Saturday, June 24, 2017

By Your Side, by Kasie West

On the night of the party where Autumn is finally going to get together with Jeff, she finds herself accidentally locked in the library.  Apparently this library has no panic doors or an alternative means to get out, so she is well and truly locked in. Worse, it's a holiday weekend and the place is going to be closed for the next three days.

She is not alone.  A boy named Dax from her school has snuck in to spend the night there.  She knows Dax, but he's a mystery (although plenty of rumors circulate around about him).  Predictably, their interactions start off awkwardly but blossom into something else during the term of their incarceration.  So far, so formulaic.  However, West throws in a big twist half-way through and springs the two from the library.  This complicates things as now Autumn must balance her previous infatuation with Jeff with her growing feelings for Dax.  Formula re-established!  There are also issues with Autumn's struggle with anxiety and Dax's reluctance to open up and commit to others.

All in all, fairly predictable and harmless.  There isn't much depth here and we don't really get into anyone's heads.  The adults are especially disposable, but even Autumn herself is a cypher.  A fluffy romance that stays reliably inside of expectations.

Wild Lily, by K. M. Peyton

Antony is a spoiled idle rich boy in 1920s England, who gets anything he wants, including an airplane of his own.  Lily can’t help but idolize him.  She’s far too young and from a lower class than him, so anything serious is off-limits.  But Antony can’t help but be amused by her devotion, and the power it gives him over her.  She's willing to do anything he asks.  When, chasing after a whim, he can't find a friend to parachute out of his plane, she overcomes all of her fears and agrees to do so.  But Antony’s carefree life is about to come to an abrupt end.  And when it does, and friends drift away, only Lily remains.

While initially focused on the Roaring Twenties, the novel traces Lily’s (and Antony's) life through the decades, where she never stops adoring her Antony.  The overall theme is of how Lily is rewarded with a good life,  even while Antony's falls into decline.  However, her limitless devotion seemed to me to ultimately be her undoing as well.

Billed as a coming-of-age story and shelved with the teen literature, this novel is really misclassified.  While a story of two people who never quite outgrow their childish fantasies, it is really about adults who look back at those years as the best of their wasted lives  The characters are hardly worthy of the attention.  Antony is self-centered and shallow, and we never get much reason to sympathize with Lily's love for him.  I kept waiting for Lily to really spread her wings, but Peyton shows no interest in how Lily might actually grow out of childhood (although apparently she does since she marries and raises a family without Antony).  Peyton herself comments that she felt Antony had wasted his life, which is hardly the thing to say to make us care about him (or to understand Lily’s behavior).

The way the story jumps through the adult years, one wonders if in fact it is the author who finds that the characters' nostalgia is the only thing of value to discuss. I kept hoping for some great lesson or wonderful moment to rise out of this, but the story never delivers.  Slow paced, with unsympathetic characters, and no great lessons to impart, this is a grave disappointment.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Just Another Girl, by Elizabeth Eulberg

Hope has always assumed that she and Brady (the boy next door) would become a couple and she's long been plotting the perfect moment for them to become official.  So when he falls for new girl Parker instead, Hope is crushed.  It disgusts her having to watch the two love birds, especially since Parker is so perfect and is always rubbing the fact in Hope's face!

But Parker's life is no where as nice as Hope imagines it.  Unbeknownst to Hope, Parker's family has come apart and she and her older sister have to scrape by on their own.  Parker is busy holding down and job and focusing on getting good enough grades to be able to get a scholarship to pay for college.  Parker is jealous of Hope, her perfect family, and carefree life.

Through alternating views, we see how the two girls are so wrapped up in their own woes that they have become blind to what the other is truly like. The idea of seeing the world through the eyes of your nemesis is a nice one, but the presentation was heavy handed.  Parker's issues are so serious and Hope's so trivial that it makes Hope seem shallow.  Granted, she redeems herself in the end, but it's hard to get attached to her.  And there are so many other rough spots:  the girls' BFFs (Lila and Madelyn) are throwaways, the Rube Goldberg Machine Club seemed like a charming subplot but didn't really cohere, and the mysterious disappearing parents (and the adults' response) is left unexplained.  The strangest part of all is the inconsistency between the counterpoising of their town as allegedly too small to keep secrets and the central role of secrets in explaining the misunderstandings.  Passable, but not outstanding.

Flower, by Elizabeth Craft and Shea Olsen

Charlotte knows that the women in her family have a history of making bad choices.  All of them got pregnant young and ended up sacrificing their dreams in search of love that never panned out.  She’s determined not to make the same mistake and has steadfastly focused on her studies, making all the right moves to end up at Stanford next fall.  But then she meets Tate and suddenly she’s finding herself willing to break those promises.  Suddenly, she can’t imagine not having him in her life.

The problem is that Tate is a world-famous celebrity and to be in a relationship with him means joining his high-flying world.  Charlotte feels she can manage it all, but Tate (still reeling from his own issues coping with fame) wants to protect her.  This leads him to switching impulsively hot and cold on the relationship,  and the couple have a series of break-ups and reconciliations.  Each time, Tate blames his behavior on his fears of hurting her and each time Charlotte forgives him, ready to throw it all away for him.

