Saturday, June 30, 2012

Saving June, by Hannah Harrington

After June kills herself, her younger sister Harper and Harper's best friend Laney decide to steal June's cremains and take them to California (to honor June's desire to go to school out there).  To make the road trip possible, they recruit a boy named Jake.  Jake's a music fanatic and their road trip becomes an exploration of musical culture.  He also harbors secrets about June and Harper is determined to figure out how they knew each other.  But most importantly, Harper feels romantically drawn to Jake, which is confusing since he holds very little appeal to her.

As a HarlequinTeen novel (yes, it truly is!), I expected a lot more romance (and implied sex) than I got.  Instead, the book is really a fairly typical YA book.  That makes it better than the heaving bosoms I was expecting, but maybe a bit dull.  We have teens dealing with grief, copious references to classic rock, explorations of the US on the back roads (does anyone take boring Interstates in road-trip novels?), and falling in love with people they claim to hate.  It was a fine book (decently written, well-developed characters, fine dialog), but it was just like so many other books.  There's little new ground here.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Awkward, by Marni Bates

Mackenzie is prone to awkward moments, but when she accidentally knocks over a burly hockey player and then tries to administer CPR to him (completely oblivious to the fact that he's conscious), it's a pretty embarrassing scene even for her.  And that's only the beginning!  A video of the episode shows up on YouTube and goes viral, sending Mackenzie into an entirely new level of notoriety.  Suddenly, a quiet wallflower has gone from being an "invisible" to being famous.  But at heart, she's still who she is and, while the fame is fun, she would really like to get the cute guy at school to notice her.  How awkward!

It's (of course) an entirely silly and overblown fantasy -- definitely in the vein of a Meg Cabot story.  The rich and famous people are entirely too nice.  The kids are all blissfully unsupervised (can't have any pesky adults get in the way of the fun!).  And the most important thing of all is whether the boy will kiss you (symbolic references to academics and career aside).  A cameo from Ellen DeGeneres towards the end takes the story into surreal territory.

Of course, picking away at the unrealistic story elements or worrying if it makes sense is really besides the point.  This book doesn't exist to send a message or make a literary impact, it's simply fun!  Mackenzie is likeable enough, but none of the characters really have any depth.  Interesting subplots (like the father who abandoned her and the travails of popularity) get buried and left underdeveloped because they don't move the story forward (and are largely cliches anyway).  Their inclusion seems more distracting in the end, so perhaps it is better that we focus instead on parties, clothes, and boys.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mice, by Gordon Reece

Shelley and her mother are mice -- nice people who try not to be in anyone's way.  But instead of avoiding trouble, they seem to invite it.  After years of cruelty, Shelley's Dad has abandoned them.  Her Mom's employer subsequently picks up where Dad left off, exploiting and abusing her.  And, at school, Shelley's being brutalized by a gang made up of her former best friends.  To avoid it all, Shelley and her Mom relocate to a remote country home where they can be alone, happy with their mouse-like existence.  Happy, that is, until a stranger threatens them.

The novel is a surprising mix of emotional intimacy and raw brutality.  The first half of the book provides a look at the politics of bullying and how perpetrator, victim, and witnesses collude with each other to make it possible.  The second half takes a sharp turn into nihilism and cynical violence.  That mix is powerful but will scare off many readers (as the type that like the former are rarely the type that enjoy the latter -- and vice versa).  But if you have the stomach for the mushy and the nasty bits, the novel pays off handsomely.

Shelley is very well developed.  Her victimization is shown to be a complicated combination of modeling and context.  I personally related to her "mouse"-like qualities and found her voice insightful (if maybe a bit too precocious at times).  Her transition to a more cold-blooded person worked for me as well, as Reece took the time to show her faltering adoption of the role.  The violence, while gory, was believable and her struggle with it made it palatable for me.  There was real regret in place and acts of violence were clearly shown to have consequences.

The Year We Were Famous, by Carole Estby Dagg

In 1896, Clara Estby and her mother undertook a mission to walk alone (and with no money) across the United States from Spokane to New York City.  They had two goals: to prove that two women (with no help from men) could do such a thing and, in the process, collect a 10,000 dollar prize which would help them save their farm.  Fighting the elements, bandits, and wild animals, the trek proved to be the adventure of a lifetime: meeting Indians, governors, and even the president-elect.  The fact that the story is actually true makes it even more interesting.

It's a historical drama, with some smooth character development. It was particularly nice how Clara really grew to understand her mother better during the trek and -- in the process -- crossed over the threshold to an adult-adult relationship with her.  On its face, this is a predictable dramatic development in a story like this, but it is handled so naturally, that it never felt contrived.  Best of all, there's plenty of interesting trivia to pick up along the way (ranging from the fact that many Western states granted women suffrage long before the nation as a whole, to the mannerisms of the people of the time).  I learned a lot in a fairly painless way.  Finally, I liked the ending, which strikes a perfect balance between happy and sad.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Love & Leftovers, by Sarah Tregay

In verse from her diary, Marcie tells the story of the year her dad left them for a boyfriend and she ended up spending half the year in New Hampshire taking care of her depressed abandoned mother.  But it is also the story of how, during that time, she cheated on her boyfriend back home in Boise -- a action which haunts her when she returns to live with her Dad in Idaho in the second half of the story.  The experience draws obvious parallels to what is going on between her parents, but the story transcends that to instead reflect upon what "love" really means.

