Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ship of Dolls, by Shirley Parenteau

An exchange of "friendship dolls" between Japan and the United States has been announced to promote international peace and understanding, and Lexie's class in Portland has raised the money to purchase a doll to send.  She's a beautiful doll and Lexie longs to hold her, but even more exciting is the contest that has been announced.  The students are challenged to write a letter to accompany the doll and the winner will get a paid trip to San Francisco to see the send-off of the dolls.  This is especially important for Lexie because San Francisco is where her mother is living now.  Lexie hopes that by going down to see her mother, she can get her Mom to take her back so she no longer has to live in Oregon with her grandparents.

The exchange of the dolls is a historical fact that was also the setting of one of my favorite books (The Friendship Doll, by Kirby Larson) which focuses on the story of the dolls that Japan sent to the United States in return.  It's fascinating material for novelization and it's interesting how very different these two books are.  Larson's book is a rather metaphysical book that attributes all sorts of magic to the dolls, while Parenteau's book is fairly firmly set in reality.

There's a great deal of sentimentality and wholesomeness to this book that might make the jaded reader wince (this book will upset far fewer adults than the ones I've been reading recently!).  Lexie is a creature of her time (the 1920s), dutifully following expectations and living within her grandmother's strict conservative expectations.  But she is also a deceptively strong and empowered girl.  She makes quite a few poor choices, but she realizes her mistakes and is haunted by her conscience.  And even when she would love nothing better than to hurt people who have hurt her, she is able to put aside her desire for vengeance and do what must be done.  Certainly, her decision late in the story to give her most treasured possession away to someone who needs it more is heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Throughout the story, we see Lexie fearlessly stand up for herself and eventually make the right choices in the end.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Infandous, by Elana K. Arnold

Sephora and her mother are very close. As Seph explains it, given how little else she has in her life, they'd be "broke" otherwise.  Seph spends the summer between her Junior and Senior year drifting between summer school and hanging on the beach with friends.  But things are changing:  her Mom is seeing a guy barely older than Seph and Seph herself has had a brief hook up with an older guy that she'd rather just forget.  And while all of this may seem fairly trivial stuff, there are epic undercurrents to this story that will leave you shocked.

This is the sort of novel which is guaranteed to upset sensitive parents.   Between the profanity, sex, and drug use in the first dozen pages, this is a book begging to be banned.  The intensity of the subject matter seems inappropriate for a book targeted at teens.  But as a novel about a teenager living through a micro tragedy, it's a powerful read.

Arnold intersperses Seph's story with some less-familiar tellings of myths and fairy tales (focusing on the gorier and sexually-violent elements).  The intent is not so much a feminist retelling, but simply to highlight the extremely dangerous world that these stories portray.  As Seph herself says at one point, the whole empowerment project feeling "belittling." There is a weak attempt to tie these interludes into the main story by claiming that Seph has developed an interest in myths and stories, but it felt like a stretch.  However, it made for good reading and it also opened a plausible, but entirely unexpected and brutal twist at the end.

There is also the wonderful daughter-mother dynamic between Seph and her mother.  While we don't get much opportunity to hear her mother's voice, Seph's adoration is undeniable -- a mixture of need, jealousy, and protectiveness that she waxes eloquently about.  I loved the complexity and the opportunity to hear an expression of child-parent relationship that moved beyond frustration and anger.  And the one-sided exploration of that relationship made its pathos all the more strong.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Extraordinary Means, by Robyn Schneider

In the not-so-distant future, a new drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis has developed and reached epidemic proportions.  Without a means to treat the disease, society has turned back to the sanatorium approach.  Lane, obsessed with boosting his SAT scores and getting into Stanford, finds it hard to adjust to Latham House, his new home.  And the change of regimen (rest and relaxation) grates against everything he's strived for.  But unless he stops working so hard, the disease will kill him.  Sadie, on the other hand, has been stuck at this place for so long that she can no longer imagine life outside its walls.  