One of the things I’ve grown to enjoy is how much unlike an adult Harlequin romance, these Teen Harlequin books are…that is, until I read this one.  I wanted to like this book.  It was a fast-paced read and Charlotte seemed to have a good head on her shoulders.  After finishing the book, it is plain that she is just boy-dumb.  The first two or three times Tate tosses her aside, I was willing to forgive her for pining after him, but I kept waiting for her to gain some backbone.  Up until the second to last page, it seemed that she would really pull herself together, accept that there were plenty of other boys out there (many with less emotional baggage), and learn from it.  But in the end, she throws herself at him one more time.  Does anyone believe that he won’t treat her like crap again?!

I also disliked the fact that she kept lying to her family and her best friends.  None of that seemed responsible or like the behavior of a young woman with the good sense she is portrayed to have. In the end, how much can you care about a protagonist who makes the same mistakes again and again?  There’s lot of romance and I guess it’s supposed to be hot stuff, but it seemed more driven by lust than any sort of respectful loving relationship.  And it bored me.  Teen Harlequin:  go back to defying my expectations, rather than living down to our preconceptions of your corporate parent!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

We Are Okay, by Nina LaCour

Marin stays over during winter term break, all alone in her dorm.  In truth, she has no other place to go (no family to visit, and she hasn't exactly reached out and made friends during her first semester).  In a few days, an old friend Mabel will visit, but for the first days she has only herself and her memories.  Mabel's visit both excites her and terrifies her.  For the past few months, Marin has successfully blocked out her past and the pain she still feels from it (and alongside that ignored every text and voice mail that Mabel has sent her).  Mabel's arrival will change that and force Marin to deal with what she can't bring herself to address -- the loss of her family and the betrayal that it exposed.

A bittersweet story about loss and family, and (of course) rebirth and potential renewal.  It's very melancholy and downtrodden -- definitely, not a cheery read!  But if you enjoy a mood piece, quieter than a deserted snow-covered campus at Christmastime, then this is probably for you.  Marin is self-absorbed and one tires of her navel gazing, but it is appropriate for the story.  And the writing is gorgeous, as one would expect for the genre.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Crazy Messy Beautiful, by Carrie Arcos

Neruda is named after the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, but he bears little resemblance to the great poet of love.  Neruda the kid knows that he has no particular talent with words himself (although he is a fledgling artistic talent) and even less luck with girls.  He's tried to get someone to go out with him, but been rejected by all (as the novel begins, he's striking out again with the lovely Autumn Cho).  In his heart, he believes that everyone has a soulmate -- if only he could meet her!  His friends try to encourage him to keep trying but he is beginning to give up hope.

Then a class assignment pairs him up with his surly classroom neighbor Callie and, to Neruda's great surprise, something clicks between them.  In striking contrast to his previous struggles, everything comes easy and Neruda discovers that when love comes around it is entirely different than his prior struggles.  But this is not really a boy-meets-girl story.  Instead, Arcos has written a meditation on the commitment and struggle that exists in nurturing friendship and romance.  Neruda's idealism takes a pretty hard hit as the events around him giving him a hard lesson in the reality of love.

Arcos herself is a pleasant surprise.  Her fairly sparse novel finds many different ways to approach her topic:  not just Neruda and Callie, but also a period of marital discord between Neruda's parents, an effective series of reflections on the poetry and life of Neruda's namesake, and a bittersweet subplot about Neruda's friend (and ex-con) Ezra.  Some parts of the story didn't work for me (the nemesis Luis was a weak link and Neruda's dysgraphia was an underdeveloped idea) but I liked Arcos's originality and her bravery at trying out those new ideas.  And the ending, while completely unexpected, was perfect for the theme of the story.

After the Fall, by Kate Hart

Raychel has always been close to Matt.  When times have been tough, it was Matt she turned to.  At one time, she might have even wanted to date him.  But to her surprise, it is Matt’s brother Andrew for whom she ends up falling.  This is complicated, not just because Matt and her are so close, but also because of how much the boys' parents treat her like a member of the family. And with everything else going wrong around her (including conflict with her mother, financial woes, and a series of sexual assaults), Matt and Andrew’s family is an oasis for her – a rare place where she can find peace.  But an unexpected tragedy mid-way through the story flips everything on its head and the furtive secrecy becomes suddenly irrelevant.

Despite that rather busy-sounding synopsis, this is actually a pretty languid story.  Its most striking feature is the way that Hart tells the story, using Raychel and Matt’s flawed points of view.  Usually, the alternating narrator is a powerful dramatic tool when the best voice tells each part of the story.  Hart takes the opposite approach, using the device to show how badly Raychel and Matt misunderstand each other.  The effect is devastating and raises the already tragic events of their lives to a higher level of poignancy.

Beyond that, the characters and the plot are a bit of a mixed bag.  The grownups are notably relevant and vivid, offering both good and bad advice (and with the parents in particular having interesting dynamics with their children).  The other kids are less developed (Raychel has some good supportive friends, but I could never get into them and they seemed thin and undeveloped).  The story doesn’t add very much to the subject of interpersonal relations or consent, but has a comfortable authenticity to it that will resonate with readers.