Sunday, November 27, 2011

Paper Covers Rock, by Jenny Hubbard

In 1982, at a boy's boarding school in the South, a terrible accident occurs. A boy drowns in the river after a drunken diving stunt gone awry. One of his friends, Alex, spends the next weeks trying to come to grips with what he saw and what he admits to others about the incident. To cope, he confides to his journal, for which he liberally borrows from Herman ("Her-man") Melville's Moby Dick, calling himself "Is-male." Because of fears that a young English professor may have witnessed the accident and thus be a threat to its secrets, Alex gets embroiled in a plot to discredit her and destroy her reputation. But at the same time, he struggles with admiration and infatuation for her, leading to a great deal of confusion about what to do.

An eloquent and well-written novel about fear and self-loathing among teen males, with plenty more implied than actually said. The high style of the writing and the large quantity of unanswered questions will provide ample material for classroom debate. Furthermore, the plentiful classical allusions are guaranteed to bring High School English faculty to orgasm (never mind the tragic English professor!). I can see now the study guides and forced class discussions of "what the author intended" and "why she chose to use certain words." No one could say that it is a bad book (it's superbly executed and beautifully done), but it isn't written to appeal to young readers. In sum, the book reeks of assigned high school reading, more than YA pleasure read.

It isn't so much that I hate literary novels, but books like this are not written for anyone to enjoy and the author doesn't have anything to say to young readers. She's neither interested in entertaining nor enlightening them. She written a clever book that critics will love, but it is a lifeless and joyless thing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Warp Speed, by Lisa Yee

Marley's the kind of boy who likes to maintain a low profile. Choosing the word to describe himself at the start of the school year, he picks "invisible." It's the best way to be, especially if you are a magnet for every bully in the school. Hardly a day goes by when kids aren't punching, kicking, or otherwise taunting Marley.

To cope, Marley has a Star Trek obsession, burying himself in trivia and trying to guide his life through the characters of the show (WWSD? -- what would Spock do?). His friends in the AV club seem to cope similarly: Ramen loves Star Wars and the new kid Max loves Batman. Yet, it's Marley who gets singled out for special attention in the halls and after school. And it's Marley who will surprise the others (and himself most of all) by revealing particular talents no one imagined he has.

It's cute, it's feel good, and it's a quick read, but it's terribly pedantic. Consider this the polar opposite of the book The Misfits that I reviewed earlier this week: The anti-bullying message here is muddled and confused, and in the end ultimately dictated by the author since the characters are too weak to figure it out on their own. Marley, we learn, is too dumb to figure this stuff out for 280 pages, despite the help he gets from several adults and from her current and former friends. Instead, the reader is led by the nose to the correct conclusion in the last 30 odd pages: bullying is best dealt with by confronting it. That's simply not very interesting.

One also wishes that Yee hadn't tried to make her characters fans of real science-fiction shows as it quickly reveals her own ignorance of the genre. Better to have made something up altogether. As is, we're faced with multiple references to Star Trek that sounded about as authentic as the history teacher's "rap" songs. And I found myself cringing as much as the students in that class.

Ten Miles Past Normal, by Frances O'Roark Dowell

When Janie was nine years old, she dreamed of living on a farm. To her surprise, her parents decided that it was just the thing they all needed and decided to take the plunge. But what seemed like so much fun as a young child becomes a major source of embarassment as a teen. Fourteen year-old Janie desperately wants to hide the fact that she's a farm girl. She'd like to be more "normal," but High School doesn't seem to be an easy place at which to do that. She can't find a clique or a club to join. She hides out in the library during lunch. It doesn't help that her schedule's separated her from her Middle School friends.

The only extracurricular activity that attracts her is band jam, where she discovers an affinity with the bass guitar. It is the patience and attentiveness of a boy with the unfortunate name of Monster who teaches her the intricacies of the instrument, but this isn't really a romance (although a few potential romances fizzle out). Instead, goats and civil rights activists play a significant role in the story.

O'Roark Dowell has a tendency to write about young teens in transition and she carries on the theme here. Some of the strongest passages deal with Janie and her best friend Sarah's changing relationship. There's also some nice realistic stuff about the awkwardness of romantic feelings at this age. And in general, the tone is authentic and age appropriate.

However, the story itself is so random and across the board that it's hard to know how to read it. Neither the Civil Rights stuff nor the references to the farm seem related (more of an add-on than an essential part of the story). It seemed like an attempt to dump in a lot of cool ideas and then try to form a story around them as an afterthought.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Misfits, by James Howe

Bobby is a member of the "Gang of Five," a group of four (!) kids who don't fit in and have been subjected to a great deal of teasing because of it. Addie is the outspoken activist, Jim the fey guy who used to wear dresses when he was little, Skeezie needs to work on his personal hygiene, and Bobby is overweight. Outcasts at school because of their quirks, the four friends meet in the afternoons at a diner to plot against the injustices of their world. At first, their target is the student council elections, but when their plans go awry, Bobby makes a suggestion that will change all of their lives, and potentially change things in their school for everyone else as well.

While a cynic might consider the premise of this story to be idealistic (sort of a pay-it-forward for tweens), there is no denying the actual impact of this story in the real world. Thanks to it and the efforts of the author, an anti-bullying message has been promoted across the country, inspiring anti-bullying days and no-names weeks in a number of middle schools.

