Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Tragic Kind of Wonderful, by Eric Lindstrom

Mel struggles with bipolar disorder (a condition that runs in her family) and while her parents and her aunt recognize the symptoms, Mel keeps her friends largely in the dark.  So when her erratic behavior is misunderstood, her friends assume the worst and lash out.  Their response sends Mel into a spiral and triggers a breakdown.  The entire experience is told through Mel's eyes, so the reader is sent through a a frantic journey in Mel's psyche, documented by her in a journal that tracks self-check-ins of her emotional state.

In all, a well-thought-out exploration of bipolar disorder that allows us to experience what that must feel like.  For a rational person, that can make for tough reading as Mel behaves so erratically.  Lindstrom probably could have had a lot of fun making her an unreliable narrator as well, but he never falls for the temptation.  Instead, Mel's storytelling is remarkably lucid.

As a story, it's a fairly modest endeavor without much going on beyond a mental breakdown and some fairly unremarkable supporting characters -- the strength is really in the character-building of Mel.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Escaping Perfect, by Emma Harrison

Cecilia has been sheltered and hidden away from public view since surviving a kidnapping in second grade.  Protected by bodyguards and not allowed out of sight, she lives under the heavy hand of her mother, a powerful politician.  But when a chance comes for Cecilia to slip away, she grabs the opportunity and bolts.  Now, with little knowledge of how to survive on her own, she finds herself in a small Tennessee town, where she quickly makes friends and settles down.  But when a romantic triangle threatens to blow her cover, she must choose between the love of her life and her recently acquired freedom.

There are enough plot problems in this story that it doesn't bear much serious consideration, but the whole trip is glorious.  The characters are instantly relatable and the story is fun.  There's an awful lot of jealousy floating around and just enough PG romance scenes to keep things interesting.  It's escapist fun and adolescent romance, and that's about all one needs to know!  The ending is an unexpected cliffhanger, so we should presume that book two is on its way soon.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz

Kivali has been sent to CropCamp by her foster mother to get a camp cert and have a chance at a future.  She’s learning skills but suspects that the camp’s purpose is more mind control than actual education.  And she also finds that she likes the kickshaw that they take each week just a bit too much.  Meanwhile, she is trying to figure out if the Lizard Radio she hears in her head is what makes her so different from the other kids or if it is her sense of not belonging, of being neither one nor the other but both?

An utterly alien setting that claims to be about humans but takes place in a very alternate reality. Far more than a dystopian, Schmatz explores themes of non-conformity from the obvious (Kivali is transgendered) to more subtle questions of career choices and romantic decisions.  Young Adult books are always full of these things, but in this exotic and strange environment, the whole thing resonates more.

The novel's originality is also its primary weakness.  Full of original slang and jargon, the story can be hard to track as the lexicon is never explained (but instead has to be determined through context). The story is complicated enough without the additional struggle to understand the language (which simultaneously gives the book its unique flavor). There are multiple sections of the story that I simply didn’t understand.  That can grow frustrating.  Still I admire the originality and the ambition.


Fire Color One, by Jenny Valentine

When things get too hard for her, Iris starts a fire.  And, as she’s grown older, her fires have grown larger.  Seeking to avoid prosecution after Iris's latest, Mom spirits her back to London, which they left many years ago.  When their money runs out, Mom turns to Iris’s estranged father – a wealthy art dealer who is now (conveniently) dying.  He has but one final wish:  to see Iris.  And when Iris's mother reluctantly agrees to grant that wish, Iris learns that there is much more to him than she’s ever been told by her mother.

A brief story that actually carries itself more like a novella (not simply because of its brevity).  The tale relies largely on its surprise conclusion, which provides a decent payoff.  Beyond that, there isn’t a huge amount to it.  It’s a grown-up’s story with a protagonist that just happens to be an adolescent.

The characters are notably weak.  Iris has a boyfriend, but despite his centrality in her flashbacks and a brief appearance at the end, their relationship doesn’t play much import to the story itself.  The mother is pretty nasty, but beyond the tension that exists between her and Iris, even that doesn’t play much of a role.  And the rekindling of the relationship with the father – while core to the story – is told with detachment.  Iris herself is a cipher.  We don't see much inside of her and the process of the rekindling of her relationship with Dad is understated.  Even her pyromania is simply a characteristic and does not evolve or develop (one imagines that it is tied to the state of her relationships with her parents, but that is also a neglected storyline).

