Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Great American Whatever, by Tim Federle

Quinn and his mother have been adrift since Quinn's sister Annabeth died in a car accident six months ago.  In Quinn's mind, he and Annabeth were bonded over their shared love for film (he wrote screenplays that she then filmed).  It was a team that was destined to join the pantheon of sibling filmmakers (like the Coens or the Wachowskis).  Since her death he hasn't written anything.  In point of fact, he hasn't done much of anything.  Skipping out of school and avoiding people, he only really hangs out with his best friend Geoff.  His mother is just as bad, loitering around the house. 

But then a chance meeting with a hot guy named Amir gives Quinn something to make him alive again.  And seeing how that can be, he starts to dream about fixing his life.  Meeting up with an old friend and inspiration (and now a successful screenwriter) also helps him see his future potential.  But he is discovering things about his sister that threaten his rosy picture of how things were.

Guy authors generally fall flat for me -- all snarky jokes and not much depth to their characters.  Federle gives Quinn lots of loving attention, but it was hard to feel much for the result. Moping characters have never really attracted much sympathy from me, and obviously cluelessless lack appeal and dramatic potential.  The relationships between Quinn and the two guys in his life never really bloomed for me (famous screenwriter friend was a throw away). The relationship with Amir lacked much spark and Geoff was just a typical sidekick.  Quinn's relationships with the female characters are even worse.  Pedestaling his dead sister annoyed me (and what was with Quinn's strong reaction to the idea that his sister could have been in a romantic relationship?).  Mom had a completely disposable role -- she was paralyzed with depression for half the book and then suddenly fixed her life.  In sum, there just isn't much here to latch on to.

Exit, Pursued By A Bear, by E. K. Johnston

During summer cheer camp, Hermione is obsessed with getting the most out of her last summer.  What she is not expecting is to get drugged and raped.  In the aftermath of the attack, she is unable to recall the details or the identity of her attacker.  Instead, she is left wondering who he is.  Was it a teammate?  Or someone from another school?  But with supportive friends, family, therapist, and community, she pushes on bravely through the ordeal of recovery.

Overall, I found this to be a nice balance between thriller and emotional drama that makes this unpleasant premise into a better than average read.  The greatest strength are the characters.  Hermione is strong and does a pretty good job of bouncing back.  But the real standout character is her BFF Polly, whose toughness and loyalty make her a great sidekick. 

But I had issues as well.  She brings up some of the indignities that rape victims endure but resolves them quickly, whether it is rumors at school, victim blaming in the media, or the ordeal of terminating an unwanted pregnancy.  All of these could have been developed further, but Johnstone skirts the issues, leaving the treatment superficial and recalling a more middle-school appropriate treatment (like an Afterschool Special).  I also didn't get the Shakespeare references, which seemed tacked on to the story (perhaps Johnstone was just dying to use the title and had to come up with a way to justify it later?).

In sum, there are not a lot of surprises or new ground here, but Johnstone gives a surprisingly upbeat story with a satisfying ending.  It will raise many questions and issues, and might stir some young minds to ask deeper questions.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker

War is coming and Peter is being sent to stay with his grandfather for safety.  Peter's pet fox Pax, however, cannot come and so Peter is forced to abandon him (in the heart-wrenching first chapter).  Peter immediately regrets doing so and heads off on a quest to find and rescue Pax.  Along the way, Peter befriends an embittered veteran who teaches him valuable lessons about war and helps him on his way.  And, in alternating chapters, Pax meets other foxes and learns more about his own nature and the ways of humans.

Pennypacker, who I know better for her charming Clementine series, has created a unique and haunting book.  Initially, it's a straightforward adventure, but more of an allegory about war in the end.  I felt that the story was a bit dark for children and not entirely appropriate for the middle readers it is targeted towards (in much the same way that Watership Down got mischaracterized as a children's book).  I enjoyed it, especially the chapters about Pax (who ultimately proves a more appealing protagonist than the boy) and the anti-war message is soft-pedaled but well-presented.

