Friday, May 26, 2017

#famous, by Jilly Gagnon

When Rachel secretly takes a picture of her utterly gorgeous crush Kyle and sends it to her best friend Monique on Flit, it's all just innocent fun.  But then Monique reflits the picture to some friends and it ends up going completely viral.  Within a day, virtually everyone has seen the picture and her secret crush is not so secret anymore.  Yet she hasn't exchanged a word with him!  The stakes grow higher when a daytime talk host takes an interest and proposes a reality series starring Rachel and Kyle.  Is their attraction staged from a desire to become famous or is there something real between them?

The budding romance will come as no surprise, but the path to true love is particularly rough road and the unusually ambiguous ending make this story engrossing.  That's pretty much how the whole story goes:  fast-paced and comfortably predictable (without being boring as Gagnon shakes thing up).  It drags a bit towards the end but overall was an entertaining story.

While the story is strong, I found the characters to be very inconsistent.  There's a weird shifting back and forth between confidence and insecurity in them that seemed more driven by the demands of the story than any sort of real psychology and it didn't work for me.  And Rachel and Kyle are annoyingly whiny (there's only so many times I can hear them both complaining about being not worthy of each other).  Luckily, you can skim past those parts without impacting the enjoyment.

Beast, by Brie Spangler

Dylan is a big guy.  Fifteen years old, but well over six feet and almost 300 pounds.  Coach wants him for the football team and everyone assumes he must already be on the team.  Hairy as an animal, the kids at school call him “beast.” But no one cares that he’s intelligent, dreams of attending school in England on a Rhodes Scholarship, or that he misses his Dad.

That changes when he meets Jamie, a beautiful girl who for some crazy reason seems to actually like him!  Dylan can’t believe his luck.  But then Dylan’s friend JP points out the obvious thing that Dylan himself has missed all along:  Jamie is transsexual.  Dylan is initially horrified, but ultimately confused as, even knowing Jamie's sexual identity, Dylan finds that he really is still attracted to her.

And with that twist, the story proceeds into fascinating new territory, becoming more than a tale about a large boy who has trouble fitting in.  Like the novel's inspiration Beauty and the Beast, it is a love story about two outsiders who are flawed heroes. Dylan has a good heart but he’s no angel and the strain he goes through to reconcile his honest affection for Jamie with his revulsion at the thought that he might not be “straight” (or whatever loving “a girl with boy parts” actually means) makes for palpable drama.  

Further complicating matters (sometimes unnecessarily) are his helicopter mom and his conniving duplicitous best friend JP.  I say “unnecessarily” because while JP certainly contributes plenty of villainous plotting, this is not a story that really needs it.  Far more interesting is the relationship between Dylan and Jamie – which is touching in a combustible adolescent way, but also deftly deals with issues that grownups can’t offer much help on (despite Mom’s best efforts).

As more and more books about teens struggling with gender identity come out, there is definitely space for this new one that explores how a straight male teen adjusts to the idea of being attracted to a transsexual peer.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

How Not to Disappear, by Clare Furniss

A story of two women -- Hattie and Gloria.  Hattie is alone at home for the summer, feeling abandoned.  Her friends are elsewhere and even her Mum has gone off with her boyfriend.  And the timing couldn't be worse:  she’s pregnant and she doesn’t know what to do. 

Then a strange call comes.  Hattie, it seems, has a great aunt, who’s dying, suffering memory loss, and wants to see her.  Hattie doesn't really have any interest, but she's not doing anything else anyway, so she visits out of curiosity.  The initial meeting does not go well.

Gloria is maddening.  Messy, distracted, arrogant, and losing her memory, she is dismissive and rude to Hattie.  But as Hattie is about to leave, she utters some fateful words to the older woman and a strange bond is formed.  Gloria insists that she knows something that Hattie needs to know, but Gloria is reluctant to just blurt it out.  Instead, she asks Hattie to take her on a road trip.  Hattie, both intrigued and bored, agrees to take her.  During that trip, the story unfolds through flashbacks.

I liked the idea of this story of two women from different generations uncovering family secrets and seeing how their lives are intertwined.  I also like the depth of the characters and the scope of the story.  The overall tone was a bit more mature than I expect for a YA/NA novel, and I suspect it really isn't intended for teens.

I did find it uneven and drawn out.  As tends to happen for me, I enjoyed the historical flashbacks more than the contemporary scenes.  Gloria's story is far more interesting than Hattie's and the characters from the past more developed that Hattie's contemporaries.  The novel is long and might have benefited from paring down Hattie's contributions.  It also drags since it relies on Gloria’s reluctance to divulge her secrets, a behavior that starts to seem tedious after a while.

Optimists Die First, by Susin Nielsen

Since the accidental death of Petula’s younger sister, Petula has tried to game the risks in her life by anticipating every possible danger and always expecting the worst.  Pessimists, she argues, live longer than optimists.  No amount of arguing from her parents or counselors will dissuade her.  But she isn't just overly cautious, her behavior leads to paralyzing fears of change or novelty in her life.