Friday, March 17, 2017

Love Blind, by C. Desir & Jolene Perry

Hailey has a list of fears, things she wants to overcome (like a fear of spiders). And when she does work through them, she crosses them off her list.  The most ominous fear of all might be that she is going slowly blind.  But the worst fear is really trusting others and allowing herself to fall in love.

Kyle is shy and tormented.  His only friend is a Russian boy (being homeschooled after a traumatic assault that Kyle witnessed – an event that Kyle can’t seem to move past).  Kyle cowers from his fears (his mother, bullies at school, and telling Hailey how much she means to him).  And while Hailey convinces him to start a fear list of his own, the two of them can’t seem to move past their shared fear to express what they feel for each other.

In a story that avoids cheesiness and becoming overly precious, Hailey and Kyle manage to long for and miss each other through the years.  The less-than-subtle irony of course is that Hailey’s macular degeneration is hardly the most significant way in which she suffers from blindness – both of them are tragically blind to each other.  But as heavy handed as that sounds, the story is actually much subtle.  The missed signals and the aching doubts and fears are surprisingly believable and uncontrived.  These are people who actually communicate well, are honest with themselves and each other, and yet never quite connect.  That they do so believably makes them all the more endearing.

One minor complaint is the accelerated pace of the ending.  The novel starts quite slowly but really speeds ahead in the end, covering months and months in a few pages and allowing major events to unfold without much development.  I get that the authors had little to say about the latter events, but it felt uneven.

Spurt, by Chris Miles

Jack is painfully aware of being the only boy in eighth grade who hasn’t started to show the effects of puberty.  He’s shorter and smaller, his voice hasn’t changed, and he’s definitely lacking the block-and-tackle and the hair to show for it.  His insecurity leads him to lie about his development (or lack thereof) to his friends to initially humorous results.  But his lies escalate and are exacerbated when a reality TV show profiles him and his alleged prowess.  Though a very lad-ish premise (the book is Aussie), the tone is very introspective – more Judy Blume (for boys) than John Green.

Jack’s obsession with body hair and having his testicles drop seems very alien to me.  Perhaps, boys today have such obsessions, but it largely seems made up (in my day, we worried more about size!).  The entire premise seems more of an effort to create a mythical boy’s version of body image anxiety.  It doesn’t play out true.  Moreover, it’s an idea in search of an audience.  Who is going to read this  (adolescent boys would be too embarrassed to do so and why would girls even care)?  The subject matter will make this a tough sell in the US for pre-adolecsents.

Jack didn’t win many points for me with his lack of veracity (constantly lying just isn’t that funny) and the really poor way he treats people (and girls in particular).  It’s nice that everyone forgives him in the end, but it didn't make me like him.  And there's only so many gross discussions about testicles and pubic hair that I can stomach.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Still Life With Tornado, by A. S. King

After experiencing a trauma in her art class, sixteen year-old Sarah decides to stop attending school.  She spends her day following a homeless artist around the streets of Philadelphia and hanging out in an abandoned former school building.  School is "unoriginal" and "nothing very happens there" but, in Sarah's world, lots of things are happening.  She's accompanied in her journey by her ten year-old self, her twenty-three year-old self, and even a forty year-old incarnation.  At first, she assumes that these manifestations are hallucinations, but others can see them.  Each Sarah has a role to play in calming the tornado that is Sarah's life.

The novel is also a story of Sarah's damaged family:  her abusive father, wounded mother, and exiled older brother.  They and Sarah come to rely on the wisdom that comes out of Sarah's "existential crisis."

My initial inclination was to discard this unusual and strange book, but I grew to like it more as it moved along.  While still prone to more navel gazing than necessary, I enjoyed the unusual character of Sarah (in all four of her forms). For me, the strong role played by Sarah's abused mother threatened to push the story out of the YA genre, but it ultimately fills out the details in a way that Sarah herself could never have done plausibly.  Dad and brother are less satisfying characters, but still believable.

