Friday, December 30, 2016

Free Verse, by Sarah Dooley

A hardscrabble life and a string of bad luck bring near daily challenges to Sasha.  But as she reaches the limits of endurance, she discovers poetry and the ability to articulate the words in verse that she can't say aloud.

Living in a dismal coal mining town in West Virginia, Sasha has been abandoned by her mother and lost both her father and older brother to fatal accidents.  The trauma has left her unable to speak and prone to fierce bouts of blind anger.  But in the structured world of poetry (not all of her writing in free verse), she is able to speak her heart and release her anguish.  The result is a depressing, but ultimately uplifting, tale of using art to overcome adversity.

My one complaint about the novel is that it is repetitive. The story certainly could have used some pruning.  But I enjoyed Sasha's strong character and the spare and reserved qualities of all of the portrayals in the story.  Dooley crafts the text carefully, leaving many things unsaid (and in fact, never explaining key plot events).  This is quite effective and, far from frustrating the reading, it opens much of the story up for interpretation.  And while the story's setting is dismal, Dooley does not pity these people, and reveals great dignity in their difficult lives.  Finally, the use of verse amidst the prose is surprisingly effective in a way that verse novels on their own rarely are.

Paint the Wind, by Pam Munoz Ryan

After her parents died, Maya lived in near total isolation in her grandmother's house.  But when her grandmother dies, Maya is sent to live with her mother's people in Wyoming, of whom she knows nothing.

The two environments couldn't be any more different.  At her grandmother's, she was forbidden from any sort of rough play, taught to fear nature, and raised to despise her mother and idolize her father.  But at her new home on the range, she is thrust into adventure monitoring wild horses and sleeping in dusty tents miles from civilization.

At her new home, she learns to ride horses (a lifelong dream) and discovers a love for watching wild horses.  One of those wild horses (Artemisia) was once tamed by Maya's mother.  Now roaming free, Artemisia is in danger and Maya is anxious to rescue her (an through doing so establish a link with her Mom).  But finding the horse will put Maya in mortal danger.

Classic horse story material.  A few predictable tropes (dead parents, friendly wild horse, etc.) but overall the story is thrilling and loaded with horse facts and trivia.  Having not read a lot in the genre before, I was surprised at how explicit it is, but that's almost certainly part of the appeal (and probably why boys don't tend to go for these stories!).  Some of the action at the end was rushed and compressed, in sharp contrast to the gentle pace at the beginning of the story.  Ryan seems to enjoy exposition more than conclusions, and pushes through the endings as fast as possible.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz

Worked to the bone and neglected by her father and brothers, fourteen year-old Joan decides to run away from home and finds herself in Baltimore, where she is taken in by a wealthy Jewish family and hired on as a servant (under the assumed name of "Janet").  Raised in a poor farm community, Joan has no knowledge of Judaism, but learns a lot about it during her employ.  At the same time, she explores her own Catholic convictions.  The experience of her new work also introduces her to themes of loyalty, respect, and love in this lively, well-researched, and ultimately uplifting story of the search for human dignity.

The result is an utterly captivating story that presents an unusual heroine who is both tempestuous and intelligent, but also sensitive and fragile.  In depicting her as such, Schlitz captures the volatile world of a fourteen year-old who is curious and motivated, yet still prone to romantic fancies and fantasies.  Joan/Janet is strong willed and driven, but utterly prone to bad choices and impetuous behavior in a way that is hard not to love.

But most of all, I loved the story of Janet's search for self.  This is taken on all levels as she searches for love, respect, dignity, and faith.  In particular, her moment of transcendence as she experiences the Divine (on pp 352-353) is worthy of the greatest religious thinkers and is a stunning appearance in the context of a novel written for teens.

This is an ambitious work that stretches the traditional boundaries of Young Adult literature.  That the novel is also a respectful treatment of American Judaism and a well-researched piece of historical fiction is an added plus.

Hundred Percent by Karen Romano Young

It’s sixth grade and Tink and her friends find themselves caught in the middle of everything.  It’s the last year of elementary school and they are more than ready for middle school, but at the same time it scares them.

I’ll leave the synopsis at that as the book is less an adventure than a snapshot of a moment in time – the tweenest moment of tweendom.  The girls are dealing with the double whammy of puberty and mixed signals from their parents, teachers, and peers.  The boys are being similarly awkward.  It is, in sum, a pitch perfect capture of what sixth grade is like (and seemingly unchanged from my own so many decades ago).  Young does an amazing job of capturing authentically and beautifully the weird mix of knowledge and naivete. 

My complaint would be that this isn’t exactly new material and, lacking much of a plot, I’m not sure why the exercise is for.  Numerous Judy Blume books,  Alice in Between (from Phyllis Naylor’s Alice series), and Lauren Myracle’s Winnie series all come to mind.  I’m impressed with her ear and her empathy, but now I want it taken to a story as well.  That twelve year olds don’t get much opportunity for adventure, I’ll concede, but that doesn’t mean that I want to read about kids who don’t have any.  Yes, a stray reader might get a thrill out of a book where they can say “she’s just like me!” but that only goes so far.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Into White, by Randi Pink

Latoya hates everything about being black, from her name to her hair to her family.  Every chance she gets, she prays to Jesus that He will make her "anything but black." One day, He answers her prayer.  As one would expect, being white isn't a picnic for her either and, with some help from a guy she grows to like, she learns a lesson about valuing her blackness and herself.  So far, so as expected.