But beyond the impact of the story in young peoples' lives, the book itself deserves special praise. My usual complaint about books written for middle readers (and I include some of the real classics like Judy Blume in my criticism) is that the authors of books for this age group don't seem to have much respect for their readers, talking down to them and lecturing, connecting dots that a kindergartener could probably figure out on their own. Somehow, no matter how bright the young protagonists of these books, the pearls of wisdom always have to come from adults. Not so here. The adults are far from stupid or cluelessness, but the good ideas and insights come from the kids themselves (and in words that seem authentic and believable). This makes the story so much more effective, because who wants to be preached to by adults when you are thirteen years old?

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills, by Joanna Pearson

Janice thinks of herself as an anthropologist of adolescence in her small North Carolina town. In some ways, this is a coping mechanism, giving her the opportunity to observe, with detachment, the behavior of her peers (and thus ignore her own shyness and social awkwardness). However, as she discovers when she attracts the attention of a moody heartthrob, it also creates the impression that she is a snob and an elitist. Realizing in the end that her attitude is the cause of many of her problems, she manages to salvage much of her life with some mental readjustment. A beauty pageant also plays a role in the transformation.

The book tries hard to win you over, but it fails on nearly all fronts. The "anthropological" observations try to be clever and witty, but we've seen this done better (for example, see the Popularity Papers, reviewed in July, or re-read a classic like Speak). The relationships (whether between Janice and her best friend, between Janice and her mother, or between Janice and either of the two boys in her life) are underdeveloped and fall flat. Janice herself is contradictory, frequently switching directions in mid-stream. At first, she resists participating in the beauty pageant yet seems to adapt to it easily enough in the end. This leaves us wondering what Janice wants (or, more to the point, what Pearson wants us to surmise about Janice's desires). In the end, the book doesn't have much to say (and what it does say, we've heard before).

Entwined, by Heather Dixon

After their mother dies, Azalea and her eleven sisters are forced to spend a year in mourning, locked up in the castle, forced to wear black, and (worst of all) forbidden from dancing. But then the children find a secret passage to a magical land where beautiful people dance the night away. Managed by "Mr. Keeper," the girls are told that they can return to dance every night. They do so and it relieves the sadness that they feel at the loss of their mother. But Azalea becomes suspicious of Mr. Keeper. It all seems too good to be true. And before it is too late, she must figure out what is up!

Based on a fairy tale called the "Twelve Dancing Princesses (with which I am not familiar), this retelling fleshes out the story to nearly 500 pages. It moves quickly enough, but isn't all that well-written. Handicapped by my lack of knowledge of the original source material (or, apparently, the "classic" Barbie version!), I relied on the storytelling to lead me through the story. And I found that it just didn't hold up. Instead, I was continuously having to double back and re-read passages to figure out what was going on. This grew frustrating and, as a result, I found the writing tiresome. As a tribute, it might be a formidable work, but as an original story, it is lacking.

We'll Always Have Summer, by Jenny Han

In the third (and probably last) installment of the series, Belly is now in college and she and Jeremiah are dating. As the story opens, there is trouble in paradise: Belly finds out that Jeremiah cheated on her during Spring Break. She confronts him and the incident threatens to sever their relationship. Instead, they reconcile and Jeremiah proposes to Belly. She accepts.

Their families are aghast. Sure, they have always been close, but just about everyone else agrees that they are far too young. Belly and Jeremiah decide stubbornly that they will go ahead, with or without the approval of their families.

Jeremiah's older brother Conrad has his own reasons to object: he's never gotten over his own relationship with Belly. As the days to the wedding approach, Belly herself realizes that she still has feelings for Conrad. The resulting love triangle plays out much as expected, but is no less poignant in its predictability.

While I am not a big fan of series literature and romances usually fall flat (more because I am old and jaded, and less so because of the usual excuse of my gender), Han's trilogy is an outstanding exception. She has a beautiful way of plucking heartstrings and she does so through honest observations. All three of the books in this series are mature, well-written studies of feelings and emotions that ring true for all ages (both the adolescents and the adults seem real and vibrant). Yes, it may be easy to write a nostalgic piece about young love on the beach, but there is an unusual amount of substance and honesty here about what love really does to us. For anyone who has loved another enough to consider marriage, there are moments here that feel familiar.

If I have a complaint, it is a minor one: the epilogue seemed unnecessary and more like a desperate bid to have a happy ending, when a melancholy conclusion would have done just fine.

Choker, by Elizabeth Woods

Back when she was little, Cara had a best friend named Zoe to hang out with. The girls got into trouble a few times and Cara's parents never approved of Zoe, but at least Cara had someone.

When Cara and her family moved away, Cara was all alone. It was hard resettling and Cara's general nervous disposition didn't help (an accident in the lunchroom earns her the nickname "choker" and the mockery of her peers). But just when Cara feels it can't get any worse, Zoe appears on her doorstep and begs Cara to let her secretly stay over. Zoe has run away from home and needs her old friend to take her in.

Zoe's obviously hiding something and not telling the whole truth, but at first Cara could care less. Her friend is back and she is no longer alone. Having Zoe back, Cara again feels some degree of self-confidence. But when Cara's tormentors start to disappear and show up dead, Cara becomes suspicious of Zoe's behavior. Too late, she realizes that her old friend may be a danger to her.

Full of frightening imagery, this psychological thriller will make your skin crawl. I found the pacing a bit too slow and drawn out, but I was definitely glued to the book and wanted to know how it would end. A shocking twist towards the end threw me sufficiently off-balance that it was worth while. Kudos to Woods for creating the creepiest book of 2011!