The other notable feature of the story is the central focus on place.  The action is set largely in Philadelphia and Cancun, and both are described vividly, with a loving eye from a good observer.  Whether it's the claustrophobia of a Philly row house or the algae-infested Gulf off of the resort where Sarah's family stays, the settings resonate and play an active role in the story.  The overall result is a novel about abuse and recovery and manages largely to avoid actual depictions of either.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

The Haters, by Jesse Andrews

Wes and Corey can't believe that they were good enough to get a spot at Jazz Summer Camp, but then, that's probably because they actually aren't.  They find themselves relegated to the losers track, where they meet free-spirited rebel Ash who refuses to play in key with the ensemble.  Faced with the dismal possibility of two weeks of camp suckage, the three of them decide to blow off the camp and take their threesome on the road. 

That they can't really play isn't as important as getting their chops giving it a try.  And that they can't find a place to place (even when Ash tries to offer the venues money to let them play) is just a complication.  Persistence, dumb luck, and some close calls follow them on an exodus from Western Pennsylvania to New Orleans.

It's a boy book with a lot of spot-on language (i.e., the two boys spend a lot of time talking about their penises).  That can get really old fast, but Andrews seems to have the sense to pull back before it goes too far.  He also has the good sense to not try to do much with Ash's character (except to make her parrot the boys' crudeness).  That works, but leaves her a bit of a cipher.  What the story has in spades is humor and from the situations themselves (which are often scary freaky, but recalled with such levity that you can't help but chuckle) to the amazing snarky observations about music and musicians, there's a lot to enjoy in the book.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Learning to Swear in America, by Katie Kennedy

An asteroid is hurtling towards Earth, with the potential to cause serious damage, perhaps even exterminate the planet.  A group of American scientists working on the problem are about to have their ranks augmented by a young Russian whiz kid named Yuri.  Yuri's a brilliant specialist in anti-matter and all of seventeen years old.  He holds a doctorate and possesses all sorts of talents, but has never kissed a girl.

Enter a girl (Dovie) and her handicapped brother (Lennon) who cross paths with Yuri by chance.  And suddenly, while the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, Yuri finds time to sneak into Dovie's classes at her high school and even to take her to the prom!  All very cute and excruciatingly silly.  This is pretty much the tone of the book:  world crisis as seen through the alleged lens of an adolescent. In any case, you needn't worry your head about the science or even the Russian.  But yes, there's is some of the promised profanity in the book.

It's not a bad adventure, but the romantic angle doesn't click as well as it should (strikingly, Yuri's friendship with the little brother Lennon is actually much more fun).  The reason with the lack of fizz is easy enough to identify:  none of the characters really seemed that interesting.  Meanwhile, the ridiculousness of the situation was distracting for me.  It was a book that simply can't be taken too seriously:  a fluffy beach book, without the beach.

Lily and Dunkin, by Donna Gephart

Lily (or Tim, as Dad insists on calling her) wants desperately to start taking hormone blockers before it’s too late and puberty sets in.  Her sister, mother, and best friend Dare accept that she is a girl.  But her father is afraid that she’ll be subject to harassment (or worse) at school if she comes out.  And there is some justification for that fear.

Dunkin is new in town.  Big and tall, he’s still not used to his size or the way people treat him.  When some bullies recruit him for the basketball team, he appreciates being accepted into their group.  But he is torn between wanting to belong and not joining in their petty cruelty to others.  Most of all, he is afraid that they will find out about his mental illness.

Lily and Dunkin is a fairly busy middle reader that tackles not only transgender and mental illness issues, but also conservation.  It means well, but the field of books about transgendered pre-adolescents has become crowded.  While this is not a bad story, it doesn’t add much to the Canon.  It also suffers from being repetitive.  In contrast, the part of the novel dealing with Dunkin’s mental illness seemed fresh and insightful (and much more heartfelt).  As Gephart explains in the afterward, she has some skin in that game and it shows.  I would have put the focus on Dunkin rather than bringing in Lily’s story in the first place.