Sunday, April 30, 2017

Highly Illogical Behavior, by John Corey Whaley

Lisa is on a mission to write an amazing admission essay that will get her into the second-best psychology program in the country (she has pragmatically decided that she needs to shoot for something less than perfection).  The theme of the essay has to be about her personal experience with mental illness, and she know exactly what she will write about: Solomon Reed.

Three years ago, Lisa witnessed Sol having a panic attack that ended up with him in a public fountain.  In the aftermath, Solomon withdrew from school and isolated himself at home, afraid to go outside for fear of having more panic attacks.  With some research, Lisa tracks him down and manages to convince Sol's family to open up to her (although she doesn't tell them why she is suddenly interested in being friends with Sol).

Their contact is tentative at first, but she wins his trust and a real friendship develops between them.  Mostly to reassure her boyfriend that her interest in Sol is platonic, Lisa invites her boyfriend to meet Sol and it turns out that the two boys have a lot of similar interests.  The flourishing of that friendship complicates issues as the boyfriend threatens to expose Lisa's exploitation of Sol.  It also triggers Lisa's insecurity and jealousy as the boys' friendship seems to become romantic.

While the ultimate fallout from Lisa's ill-advised foray into amateur psychotherapy is not much of a surprise, the story is kept fresh by its characters.  Certainly, the three protagonists have a complicated and interesting dynamic going on, but the strong cast of supporting characters also deserves special mention.

Character, Driven, by David Lubar

Told in a rambling and light-hearted way, Character, Driven is a story ostensibly about Cliff Sparks's misadventures in love (or, at the very least, his search for a girl who won't mind having Cliff touch her).  And while the narrator is funny and the recollection often quite hilarious, there is an odd tension in this novel between that lightness and the series of grim events that are being recalled.  The ending of the book (previews and forthshadowing aside) takes a particularly dark turn, but throughout there are actions (including suicide, assault, child abuse, infant and parental death, and drug trafficking) seemingly at odds with the humor that permeates the story.

At its heart, the novel is an insightful look at boyhood.  Lubar does a good job bringing in the usual tropes of horny adolescence, but adding some sensitivity to Cliff (and balancing it by giving the girls a chance to have some agency of their own).  Likewise, Lubar does a decent job giving the adults a more nuanced depiction.  However, when it comes to the character-driven nature of the book, this is all about Cliff, no matter what else goes on in the story.  And given that Cliff ultimately turns out to be an unreliable narrator, we are left with the frustration of not being entirely sure what actually happened in the story.  This makes it hard to really summarize the story.

I enjoyed reading the book because it was funny (even if the subject matter suggests otherwise) and because I think Lubar (through Cliff's voice) made some wonderful observations, but I'm not really sure what it was all about.

A List of Cages, by Robin Roe

Julian and Adam met years ago when Adam was a fifth-grader with ADHD helping kindergartner Julian with his reading.  When Julian's parents died around that time, it was Adam's mom who took Julian in for a while (until Julian's uncle took him away).

Reunited seven years later in Adam's senior year, Adam takes a strong protective interest in Julian.  He's suspicious that something is not right about how Julian is living (Julian skips classes and hides out in a secret safe place at school during the day).  But as Adam pushes harder to break through Julian's secrets, he plunges both of them into great danger.

A novel that works best because of its unusual pairing of the two boys -- split by age, but bonding over their developmental issues.  It's a complex relationship that balances the friendship of Julian and Adam, with Adam's friendships with his peers -- a multidimensional dynamic that Roe handles well.

I felt she didn't do quite as good of a job with the storytelling.  Roe leaves many of the threads unresolved -- a decision that sometimes works, but not always.  For example, I thought the romance between Adam and Emerald was frustratingly vague.  And the creepy uncle character seemed gratuitous.  It's a good case of less-is-more: as a villain, he casts a long shadow and his actual appearances in the story add little.  Finally (and most surprisingly), while we see how both boys have imprisoned themselves in their respective "cages," their escape from those bonds are left unexplored.

The Serpent King, by Jeff Zenter

Dill is the son of a defrocked Pentecostal minister.  Once upon a time, his father led services that involved handling poisonous snakes and drinking poison, but now he languishes in jail and only spits venom at Dill.

Dill's friend Travis imagines himself as a character in a fantasy novel, carrying a long staff with him and pretending to be a wise warrior.  In real life, Travis is dodging an abusive father and the ghost of dead older brother.

In comparison, their mutual friend Lydia is a bright shining light.  Intelligent and vivacious, she tries to prod her two friends to look to a better future.  As for herself, she does well enough in school to have a shot at a good school and her popular fashion blog has gained her a nationwide following, which strains her friendship with the two boys.

When a fatal tragedy strikes, the survivors have to find a way to pull themselves together and move on.

A dreary story of dead-end dreams in rural Tennessee.  But while the story is depressing, the characters are vivid and full-bodied, which makes the reading tolerable.  There is a huge contrast between Lydia's surreal success and the struggles of her friends, but it actually works in Zentner's hands as, no matter how well she does, it is clear that she is just one step out of the swamp.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Don't Ever Change, by M. Beth Bloom

Eva wants to be a writer and she's well-regarded by her teacher, but he wants her to stick to things she knows about.  She doesn't agree:  it's not like she has a lot of life experience to draw upon!  He also points out that she might do better learning to be kinder to her fellow classmates during their peer reviews.