Faced with an incurable disease, a society that pities and fears them, and a longing for a normal life, this novel explores a wide array of issues, both emotional and ethical.  And it also finds time to explore a touching and rewarding romance between two young people united by the same threat to their survival, coping with it in very different ways.

The result is utterly stunning.  Dying teens as subject matter is of course going to be heartbreaking literary material, but in the hands of an excellent writer, you can do amazing things with it.  The obvious reference point is John Green's philosophical and witty The Fault In Our Stars and Schneider dutifully acknowledges the debt.  However, this book is quite different.  Schneider's interest is in the social/emotional effects of incurable disease:  how society treats the sufferers as well as how they respond to that treatment.  And her interest is not just literary.  Schneider holds a degree in medical ethics from UPenn and this informs fairly lucid discussions in the story of topics ranging from alternative therapy to the prioritization of treatment.  The result is an intelligent novel that brings up a lot of deep thoughts.  That it places all of this amid vivid characters, a touching friendship, and a heartbreaking story is a bonus.  The result is haunting and memorable.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen

Coming together as a blended family doesn't come easily for Stewart and Ashley.  He's a brilliant, but socially awkward boy building a electric bike and missing his late mother.  She's a fashionista with limited academic skill and a latent anger against her father who has recently come out of the closet.  But while the two of them are antagonistic from the start, they can come together when they have to, in order to stand up for what is right.

A charming story of the many ways that families and friends can support each other.  I disliked the rather cruel way in the story that Ashley's needs were shortchanged and her intellect belittled while Stewart's social ineptitude is frequent glossed over.  However, in general, the novel has some good messages about the need to stand up against bullying. 

There are other things that stand out in this book.  As usual, I appreciate the attempt to show both the strengths and flaws of the adults alongside the kids (it isn't just the kids who bicker -- the grownups are equally as skilled).  And, as much as this is a message book, the sermon is not heavy handed, giving us a good story as well.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Alex As Well, by Alyssa Brugman

Alex struggles with sexual identity.  While she's been raised as a boy, she's never felt that way (even if she has a shrunken "noodle" to prove it).  And when she decides to go off her meds and enroll herself at a girls' school without her parents' knowledge, she takes a brave step out.  Her parents violently disapprove of her decision and they have a number of angry intercations that culminates in Alex's decision to move out.  Meanwhile, she finds it is just as hard to be a girl as it was to be a boy, although she also finds allies in her changes.

An interesting look at an intersex child.  Brugman struggles a bit with how to present the story, trying both an internal dialogue between Alex's masculine and feminine sides and interspersing her mother's exasperated online confidences about her struggles to understand her child.  The latter is painful reading as the mother is incredibly self-centered and abusive.  And it also distracts us from the more important story of Alex's own growth.  That there will be people who will hurt Alex, we can be fairly certain, but seeing so much of it really adds little to the story itself (after all, I imagine that Alex can do a pretty decent job of hurting herself without her parents' help).  A subplot about a fashion modeling career seemed similarly off-topic.  I think the novel would have been strengthened by simply focusing on Alex herself as she discovers how to interact with her peers and become the person she wants to be.

Monday, December 21, 2015

P.S. I Still Love You, by Jenny Han

In this sequel to To All the Boys I Loved Before, Lara Jean finds herself in a real relationship with Peter, but despite their promises to tell each other the truth and not hurt each other, the relationship is rocky.  He can't seem to keep his ex-girlfriend away and Lara Jean herself is tempted by a reunion with her old heartthrob John.  Both of them suspect the other of infidelity.  Lara's getting plenty of advice from the ladies at the nursing home and her younger sister, but she misses her Mom.  After having spent so much time thinking about love, she is surprised to find that the real thing is so impossibly complex.

