Friday, July 28, 2017

The Most Dangerous Thing, by Leanne Lieberman

Sydney has been struggling with depression for years and she feels that she finally has gotten the "fog" under control.  But when her lab partner Paul starts to show a romantic interest in her, her fears all return.  The attention is welcome and yet scary at the same.  Her instinct is the run away and hide, but yet she knows that she would like to have a boyfriend.

In the meantime, her sister is trying to stage a production of The Vagina Monologues at school and Syd can't imagine anything more embarrassing.  She understands her sister's fervor and even agrees that girls need to speak out for their rights.  But do they really need to be talking about sex and their girl parts, and using those words?  For Sydney, there is nothing more dangerous than the minefield of sexuality, especially her own.

At times pedantic about sex (and religion to a lesser extent), Lieberman's novel is at its strongest with Sydney herself and with illustrating her struggle with depression.  This is sensitive stuff and handled well, allowing Syd to have wishes and desires, yet feel restrained by all sorts of fears.  I loved the give and take between strength and vulnerability -- how she can be so terrified of Paul at one point, yet willing to come back and fight to overcome those fears.  The story would have been even better if Lieberman had let Sydney tell her story without so many adult voices intervening -- she's smart, interesting, and capable of expressing herself.  I wanted to hear more.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean, by Jenny Han

Lara Jean is almost done with high school and her plan to attend UVA with Peter is well on its way.  That is, until she is turned down.  Coming up with Plan B changes the picture greatly and Lara Jean, who always likes to have everything figured out, is surprised to find that new doors truly do open when old ones close.  Meanwhile, Dad and Trina are finally getting married, and older sister Margot is none too happy about the changes.

There isn't much of a theme to this conclusion of the To All the Boys I've Loved Before series, as much as a grand housekeeping and capstone of the tale.  As a way to once again experience the Song sisters and their family and friends, this is a delightful continuation of a well-loved series.  But as a literary work in its own right, it has little new to offer.

Still, I always enjoy Jenny Han's books.  She continues to be a master at depicting characters from different generations in a respectful and honest way.  Her kids are kids and her adults are adults.  No one is perfect, but no one is a straw man either.  The subplot involving the tensions between Trina and Margot is particularly noteworthy.  Truth be told, neither adult nor child behave well and Han just presents it warts and all.  In a similar vein, Lara Jean and Peter's relationship continues to evolve as it is stressed by their impending separation in crowd-pleasing, yet realistic ways.  In general, Han doesn't do dull or shallow characters, but instead populates her stories with people of all ages who are believable and interesting.

Sophie Someone, by Hayley Long

Sophie lives in Belgium and has a Flemish last name, but she speaks English and has faint memories of having come from England.  When she asks, her parents are vague about the details.  And there are other strange things too, like the way her parents claim she doesn't have a birth certificate or strangers who show up and know her Dad but call him by a different name.  Then one day, she comes across a woman on Facebook from England who claims to be her grandmother.  What she finds out causes her understanding of her family and her life to crumble.

It's a story full of loose ends which peter out maddeningly without much resolution.  Complicating the storytelling is an odd lexicon that Long uses, swapping dozens of words with others (e.g., "freckles" for friends, "boiled" for bad, ironically "trump" for truth, etc.).  This gets distracting and grating and is never really explained that well (there's some brief mention at the end about using a code to obscure the story).  Fewer concepts and gimmicks and more story would have made this a better read.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Alex & Eliza: A Love Story, by Melissa de la Cruz

Elizabeth Schuyler, the middle of three daughters of the well-established Upstate New York family,  has turned of marriageable age.  It is propitious time as the family has fallen on hard times since the British army destroyed their Saratoga estate and General Schuyler has been subject to court martial by General Washington.  Forging links with other families will be beneficial, especially in these uncertain times of war.

