Saturday, February 23, 2013

Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality, by Elizabeth Eulberg

Lexi (this seems to be a popular name these days!) has lots of great friends, but she's not the type of girl to get the guy.  Boys think she's got a "great personality," which is just a nice way to say that you're ugly, Lexi reasons.  She has friends who are guys but they want to talk with her about the girls they really like.  All that changes after a friend convinces her to dress up fancy, put on some makeup, and pretend to be one of the Beautiful People.  Suddenly, people are noticing, including the guy that Lexi has dreamed about.

Meanwhile, back at home, Lexi is trying to survive her younger sister's kiddie beauty pageants, which are breaking up the family and literally bankrupting them.  Lexi's mother is obsessed with participating and Lexi's sister Mackenzie is a total brat, sucked in by all of the attention.  None of which is helped by the realization that Mom obviously values Mackenzie's talents more than Lexi's.

The story has great potential as a examination of perceptions of beauty, but is undermined by the voice of Lexi.  Eulberg gets awfully preachy and puts some pretty mature diatribes into the mouth of her heroine.  It isn't that what Lexi is saying isn't good advice or that a sixteen year-old isn't capable of such logic, but it is implausible (and frankly not very interesting) to have a young woman with greater wisdom on human relationships than most adults possess.  Lexi is far too perfect (with amazing self-determination and objective thinking skills) to really develop into an interesting character.  She's strong, but way too perfect.

I also found the two story lines (Lexi's relationship with her peers and the situation at home) to be distracting.  The two stories never coalesce and so I impatiently waiting to get back to the one I cared the most about (which, for me, was the home story).

My Life in Black and White, by Natasha Friend

As long as Lexi can remember, she's defined herself through her beauty (this isn't ego, but simply what she has absorbed from others who always commented upon her appearance).  So, when she is permanently disfigured in a car accident, she has no idea of how to cope with the change.  Who is she in a world where she is no longer seen as perfect?  Coming back from the trauma and rebuilding her life will be a big challenge.

The situation is complicated by other changes in her life.  Right before the accident, she was betrayed by her boyfriend and her best friend, which puts her in a bind: just when she needs the support of the people who care for her, she's lost two people she trusted.

While the basic outline of the story would seem prone to melodrama and hysterics, Friend keeps the whole thing level-headed.  By the end, most everything works out, but the solutions are plausible (conflicts stay realistically unresolved, but people move on). The story is well-paced and, aside from a few unforeshadowed plot twists which seemed largely engineered to keep things moving, the plot is logical.  Moreover, the characters are believable and generally likable.  By the end, even the more evil folks have been redeemed and explained.  And I found Lexi's growth away from her obsession with external appearances, while familiar, to be treated in a fresh manner.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Being Friends With Boys, by Terra Elan McVoy

Charlotte isn't very good with girls and she's at her most comfortable around her guy friends, whether it's long-time friend Oliver (who leads the band that Charlotte manages) or newer guys like Trip.  But the drawback with hanging out with guys is that they aren't very good for baring your heart to.  Far worse, though, is navigating the fine line between friendship and romance with them.

There is an overall story about the band (Sad Jackal) that Charlotte and her boys are in and their struggles to stay together (and a small subplot about Charlotte finding her voice quite literally as a singer for the band), but the vast majority of the book is simply about navigating the minefield of adolescent romance and friendship.  With its sensitive ear to how older teens interrelate, the book will resonate with its target audience.  For older readers, it mostly elicited groans of recognition (I'm reminded of a friend of mine who explained she couldn't read YA because it brought back up all those painful memories).  The idea of teens trying to balance romantic and platonic relationships is a good subject and treated with great authenticity by McVoy.

In comparison with her other books (which weren't that bad to begin with) this is really a stand out novel.  McVoy navigates the complex drama of relationships quite well, highlighting the different issues that can arise (ranging from jealousy to misunderstandings) that plague adolescence.  And Charlotte is a very sympathetic character -- hardly perfect, but reasonably clear-headed.  The book shines when we're in her head trying to figure out what makes boys act the way they do.  The book gets slightly weaker when we're amidst Charlotte's family (it's a bit much to expect this book to juggle family conflicts as well) and scenes with Charlotte's estranged mother seem largely disposable. Those are minor quibbles though, as overall this is a magnificent achievement.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Tiger Lily, by Jodi Lynn Anderson

Fifteen year-old Tiger Lily is betrothed to oafish Giant, but longs to be in the woods of Neverland, hanging out with fun-loving Peter and his gang of Lost Boys.  Her sneaking out threatens her standing in the village, but she brazenly refuses to care and fantasizes about living with Peter forever.  In spite of this, Tiger Lily has never trusted anyone, and even with Peter, she stays restless and aloof, confident that she can have it both ways.  It is thus a rude surprise when dainty submissive Wendy arrives from England.  She quickly captures Peter's heart (and the loyalties of the Lost Boys as well), leaving a bitter and jealous Tiger Lily in the lurch.

For anyone raised on Walt Disney's Peter Pan, the story here will be quite a rude shock.  All the characters make an appearance (Captain Hook, the other pirates, and even the crocodiles are there), but everything is slightly different and a bit darker.  This version, narrated by Tinkerbell, is far less about Peter than the troubled adolescent Tiger Lily.  Gone is the joyous "I won't grow up" of the original and in its place is a world where another girl's withering stare is the deadliest of weapons.  The focus has been shifted to a tale of betrayed friendships and vengeance.