Partly to follow his advice, she branches out during the summer between high school and college, to attempt to broaden her experience.  While counseling at a summer day camp, she inspires a group of girls to write, and learns some lessons standing up for a bullied child. In this mix, she juggles two relationships and repairs her broken friendships.

Bloom has a very unique style.  The story is rooted in fairly floral prose, but the dialogue is snappy and colloquial, creating a clash of styles.  Add to this that the settings are a little unusual (for example, Eva meets her first romantic interest while they are sharing the bathroom).  I thought the novel was  choppy (very nice scenes were sometimes just dropped into the story, not so much because they added to the story, but seemingly simply because they were nice scenes) and often hard to follow.  I suspect that the story might have a bigger pay off with greater attention or a second read, but I generally don't like to work that hard with a book.

The Truth of Right Now, by Kara Lee Corthron

Lily is recovering from the scandal surrounding her affair with a teacher last year, and shame and embarrassment separate her from her peers.  Dari is a new kid and one of the few African American students at the school.  This would be more than enough to make him an outcast, but his attitude and anger make it harder for him to ingratiate himself.

The two of them fall for each other.  But their bond is threatened by Dari’s abusive father, kids at school, and the institutionalized racism around them.  A tragic ending, worthy of Shakespeare, culminates a story which is strikingly authentic and true to its characters.

Corthron is a refreshing new voice in YA literature.  Her ability to revisit tropes and eke modernized truth out of them is breathtaking.  And the characters are amazing.  In a short span of pages, she is able to fill out both her major and supporting characters with great depth.  Of the majors, Dari is the most sympathetic but both him and Lily are full of good and bad traits, prone to real faults and failures.  They feel real in a fresh way.  Now, Corthron has an agenda about police violence, but she approaches it with a light touch and integrates it into her overall themes of honesty, change, and coming to terms with who we are.  In all, I think this is an outstanding novel and one of the best I've read in a long time.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Drag Teen, by Jeffery Self

JT hates living in Clearwater FL and working at his Dad's gas station.  But unless he can come up with a way to pay for college, that is where he'll be stuck.  He's tried every idea for a scholarship except one:  Miss Drag Teen -- a beauty contest in New York City for young drag queens.  JT's boyfriend thinks he'd be perfect as JT loves drag.  But after a humiliating prior experience at a school talent show, JT isn't sure he can do it (or that he has any talent for it).

But his boyfriend and his friend Heather convince JT to apply and soon they are on the road, heading north.  On the way, they have various adventures, meeting an old drag queen and a faded Country Music star, both with wisdom to offer.  And the fun continues in New York as they face various challenges in the city.

A fun little story about self-discovery.  For better or worse, it takes the subject matter largely for granted (I suppose we have gotten to the point where gay teens and transvestite teens can be considered common).  That allows us to skip over any need to explain or justify adolescent drag and move into JT's personal character weaknesses.  That avoids some awkward scenes, but also creates an unrealistically cheery view of the lifestyle.

What did get grating was the incredible coincidences that keep happening.  Self puts up a fairly significant number of close calls, from which the kids keep getting bailed out with relatively little impact.  And the ending is far too good to be true.  If you go with the idea that this is fantasy, then it all pretty much works, but I'm still a bit suspect of what feels like a whitewash.

Tell Us Something True, by Dana Reinhardt

River has made it through life by drifting along and relying on others to tell him what to do.  When his girlfriend dumps him (in the middle of Echo Park Lake) he has no clue how to get back home.  He’s the only person over sixteen in LA who doesn’t drive (and he doesn’t know how to use mass transit either)!  As with his life, he’s expected others to help him get around.

So, he walks home.  Along the way, he discovers a support group for troubled teens.  While his problem is a broken heart, the group just feels right to him.  And so he invents a story of addiction to explain his pain, and the group takes him in.  But River’s problems are of a different sort than theirs.  And he finds his lie a barrier to appreciating the intimacy that the group has to offer.

A brief and breezy new novel by Reinhardt.  She can be an uneven writer, but this is one of the better ones, with good character development and a moderately interesting story.  The developments are firmly pre-ordained but not drawn out and the pace brisk enough that we don’t mind taking the trip.  One thing I will certainly give her credit for is her ability to create realistic male characters who are not all snarky and crude.

Pushing Perfect, by Michelle Falkoff

All of her life, Kara has felt the pressure to be perfect.  When she has felt that her position was threatened she has had to take drastic measures (quitting her beloved swimming practices, shutting out friends, etc.),  So, when it seems she is about to fail the SATs, cutting off her hopes of getting into a decent school, she makes a terrible mistake.  And when an anonymous informant threatens to expose her secret, she is blackmailed into participating in a local drug smuggling operation.  To her surprise, she finds that many of her friends are similarly ensnared.

A fairly breezy read that explores pressures of conformity and that old chestnut about finding the strength to admit your flaws to others.  Not a terribly deep work and the casual treatment of the themes suggests a book that will appeal to younger readers (as an up-to-date Nancy Drew-style mystery).  The ending is rushed and anti-climactic but there’s nice character development along the way and the kids are enjoyable.