A cluttered, less focused, and weaker follow-up to one of my favorite Jenny Han books.  In general, Han does a wonderful job exploring not only themes of romance but also of friendship and of familial ties.  All that is present here, but it so much more awkwardly assembled.  She's put in a whole bunch of subplots (cyberbullying, an elder sister's absence, a party for the nursing home residents, getting Dad to start dating again, etc.) and little of it fits together.  The writing, usually so brilliant, is sloppy (and sloppily edited) (howlers include a metal box which "has eroded from the rain and snow and dirt" that the protagonist "wash[es] in the sink so it gleams again"). The ending is even more annoying, doing a last minute flip that contradicts much of the rest of the story -- the worst sort of surprise ending.  All of this is shocking given Han's excellent prior track record and even the strong start of this novel.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Conversion, by Katherine Howe

Colleen is a whisker away from becoming valedictorian at St Joan's Academy in Danvers, but the competition is pretty intense.  That is, until her classmates start exhibiting strange medical symptoms (tics, hair loss, coughing up pins, etc.).  Panic grips the school as a variety of increasingly implausible explanations are floated for what is happening.  The reality, however, is that no one is really sure.  More and more girls start to fall ill to the symptoms and a media circus develops.  Told in parallel with the story of the Salem Witch Trials, Howe attempts to provide an explanation for both the current events and that historical moment of mass hysteria.

An interesting premise where Howe, inspired by a real-life outbreak of mysterious symptoms at a private school in 2012, combined that story with her knowledge of Salem's unfortunate events, to create a novel about the intense emotional pressures that girls face around graduation.  I found that to be a clever concept and the storytelling to be exquisite.  I'm less of a fan of the actual story, but that is because the subject matter has always seemed distasteful to me.  The combination of egocentricity, prejudice, and sheer spiritual vacuum that is exhibited at Salem holds about as much appeal as a slasher movie for me.  But the story works and I certainly finished the book.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Galgorithm, by Aaron Karo

Shane has figured out how to get a girl to like you (be different, notice her, tell her, and -- if all else fails -- say something nice about her eyelashes).  And he's developed a secret "galgorithm" that proves his ideas scientifically work.  Or at least that's what he tells his classmates who seek out his advice in getting girls who are entirely out of their league to like them.  Shane is in such demand that even the teachers are looking to him for advice.  Yet, Shane himself doesn't seem to have anyone in his life, except for his best friend Jak who he's known since they were babies.  But she's just a friend, right?

Billed as a book for John Green fans, Karo has some of the funny attitude of Green, but lacks the insight and the depth of that author.  The story moves briskly, but Karo is entirely too self-conscious about the potentially offensive nature of his material and refuses to play it for full comedic effect.  And rather than run with it (and apologize later), he bends over backwards to show that Shane is really a Good Guy.  That he may be, but it makes him look like a bit of a wuss (as Shane himself notes, you should never run around and apologize all the time -- perhaps Karo should have taken his character's advice?).  There's a lot of romantic tension between Shane and Jak, but you kind of expect them to work through it at the end so you don't hold your breath a lot.  And the teachers are pretty dopey for what tries hard to be a smart comedy (hint:  awkward teachers are not funny!).  In the end, the story couldn't really ever get serious enough to talk about what makes relationships work and it refused to go over the top and make the whole thing funny.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Secrets We Keep, by Trisha Leaver

Ella has never managed to be popular like her identical twin sister Maddy.  Instead, she has quietly enjoyed being an artist, hanging out with her friend Josh, and avoiding Maddy's mean friends.   But Ella's resented Maddy's sense of entitlement and the love which their parents seem to lavish so easily on Maddy.  Then, one tragic night, there is a car accident and Maddy is killed.  Ella, however, is mistaken for her sister and people assume it was Ella that died.  Seeing the grief pouring out for her sister, Ella decides to swap identities and pretend to be Maddy.  Doing so becomes much harder than Ella ever imagined.

Leaver goes through great pains to explain how the story is even remotely plausible, but I think that misses the point.  While this novel is a fairly pedestrian high school drama, full of mean girls and jealous plots, it has a more interesting parallel track.  In this higher story, Ella's struggle to be her sister becomes a means to grieve for her, moving beyond both her childhood love and her adolescent jealousy to achieve a mature acceptance.  Seen in this light, the story (while still predictable) is quite clever and original.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel, by Sara Farizon

In Farizan's first novel (If You Could Be Mine), she explored a lesbian romance in Iran.  It was an exercise that was deeply colored by politics and history, in which the romance itself got fairly smothered, in my opinion by the fact it was placed in such an exotic and hostile setting.  Now she's brought it home.  This new novel features Leila, a teenage Iranian-American living in Boston, attending an elite private school, and struggling with her own identity.  The change of setting makes a world of difference, and it allows us to now focus on Leila herself.