The Secret Language of Sisters, by Luanne Rice

An auto accident leaves Tilly's older sister Roo paralyzed and in a coma, unable to communicate.  People doubt that she will ever recover and some believe she might even be brain dead.  But Tilly maintains the hope that Roo is "there" and she is able to show that Roo is suffering from "Locked In Syndrome." An ambitious young doctor is brought in who has had experience working with such patients and he develops devices that allow Roo to speak and even to manipulate objects around her.  But jealousy between the sisters threatens to divide them just as they should be coming together.

I rarely find that successful adult literature writers are able to cross over into YA.  Unfortunately, Rice proves the rule here.  She writes a good story but doesn't really have the tone right.   The two sisters sounded more like they were in their twenties than in their teens. It wasn't simply that they were mature and well-spoken, but that their tastes are too complex and their way of relating to each other too grown up.  The girls' bond seemed wise beyond its years and the jealousies lacked the angst, doubt, and awkwardness that would make it authentically adolescent.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Way I Used To Be, by Amber Smith

Books about sexual violence and rape walk dangerously close to exploitative fiction, but when done well they can be as stunning.  Take, for example, Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak and Sarah Dessen's Dreamland which both hold spaces in my list of top ten favorite YA novels.  I'm not ready to add The Way I Used to Be to such exalted company, but it is certainly a superior specimen.  This novel delivers.  As a survivor myself, I'll admit to having a soft spot for stories which appreciate the nuances and complexities of the experience (although I fully understand folks who shy away from books on these topics altogether on principle).

The assault that the story centers around takes place right in the beginning of the novel when Eden is fourteen and, while the story will revisit the events surrounding the attack at later points in flashback, the bulk of the nearly 400 pages that follow trace Eden's fall from grace over the next three years.  Her lack of ability to cope leads to self-destructive behavior that teeters between pitiful and distasteful.  Smith wants to drag her heroine into the gutter to show how destroyed she is but at some point even the reader starts to lose faith (grownups are warned that the book's depiction of illicit drugs, underaged drinking, and risky sex will definitely encourage grey hairs!).  That there is some redemption in the end makes the book worth reading to the end.

And that basically underscores my issue with the story.  Smith wants to show the corrosive impact of rape on the psyche and she does this so thoroughly that there isn't much room for escape.  It takes a little deus ex machina in the end to break the stalemate.  And even then, Eden is so tightly wound and so hardcoded into her destructive trajectory that it's a bit of a close call.  The issue with that is that Eden ends up being an unsympathetic character (a brutal thing to say and we can debate it, but when you look at how horrible she is to the people around her, you do start to lose faith).  That is part of the point and I wouldn't change a thing about her depiction but it creates one heck of a quandary for the author!  I really felt for Eden, but I didn't really like her.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

I Woke Up Dead At the Mall, by Judy Sheehan

Sixteen and dead at her father's wedding, Sarah finds herself in a state of limbo -- which turns out to be an extra floor at the Mall of America.  It's been specially constructed for deceased teenagers who can't move on because they feel they have unfinished business.  There are other kids there:  angry Lacey, vain and dim Declan, the very adorable Nick, and others.  And there's plenty of rules about what the kids need to do in order to move on (and the things that could cause them to get stuck forever).  And then there's the Boy ("boss of you") -- the being that makes (and sometimes capriciously breaks) the rules.

It's an extremely quirky story about the afterlife, righting some wrongs, clairvoyance, evil stepmothers, bad songwriting, Oprah, and living in New York City.  It's clever and funny.  It will amuse you.

But it's not much of a story.  Sheehan likes to make a funny scene out of an absurdity, but she doesn't really seem to know what to do with it.  There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but not much point to the novel.  It's a bit too much of a downer to be a comedy (Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere is an obvious precursor), it's too flippant to say much about faith, the righting-of-wrongs stuff moves the story along but gets mired in a lot of silliness about "angels" -- it is a narrative mess.  The most endearing characters are the silly ones (Declan, Bertha, the Boy).  Sarah and Nick and just plain boring.  The novel will still amuse you, in spite of all that.