The story begins inauspiciously as Washington's trusted aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton comes bearing grave news and earns the immediate disdain of the Schuyler girls.  While he is charming, he has no real family or wealth and is an undesirable suitor. History, however, tell us it all ended up well in the end (for love at least) and de la Cruz's fictionalized re-telling of the courtship of Alex and Eliza imagines how it all came to pass.

Richly detailed, the author goes through great pains to provide the political background and social realities of life in the Colonies during the Revolutionary War.  That she lets some anachronisms and inaccuracies slip in seems more driven by a desire to make this trip enjoyable rather than errors on her part.  This is not history, but simply a delightful romance, set in eighteenth century parlors.  Less fortunately, I didn't actually find any of the characters compelling.  This is a shame because I would have enjoyed the romance more if I had bonded with Eliza or Alex., who instead seemed too stiff to really care about. Still, I was swept away by the setting and the story itself.  This is the kind of historical fiction that will make a reader more interested in history itself.

The Whole Thing Together, by Ann Brashares

Lila and Robert married and had three daughters together.  After they divorced, each of them remarried and had an additional child each with their second spouse – Sasha and Ray – who were born around the same time.  Now both seventeen, Sasha and Ray share the same half-sisters and even the same room at the beach house on Long Island.   

However, the antagonism between their once-joined mother and father keeps them forever separated.  As a result, they have never crossed paths.  But ironically, their shared blood ties link them together nonetheless in an intimate way that borders on incest.  Meanwhile, the artificial (and legally-driven) isolation of the two families – sharing space but never at the same time – obscures scars and wounds that only a tragedy can break open.

Ostensibly not a YA novel, this book gets picked up as such because of Brashares’s Traveling Pants series.  The most YA-ish part is the somewhat touching (but more than a little creepy love story) between Sasha and Ray.  But the novel is really about family and how blood lines and even living arrangements don’t define it.  It’s a moody and lyric work (and a bit hard to track at first, thanks to all of its characters), but a decent heartfelt story about divorce and its aftermath.  It's not a children's book.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Once and For All, by Sarah Dessen

Having a wedding planner for a mother can teach you a lot about weddings, but when it comes to love, Louna has only Ethan to go on.  And the brief and intense relationship with him could hardly be considered typical, in that it ended when Ethan was tragically killed in a school shooting.

It's hard to find anyone who can measure up to that. Louna has little interest in finding a replacement, especially not Ambrose, the entitled son of a client who comes to work weddings with them during the summer before college.  But, as one might predict, with time Louna comes to see Ambrose as a viable partner.

The release of a new Sarah Dessen novel is a Big Deal in the world of Young Adult literature.  As one of the most commercially successful (but critically overlooked) contemporary authors in the genre, getting a hold of her latest book is an Event.  She writes exceedingly well, but over time I have found her stories more and more formulaic.  There's only so far one can go with white suburban North Carolina girls just graduated from high school who meet maddeningly cryptic gentle and intelligent white boys with little or no family of their own in the picture.  She writes these girls well and always manages to include interesting quirks and ideas, but they are largely interchangeable.  The story about her doomed relationship with Ethan, the shooter victim, while way over-the-top as a concept, was actually the most original part of the story and more interesting that the rough and tumble of her thing with Ambrose.

In sum, it's an average Dessen book.  Not one of her best, but still so much better than almost anything else out there.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Get It Together, Delilah! by Erin Gough

Getting her father to take a vacation and stop moping around the Flywheel CafĂ© was Delilah’s genius plan.  He'd used managing their cafe in Sydney as an excuse to not get way but she assured him that they could manage for a few weeks without him.  So when their manager gets deported and Delilah has to start skipping school to take care of the business, she doesn’t have the heart to tell her Dad to come home.  He’s having so much fun traveling.  Besides, she can keep it going for a few more weeks.

But then her dad’s travels take him longer away and things start to go seriously wrong:  a competitor is driving them out of business (with the help of a disgruntled ex-employee), Delilah’s inability to cook or manage isn’t helping, and her hopeless crush on a beautiful Flamenco dancer isn’t going much better.  One disaster follows another and everything Delilah does seems to get them into a worse position.