But Into White is much more than a fable about learning to love yourself.  It tackles all sorts of social issues:  from the obvious (interracial relations, profiling) to some less so (rape, peer pressure, spouse abuse).  Latoya's parents have a destructive relationship which Latoya dissects.  Her brother hides his genius brain in order to not attract bullying at school.  Latoya's boyfriend struggles with toeing the line between being "too black" and being an Oreo.  And Jesus keeps showing up in the strangest of places, from driving a stolen car to singing off-tune.

It's an eclectic book and reminded me of some of Kate DiCamillo's less lucid novels (Flora & Ullyses or The Tale of Despereux) or Libba Bray's books.  The difference is that Pink is tackling some serious material about race in her story.  The result is a tricky balance between silly and serious (the sudden and regular appearance of the Son of God is a useful device to get her out of tight corners).  The observations about race are not particularly novel (Spike Lee has made movies out of most of them), but in this format, they will reach a much younger demographic. Tackling both controversial topics and doing so in controversial ways is bound to offend lots of people.  Whether that was necessary and important is food for thought in itself.

The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis

Alex has always been a bit of an outcast, but after her sister is kidnapped and murdered, she seems even more off.  She's quiet and stealthy, and prone to sudden brutal acts of violence.  She’s the only person who doesn’t seem perturbed by the fact that her sister’s alleged assailant was found brutally murdered himself (shortly after being acquitted).

Jack has floated around from girl to girl.  Flat broke and afraid he’ll never amount to much, he’s stuck in a relationship of convenience with the hottest girl at school, which he ought to enjoy but doesn't.  Instead, he is drawn to Alex, who offers a mystery that he finds irresistible.

Peekay (“PK” = “preacher’s kid”) spends her senior year trying to prove to everyone that she isn’t as pure as folks would have her be.  In doing so, she finds herself in the middle of everything, trying to take care of people, but totally out of her depth.

The novel is set in some poor backwater where the kids float through school, hold drinking parties in the woods, and eventually graduate to minimum wage jobs, alcoholism, and meth addictions.  The manners are gruff, the language coarse, and very little in this dead-end life is pretty.  It’s a dark setting for a dark story.  Lots of rude language, sex, and drugs, never mind the violence, which is sudden and random.  I found it very depressing to read.

Poppy, by Mary Hooper

Poppy is making her way as best she can in service to the wealthy De Vere family.  In the back of her mind, she harbors a secret fantasy that she and the De Vere’s youngest son might have the starting spark of a romance.  Given the class differences, this seems unlikely in the current climate.

But the Great War is changing things.  Much of the staff (and the family itself) is enlisting or finding ways to serve the War effort.
While the idea had never occurred to her, Poppy (urged by a former teacher) enrolls in the Voluntary Aid Detachment to serve as a nurse.  It’s hard work, but not so different from being a maid and she takes to it.  Meanwhile, Poppy can’t help but notice that the War is changing social relationships as well, and she dares to hope that it could make a romance with the De Vere boy possible.

A well-researched story of WW I by an established writer of historical YA.  With the general absence of family and the independence that wartime brings, the book doesn’t have much of a YA feel, but it proves fascinating nonetheless.  Unfortunately, I found the romantic angle the least effective part of the story.  It serves a purpose (providing a dramatic arc in an otherwise slow-paced novel) but it really doesn't go anywhere.  While apparently not in the original plan, this story really needs a sequel to tie up all of the loose ends (and so, a sequel there will be!).  Poppy’s life is just beginning.  This first novel is fascinating, but slow reading.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Riding Freedom, by Pam Munoz Ryan

Based on a true story, Riding Freedom recounts the life of Charlotte Parkhurst, an orphan who disguised herself as a man and made a career in the 19th century as a stage coach driver.  Hearing of opportunities to own land out West, Charlotte migrated to California during the Gold Rush, becoming "One-Eyed Charley" and incidentally being the first women to vote -- illegally -- in the United States.

For young readers who love horses, there is plenty of great detail in the book to flip pages for.  As history, the subject matter is fascinating and includes many exciting anecdotes from her life.  But it is hard to know what is fact and what is fictional or embellished (although Ryan claims that she tried to hew as much as possible to facts of Charlotte's life).

Unfortunately, I found the storytelling rough and uneven.  Some of this is because Ryan has only anecdotes to work with, some of this is writing for a young audience, but one also suspects that Ryan found the transition from picture books (this is her first novel) difficult.  Her subsequent novels have substantially improved and are among the gems of middle reader literature.  The key problem with the weakness in this novel is that we never get to know much about our heroine.  That she is brave and smart is clear enough, but her feelings and thoughts are largely hidden (much as they apparently were in real life) -- it leaves a frustrating quantity of mysteries unanswered.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit, by Jaye Robin Brown

For Jo, there are two things that matter most:  her sexuality and her faith in Christ.  As the daughter of a successful radio preacher, her family's faith is often in the spotlight, but surprisingly she's been out about her homosexuality for some time.  That is, until her father asks her for a special favor: to keep it quiet for the next year.