Then she meets the "Bionic Man," Jacob, a guy with a prosthetic arm and a secret grief which is eating him just as much as hers.  And Petula finds that, as much as she tries to anticipate anything that can go wrong, she can’t control others or the leanings of her own heart.

On the surface, this story about a young woman with an anxiety disorder from Vancouver is strikingly similar to the last book I read.  But when you move beyond those surface items, the novels couldn’t be more different.  Nielsen’s book is more entertaining, but also more superficial.  Her characters are pleasant but not terribly deep.

Perhaps the contrast is best illustrated by the running gimmick that each author uses.  In 10 Things I Can See From Here, the protagonist Maeve is constantly drafting hypothetical obituaries, which underscore her fears of death, dying, and being left behind.  Here, it is Petula’s scrapbook of bizarre deaths (death from watering flowers, being crushed by a cow, etc.), which seems more intended to elicit laughter.  In the end, Petula’s phobia are easily resolved, while Maeve’s struggle with anxiety is more of a battle and that story ended with a note of unresolved hope.  Nielsen's optimism seems misplaced.

Friday, May 12, 2017

10 Things I Can See From Here, by Carrie Mac

People are always telling Maeve to “not stress things,” “relax,” “let it go,” and so on (she’s heard it all before!), but it never helps.  Since she was little, she’s always been worried.  And those worries have blossomed into full-blown panic attacks that leave her paralyzed.  Some tricks she’s developed (like sketching) can help her cope, but most of all, being home with her Mom does best.  So, things can’t be good when Mom decides to spend six months in Haiti and sends Maeve to live with her father.

Not that things there are going all that well anyway.  Her stepmom is expecting a new baby and insists (to Maeve’s panicked horror) that the baby needs to be born at home.  Dad is freaking out about becoming a Dad again and simultaneously falling off the wagon.  And Maeve misses her mother.  But there’s a ray of hope in the form of a girl named Salix, who’s a virtuoso on the violin, hot for Maeve, and a spirited positive counterpoint to Maeve’s doom and gloom.  While total opposites, the two girls hit it off in an awkward, but ultimately endearing relationship.  And somehow, everyone comes together in the end to sort out a multitude of misfit behaviors.

It’s nice to see LGBT literature become common enough that we can tackle other issues and not make the protagonist’s sexual orientation the sole issue.  Maeve’s panic disorders can be quite amusing (to an outsider), but I liked Mac’s sympathetic portrayal of how much she struggles with them.  And it provided a great dramatic device.  

There were a few random subplots (drug abuse, relationship violence, Mom’s woes in Haiti, Salix’s musical career) that I’m not sure added much to the overall story, but in general I liked the storytelling, mixing in of local color, the nice family dynamic, the presence of mature adults and realistically awkward teens, and the fun friendly neighbors.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Our Own Private Universe, by Robin Talley

When Aki and her best friend Lori go to Mexico to do a church-sponsored service project, they make a pact that this is the summer they will both hook up with someone.  But what Aki doesn't count on is that her partner would be Claudia, a girl from another church group. While she's considered herself bisexual, she's never given it much thought and the intensity of her feelings for another girl take her by surprise.

Neither Aki nor Claudia are ready to come out to their peers or to the adults (Aki's father is a pastor and Claudia's folks are wildly homophobic), so they sneak around, which only makes their longings more intense.  However, someone will eventually find out and, in any case, the trip will come to an end and the summer soon be over.  Neither girl wants to imagine what separating will be like, but to keep their relationship going, they will need to go public.

Meanwhile, Aki is discovering broader interests in her church's politics and the world.  Along with a boy in the group (for whom she occasionally also finds some attraction), she tries to interest her peers in various social issues, including helping the people of the village where they are working find better medical care.

Harlequin Teen continues to surprise me, publishing a line of very sophisticated and edgy YA books.  This one is quite steamy (more in keeping with the stereotype about their adult line), but it is far from formulaic and it probes interesting territory.  Aki is a rare beast in mainstream literature -- a young bi-sexual of color who is a devout Christian (there's all sorts of topic here that is actually never explored, as Talley has more interesting things to do in this novel).  Her father is a conservative African American minister (not a demographic known for its celebration of queer lifestyles) who surprises us by not becoming an antagonist. 

Talley's explicit but largely matter-of-fact lesbian sex scenes will raise a few eyebrows, but mostly for the endearing way she depicts the very realistic clumsiness of young lovers (although I found her inclusion of a discussion of safe sex to be clumsy in a not-so-good way).  I think the novel's detailed and honest depiction of two young women in love in a frank, but non-exploitative way, is a milestone.

I was less taken by Talley's reliance upon deception and deceit to move the story along.  Resolving most of the struggles and conflicts by simply having the antagonist reverse themselves by admitting that they were lying is a cheap trick.  Done once or twice, it would have been fine, but most of the resolution of the story relies upon admitting that there was never a problem in the first place.