It's a very imaginative piece and really quite unlike Anderson's previous novels.  It's certainly one of the more unique retellings that I've read in a while.  However, it is not an easy read.  There are a lot of characters to track, the narration itself is opaque, and overall it is hard to get into.  By the end, I found myself enjoying it, but it took a lot of work.

Shooting Stars, by Alison Rushby

Jo is a professional photographer and, at 16, the youngest paparazzo on the circuit. Her age and diminutive size makes her an expert at getting into places (and getting the shots) that no one else can.  Still, even she is surprised when she is offered a big contract to sneak into a treatment facility for troubled teens and land some snapshots of heartthrob Ned Hartnett (a guy that Jo herself has serious hots for).  At first, she thinks her reluctance to take the pictures is caused by an ethical dilemma, but she comes to realize that the cause of her anxiety is much more complex.

The story is a bit silly, with whole bunches of improbabilities and illogical plot twists.  Who would really give a teen the type of money (and responsibility) described here?  How would you sneak in to an exclusive mental facility for teenagers as a patient?  My own personal favorite -- given what I do for a living -- is the kids' alleged red-eye flight westward from Logan to LAX! 

You know you're in trouble when most of the reviews for this book exclaim about how "cute" it is.  Let's just say that the plot wasn't really meant to make sense.  Nor, for that matter, were the characters.  Jo is an OK heroine.  Her ethical quandary seems a bit exaggerated (given her chosen profession) and is repeated so often that it grows tiresome, but she's fun when she's on the hunt.  And that sums up a lot of the characters -- there's not much depth and when they start baring their souls, I found it hard to really care.  They certainly couldn't be taken seriously.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Small Damages, by Beth Kephart

When Kenzie finds she is pregnant, her mother immediately assumes that they will simply "fix the problem." Her boyfriend is not much better:  he's heading to Yale in the Fall and can't be bothered with a child.  And neither he nor her mother can understand why Kenzie wants to carry the baby to term.  But upon learning Kenzie's intent, her mother decides that the best thing to do is to send Kenzie away to Spain, where Kenzie can have the baby and give it up for adoption to some old friends of Mom's.

And so, Kenzie finds herself in a small town in sun-drenched Spain, working as an assistant to a cook named Estela -- a woman with a past and regrets of her own.  And, as the baby comes to term, Kenzie deals with her anger at being sent away and with her search for the meaning of "family."

It's a very lyrical book with beautiful language and is simultaneously surprisingly brisk to read.  Readers who enjoy poetry and verse books will delight in Kephart's prose.  That said, the style is also opaque and hard to follow (and, at times, a bit too precious).  I personally would have preferred a clearer and more direct style (it can get exhausting to read pretty prose!).  And while the story certainly evoked a mood, it all seemed a bit dull.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Every Day, by David Levithan

Imagine a life where every day of your life you were a different person.  Some days a boy, some days a girl -- large, small, popular, outcast, gay, straight, transgendered, asexual.  You change so often that you don't even know who you are...yet you do because you remember who you were before.  It could be terrifying or lonely, but to survive it, you must become very self-aware, because (ironically) you lack a unique physical body.

It's hard enough to get by with the confusion of changing every day, but what happens when you fall in love?  How can you maintain a relationship when every day you change?

It's a fascinating concept that allows Levithan to explore (at first subtly and later - when he grows bored with subtle - with a sledgehammer) the concept of identity.  The romance nicely complicates things, but even without the issues of an interpersonal relationship, the book raises many interesting questions about the importance we place on appearance in defining who we are.  Thus, one of the most fascinating parts of the book is the beginning of each day, as our hero wakes up in a new body and we share his/her first impressions.  That initial first paragraph neatly sums up how the rest of the day will go.

Levithan the writer doesn't usually do much for me.  The writing is fine, but I don't like being preached to.  He's created some of the best LGBT literature, but he can get didactic (and even bigoted) at times.  I found particularly disturbing the chapter about the day as an overweight kid.  The character's unconcealed distaste mostly shows that Levithan himself believes that physical appearance matters as much as his hero says that it shouldn't.

Perfect Escape, by Jennifer Brown

The return home of Kendra's brother from the hospital ought to be a happy moment, but for her it's a source of stress.  Grayson suffers from OCD and his rituals drive her crazy, let alone his full-scale freak-outs when things get really bad.  She loves him, but Kendra resents the way that everything in their family revolves around Grayson's illness.  But moreover, Kendra doesn't need anything more to stress her out right now:  her efforts to maintain a perfect world for herself are coming brilliantly unhinged.  Now, on the verge of being suspended from school, she has a freak out of her own and kidnaps her brother on a road trip to California.  It's a crazy trip that only a perfectionist and her anxious compulsive brother could have.

It's Rain Man for the YA crowd, but with more pathos and grit.  As a story, it's fairly typical road trip stuff (some misadventures, the mandatory side trip, and a wind-down at the end), but the characters make it come alive. I found Kendra to be a bit of a pill -- the idea that she ever thought the idea of fleeing across the country was a good one defies belief, so that when she later on comes to "realize" her mistake, I cringed.  But beyond the sheer implausibility of her character, I liked the rest of it.  Grayson is an interesting character by himself (far more self-aware and assertive than we usually presume of the mentally-ill) and the rapport that he has with his sister is authentic and enticing.