There's a lot going on in Marcie's life and verse may not be the best way to express it.  While verse novels can be powerful, complexities and subplots tend to get buried in the quest to produce poignant lines.  There are some lovely literary devices (the simultaneous monologues -- where two characters speak at the same time and which pepper the book -- are particularly effective), but often the format becomes distracting.

Despite the limitations of the approach, Marcie stands out as a memorably strong character.  I really liked the mixture of apprehension and bravery that she expresses.  There's something realistic and vulnerable about having her be able to admit her fear of intimacy but yet boldly declare her demand for passion.  This combination of anxious child and proto-adult worked in making Marcie one of the more sympathetic characters I have read in some time.  Big kudos to Tregay for that accomplishment!

Losing Elizabeth, by Tanya J. Peterson

When Liz gets selected to varsity tennis at the beginning of her junior year, she considers herself pretty lucky to have been chosen ahead of several seniors.  But she can't believe her continued good fortune when hot senior Brad asks her out (just about every girl at school would love to go out with him)!  The euphoria of being the chosen one makes it easy for her to gloss over Brad's clingy behavior.  She interprets his insistence that she ditch her friends and spend her time exclusively with him as a sign of his devotion.  And his affectionate words leave her feeling so good that ignoring warnings from others (including his ex-girlfriend) feels justified.  But when he forces her to quit tennis (and all of her extracurriculars), she finds herself confused and depressed:  how could being in love feel so bad?

At only 147 pages, Peterson's novel is a brisk treatment of the subject of abusive relationships between teens.  The obvious comparison is with Sarah Dessen's cerebral novel Dreamland, but the two are quite different.  While Dessen's novel explains how a mind in love can easily become a mind in denial, Losing Elizabeth is a more just-the-facts-ma'am treatment of the subject.  This can lead it to come off as a bit pedantic, like an Afterschool Special, complete with stilted dialogue and bad guys whose evil intentions are crystal clear by page 33.   Peterson's focus is on how small warning signs can grow subtly into full-blown abuse and on how abusers control their victims with calculated alterations of praise and criticism.  It's spot-on.  And if reading a story like this helps a young woman avoid becoming a victim, then it will have more than served its purpose.  But as literature, it's a bit heavy handed.  Given how big of a creep Brad appears to us, it is hard to see him through Elizabeth's eyes.  Why does she keep forgiving him?  We learn that she does, but we don't really understand why.  To make this work, I wanted more of that inner dialogue.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Double, by Jenny Valentine

Chap has been living on the street for some time.  He's never really known where he came from or who his parents are, but it looks like he's finally run out of options.  But just when he's given up, a social worker mistakes him for a missing boy named Cassiel.  Figuring he has nothing to lose, Chap decides to go along with it and confirm that he's Cassiel.  He finds himself swept up into a new life where he must pretend to be someone he's not.  And the little lie which conveniently got him out of trouble becomes a much bigger problem than he ever imagined.

A clever thriller that unravels its mysteries at a good pace, keeping us guessing for just the right amount of time.  The ending is a bit abrupt and some of the plot twists are contrived, but its still a good story.  Characters are not its strength and no one ever develops all that much, but I liked to read about them nonetheless.

Mad Love, by Suzanne Selfors

With her mother in a mental hospital, Alice has been trying to keep things together at home: pay the bills, take care of the house, and keep her mother's condition a secret from her fans and her publisher.  After all, it wouldn't do for folks to find out that the "Queen of Romance" Belinda Amorous was nuts!  But time and money are running short.  If Mom doesn't get well soon, everything will be exposed.

And yet, there are even more immediate problems to address:  a young stranger who thinks he's actually Cupid, a jealous girl who tries to extort Alice (in order to get her new horror novel - "Death Cat" - published), and a crush on a local skateboarder.  Never mind the unusual heatwave that's hit the city of Seattle!

This rather crazy combination of elements (and a similarly odd assortment of memorable characters) actually work pretty well.   The story can become a bit absurd at points, but that's the point of a book that truly finds love to be a bit "mad." The result is an entertaining book, even if the storyline is not the most coherent one out there.  I think it all could have benefited from a few less subplots, but I liked it.  Of course, I personally enjoyed the many gratuitous Seattle references (which include even a shout-out to Swedish!).

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Babe in Boyland, by Jody Gehrman

Natalie's been writing an advice column for the school newspaper and it's been one of the more popular column.  But when a group of angry readers point out that she may understand girls, but she hasn't got a clue about boys, she realizes that they're right!  She tries to rectify the problem by interviewing some of the guys at school, but that doesn't work.  So, instead, she hatches a more audacious plan: she's going to go undercover as a boy and spend a week at a local boy's boarding school and figure out how they really tick.  Her plan works remarkably well, but hits a snag when she finds herself attracted to her new roommate.

