrated by Beam's decision to tell this very personal story in the third person. By doing so, the reader is constantly kept at arm's length away from J, and we are forced to learn about his world in only maddeningly brief glances. I suspect that she chose to write the book that way because she lacked the confidence to truly immerse herself in J's mind, but the effort could have paid off so well!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Another dystopia (what is the fascination with these things?).

In this one, Chicago has been turned into a camp of competing factions -- Abnegation (self-sacrificing), Candor (honest), Erudite (intellectual), Amity (peaceful), and Dauntless (warring). At the age of 16, each child must choose where they want to live. Beatrice, raised in an Abnegation home, has never felt worthy enough to stay and struggles with her decision. She chooses to become Dauntless. The initiation process is far from easy and a bulk of this book is devoted to that difficult process.

However, there are other forces at play and far more serious stakes. The factions are restless and struggling for control. Beatrice (renaming herself as "Tris") has an important role to play. Her rootless feelings are actually a result of her status as an outsider to all of the factions -- a "divergent" one -- a position that she must keep secret. It may well be the key to saving her people but could easily get her killed.

This is a fairly creative set-up. While one could complain about the simplistic nature of carving out such absolute "factions," it's well-implemented. The book itself doesn't break much new ground though. There's the high degree of brutality and violence that has become a trademark of the genre (e.g., Hunger Games or Ship Breaker). There's the appealing but ultimately egocentric idea that adults are worthless for saving the world and that only a team of adolescents can pull it off. In other words, stuff we've seen before. The novel does have some interesting things to say about violence, parents, and fear, but in the end, it's mostly a gorefest. This is seen most clearly in the token romances in the story, which are never allowed to interfere too much with the action. Once the troops fall under mind control (in a sequence lifted shamelessly from the movie I Robot), we just sit back and watch the body count climb. Movie options and the sequel (due in May 2012) are a foregone conclusion.