She knows that she likes girls and is fairly convinced that this is not a temporary phase, but she struggles with coming out for fear of how her friends and family will react.  Her father, in particular, is quite conservative and she has observed how other gay Iranian-Americans were treated by the emigrant community when they announced their sexual identity.  The arrival of a very exotic foreign student at her school adds urgency to the matter and also gives Leila some additional problems.

I found the book both amusing and touching.  Leila has a great sense of humor and there are lots of fun moments through the book.  This in no way detracts from the seriousness of her concerns or the struggles she goes through, but rather keeps things light and draws us to her.  The characters, in general, are largely portrayed in a way that makes them sympathetic and familiar, whether it is neglected friends or anxious parents.  Aside from the sheer evil of the bullying Saskia (and even she can elicit some sympathy!), these are characters with whom we can relate.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

When You Leave, by Monica Ropal

Cass has trust issues, so when the cute football player at her new school starts showing an interest in her, she has a hard time believing he's for real.  After all, she's just an angry skateboarder from the wrong part of town.  Their relationship, however, blooms into something special and she appears to be turning over a new leaf...until he is murdered.  Worse than the shock of losing him is the fact that one of her friends (Gav) is accused of being the murderer.  Cass becomes obsessed with clearing Gav's name and finding the real killer.  But can she conduct the search on her own?  Or must she somehow find the strength to trust others?

This is a surprisingly effective story and I can easily call it one of the best novels of 2015.  I was hooked from the beginning by one of the grittier and more interesting romances I had read in a long time.  So I was pretty ticked off when the guy got murdered.  But Ropal has a lot of skills in her pocket and, out of that crucial plot twist, she produces one of this year's most memorable heroines.  Cass is no shrinking violet and she has a dedication and bravery completely unknown to YA.  All of the characters are strong, in fact, and there is a refreshing bluntness to the way that they interact with each other. I particularly liked the development of Cass and her silent friend Mattie's relationship that will have many readers scratching their heads.

Ropal doesn't waste time with the misunderstandings that so many writers use to drag a story out.  This is a story that instead continually puts out and just as steadily surprises.  And it does hurt to have a female character that can fight off the bad guys without a big bad boyfriend to defend her.  These are coarse characters and the story isn't pretty, but the storytelling is compelling.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen

In comparison with her vibrant, risk-taking older brother, Sidney has lurked in the shadows.  When he goes too far and ends up in jail after injuring a boy, Sidney finds she still can't escape from behind his shadow.  Mom has grown obsessed with staying in contact with him and doesn't see how things are falling apart for Sidney.  To compensate, Sidney changes schools, makes new friends, and even find a new romance, but the inability of her family to confront the reality of their star son in jail continues to tear them apart.

A bit darker than Dessen's more recent novels and notably better than most of them.  Dessen is, as always, a great writer, but she has grown complacent in the last decade or so as she has found a successful formula and stuck to it.  Too often, her stories become tired rehashes of the old romantic boy-helps-girl-open-up chestnut.  To this work's credit, the romance doesn't even kick in until page 251.

In this one, she tries try to expand a bit, but it's mostly back into territory she explored in her earlier novel, Dreamland -- girl is unable to seek help from grownups and so suffers until she finally gets brave enough to ask for help.  So, we're basically waiting for that moment to arrive.  At the same time, not much else actually happens and there's a real pacing problem.  So much so that the last ten or so pages of the book is a massive epilogue in which all the loose ends get wrapped in retrospect (i.e., rather than actually showing us the resolution, we get told how it all ended).  This is pretty unsatisfactory, but after 400 pages of build-up, Dessen probably needed to close down the story.  I wish she had started that wind-down about 200 pages earlier!