The premise is cute and hard to take seriously, but the story's appeal to an adolescent audience is obvious enough. While implausible (it's a little hard to believe that Natalie is able to successfully pass herself off as "Nat" for an entire week) but the story is entertaining.  This isn't very heavy stuff (and the conclusion tries too hard to tie everything up with a happy ending), but good points are made in the quest to demystify the opposite gender.  In this particular subgenre, I think E. Lockhart's Fly on the Wall really does a better job of explaining boys to girls, but Gehrman's novel is sweet and pretty digestible.  The editorial intervention towards the end (when Natalie tells the readers what she's learned) will be helpful, even if it seems artificial and forced.

Vote for Larry, by Janet Tashjian

In this sequel to The Gospel According to Larry, Larry has been laying low for the past two years since he "died" to escape public notice.  He's got a new girlfriend and he's even started to collect a few more possession.  But his old life comes back to haunt him, when his old friend Beth tracks him down to convince him to run for public office.  At first, the stakes are simply a modest state legislature vacancy, but as Larry find his footing again, his sights aim much higher: President of the United States.  There's some fine points to work out (like the Constitutional prohibition against 18 year olds holding the office) and some unresolved issues from the past (Beth, Betagold, etc.), but Larry quickly acts on his calling to challenge youth apathy and corporate greed.

The pace is brisk, the story is humorous and light.  Even with the agenda, the book stays light on the sermons.  It's an enjoyable read. But I have a hard time giving this a ringing endorsement.  It may be missing the point, but the details bother me.  From the logical inconsistencies (Larry somehow only ages a year in two years) to the factual ones (newscasts in Larry's world apparently hold off on calling the results of an election until 99% of the vote has been counted), the book suffers from its lack of credibility.  While it is wonderful to imagine that Larry could wrought significant transformations in society and reverse youth apathy, it simply isn't plausible.   That message (you have to participate to make things change) is wonderful enough, but how can you buy it when Tashjian gets so many elementary things wrong?  Somehow, shooting a little lower would have been more inspiring to me (maybe he should have just gone out for a local election?).

Friday, June 08, 2012

There Is No Dog, by Meg Rosoff

Imagine that God is nothing more than an adolescent boy.  He lies in bed for all hours of the day, dreams of having sex with every girl he can, and (every so often) happens to create a new species or a miracle when he feels like it.  Wouldn't that explain a lot?  God's plan seems unfathomable?  Maybe it's no more mysterious than a teenage boy's sloth! Crazy weather or other acts of god?  Maybe they're nothing more than that same boy's tantrums.  Assisted by an older and wiser adviser named Mr. B, and accompanied by his pet Eck (the last of its kind), this god (or "Bob" as his family calls him) is an oddest image of the Divine Spirit to date. 

In Rosoff's latest novel, she takes a turn to the silly, diving into territory probably most memorably explored by Douglas Adams.  Imagining God as a petulant, self-centered, moping boy is an amusing concept, but it's also a joke that wears thin quickly.  Rosoff apparently doesn't care much for adolescent boys (and holds them in pretty low esteem).  As a result, Bob isn't a very interesting character.  He's incapable of growth or depth.  Rather, the humor of the story pretty much depends upon his character having no personal growth at all!

It's a literary dead end and thus the story stagnates.  To move at all, Rosoff relies upon ever-increasing levels of absurdity, which left me wondering what the point of the story was.  What do we really learn from finding out that fish can fly?

The Butterfly Clues, by Kate Ellison

Penelope ("Lo") fixates easily on things.  She suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, so that's easy to do.  Most of the time, her compulsions (like having to repeat everything three times) simply earn her the ridicule of her classmates, but her latest obsession could turn out very badly.  A young woman in the bad part of town has been murdered and Lo wants to understand why it happened.  With the help of a young vagrant, what she uncovers becomes far more than she can handle.

A quirky and original thriller which showcases Ellison's strong writing.  The book starts off in a rather oblique style and I was honestly afraid that I'd have to shelve the book as unreadable.  By the end, however, the narrative becomes much normal (and even a bit mundane).  For those who like literary pretensions, this is a step down.  For me, it saved the story.  I suspect that we'll come back with mixed reviews on this one!

OCD can be hard to depict sympathetically.  Truth be told, I found myself frequently as frustrated with her personality quirks as Lo's father is depicted as being.  It's hard to relate to someone who continually complains about being unable to control their behavior.  Yet, I have to admit that Lo's depiction was compelling and you gradually become accustomed to it.  Ellison's skill with characters doesn't stop there.  The supporting roles (Flynt and the other street people, Lo's parents, etc.) are also well drawn.  No one is particularly likeable (the book overall is quite gloomy), but they are memorable and well-developed.