Dad has just remarried and they are moving to his wife's home in a conservative small town.  He's concerned that, if Jo is out about being a lesbian, things will go badly for them in their new hometown.  She agrees out of loyalty to her father and because she will only be there for a year (it's her senior year at school so she'll soon move on).  It can't be that hard to keep a low profile, can it?

But keeping her promise becomes hard when she meets Mary Coulson, to whom she's attracted.  For a brief period, the two of them carry on a clandestine relationship, but Mary Coulson wants more.  She wants to come out loud and proud, with Jo by her side.  But how can Jo keep her promise to her father, keep her new girlfriend, and maintain her pride all at the same time?

There's only one subject I love to read about more than gender queer teens, and that is books about adolescent searches for faith.  Good books on teens and God are hard to find and one that combine both LGBT topics with religion (in a positive light) are near non-existent.  So, this is a special book.  More so, because the story itself is pretty good.

The other thing I really like about this book is its fairness.  In a book that features lesbians, Christians, and small-town folks, there's lots of opportunity for sloppy stereotypes.  Brown avoids that, treating Jo's sexuality and religious faith with respect and insight.  The fact that these two parts of her life could be at odds with each other is barely addressed (and mostly by peripheral characters).  And while there are a few antagonists to keep the story moving, for the most part, these are characters who interact respectfully and responsibly, providing a cast that I cared about and cared for.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Life After Juliet, by Shannon Lee Alexander

In this "companion" (or, more accurately, sequel) to Love and Other Unknown Variables, many characters return.  But it is the deceased Charlotte who casts the longest shadow.  Becca has never quite recovered from the loss of her friend and buries herself in reading to hold off the grief.

A school production of Romeo and Juliet and the affection of Max, the play's technical director gives Becca a chance to shine.  The opportunity is hard for her to grasp however and it takes much tougher love from jealous (but ultimately sensible) mean girl Darby to get her to start living.

Quirky and difficult to read, I haven't previously been much taken with Alexander's writing (I dumped Love and Other Unknown Variables without finishing it as I found it unreadable).  Her style is too cerebral and mature, her characters simply grown adults in adolescent bodies.  The epitome of rationality and lacking any of the impetuousness of youth or the urge to explore, the characters are "young adult" only in the minds of a writer's circle that have forgotten what it is like to be young.  The result is drab and boring -- a G-rated romance acted out by teens.

What made the sequel more readable than its predecessor is that Becca has room to grow and shows us vulnerability that extends beyond her tendency to self-pity.  And Darby (who never really seems as mean as she's cracked up to be) comes out as an unusual and fascinating protagonist.  The two end up as self-described "allies" (but not quite friends) in testament to a nuanced relationship.  The other characters are similarly complex.  All of which is a way of saying that Alexander is a good writer, and seems destined to creating strong NA and adult literature -- just don't expect the YA experience here.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Run, by Kody Keplinger

Agnes is legally blind, but as she's grown up, she's seen plenty.  And from a lifetime in rural Kentucky, she knows that she doesn't want to end up stuck here.  But she doesn't stand much of a chance of doing so as long as her parents keep treating her as an invalid.

Bo is the bad girl that everyone loves to gossip about from a family that everyone (including Agnes) avoids.  She is wild and free and Agnes can't help but idolize her.  Despite their disparate backgrounds, they bond.

When Bo's world collapses and she decides she has to run away, Agnes can't help but join her and the two girls hit the road, searching for Bo's estranged father.  In alternating chapters (Bo's in the present and Agnes's in retrospect), the two girls recall the story of how they met and formed their bond, and what they learned on the road.

This is less a sisters-on-the-road story and more character study of how these two young women found companionship and freedom together.  While it took me a while to warm to them, by the end I found myself heavily invested in their relationship and their emotional and spiritual journey together.  In striking contrast to my usual complaint about these sorts of books, I actually wished for less action as the drama often seemed to interfere with the more interesting back story.

Read Me Like A Book, by Liz Kessler

Ashleigh has never seen much point to school and she’s spent most of her energy trying to get out of doing any work.  With her parents separating, she’s even less engaged than normal.  But a young female teacher inspires her and awakens a love for literature in Ashleigh.  She finds herself caring about her homework which presages a turnaround in Ashleigh's life.  But is there something more behind her desire to please her teacher?

Ashleigh has far more questions than answers.  Kessler doesn't have much of a direction in her novel.  Instead, she basically lets Ashleigh stumble through bad relationships and friendships that run hot and cold, searching for something much more.  The fact that Ashleigh does in fact pull her life more or less together is what makes the story work.  Rather than achieve a true dramatic arc, we are presented with a slice in Ashleigh’s evolving life, watching her drift from one situation to another.  The result is something more of a character study than a story but Ashleigh's strength will inspire readers.