Initially, I found Delilah’s character annoying.  Her decisions to skip school (driven more by her fear of bullying than the need to keep the restaurant going), lying to her father about what was happening at home, and generally avoiding confrontations was hard to admire.  It certainly gave her a lot of room to improve though, so there is lots of personal growth to observe.  Over time, Delilah improves and, in all fairness, her character flaws grow more endearing.  Beyond that, the oddball collection of characters was compelling enough to keep the story interesting.  A glossary of Aussie slang at the end of the book was interesting but largely unnecessary for reading and enjoying the story.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Literally, by Lucy Keating

Annabelle's senior year gets thrown off kilter when her parents announce that they are separating and putting the family's house up for sale.  At school, things are complicated.  There's a dreamy hot new boy who is perfect for Annabelle in all sorts of ways, but there's something about him that leaves Annabelle anxious.  Strikingly, she finds herself drawn to her brother's best friend instead.  With both boys interested in her, the result is a classic love triangle.  With all this drama and a number of friends who seem to play just minor bit parts in her life, Annabelle feels like she is a character in a YA book.

Which is when the story takes an unusual twist and the author, Lucy Keating shows up in Annabelle's writing class and tells her that she's only a character in a book!  Annabelle is crushed by this and ultimately resentful at having her family life destroyed in the name of creating a dramatic undercurrent to a novel.  Moreover, she resents Keating's designs to make Annabelle fall for the cute new guy when she doesn't really want to.  So, she decides to fight back!

Writers will often say that the characters write the story and that a well-developed protagonist will point the author in the direction a story should go.  And one of the classic pieces of advice you get in creative writing classes is to allow your creations to speak for themselves.  Keating has simply taken this to its logical (and absurd) conclusion:  a heroine who doesn't like the way the author is telling the story and rebels instead.

It's an impressive gimick which overshadows the rest of the story (which is largely a pretty run-of-the-mill YA romance).  I found the metaphysics of an author and their character in mortal combat to be confusing and muddy at times, but I enjoyed the originality.  Beyond that, there isn't much that this book wants to say.  Authors and aspiring authors will chuckle over a few wisecracks about the genre (e.g., the wasted sidekick, the aversion to bathroom scenes, etc.) and the idea is clever enough to carry the story.

The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli

Molly is seventeen and never been kissed, but not for lack of interest.  By her reckoning, she’s had crushes on twenty-six guys (only one of them was Lin Manuel), but never managed to even reach the point of rejection: they've never known about her interest.  But when her twin sister starts to date, Molly feels abandoned and longs even more for a love of her own.

Her sister tries to hook her up with a friend of her girlfriend and Molly is game to give it a try, but is she really interested or just trying to become attached to anyone?  At the same time, there’s a guy at work that she seems to click with, even if it shouldn’t work out at all.  Perhaps, one of them will be crush #27?  And how did she go from no one to a choice between two.  And is it really a choice or is she just throwing herself into something for the sake of not being left behind?

Albertalli starts off strong with lots of sharp and funny dialog, but when she depletes her ideas within the first fifty pages, I began to get worried.  Thankfully, within another fifty pages or so, the writing  picks that changes and the story recovers.  It all leads up to one of the most romantic scenes I’ve read in a while (about seventy pages before the end).  Personally, I would have ended the book on that high note, but the author doesn’t want to leave any unfinished business and, kudos to her, she just about wraps everything up by the end (perhaps too much so).

But while I think the pacing was uneven and the whole thing could have been wrapped sooner, there were lots of things that I liked.  It was great to have parents who were smart and in tune with their children (and called the kids on their bad choices).  I loved the relationship of the two sisters – we haven’t had a good book about siblings in a while.  It was nothing earthshattering, but it felt authentic and heartfelt.  I loved Molly’s reflections, which transcended the usual adolescent navel gazing and made a number of hard honest self-evaluations.  And I loved the relationship she finally settles into, which was direct and honest.