Friday, October 27, 2017

Ramona Blue, by Julie Murphy

Eulogy, Mississippi is the type of small town that young people get the heck out of.  But for Ramona, there are not a lot of options – her family lost their home to Hurricane Katrina, her parents separated, and now her older sister is pregnant.  It falls on Ramona to keep things together.  And getting out of town is not in the cards.

She can’t even figure out her own life.  She’s liked girls from the beginning, but after her girlfriend dumps her, Ramona finds herself attracted to her best guy friend Freddie.  What does that mean?  Is she going straight?  Becoming bisexual?  She doesn’t really know, but she fights attempts by the people around her to categorize her.

Just as she did for Dumplin’, Murphy has crafted a rich cast of characters who surprised me and a story with enough twists and turns to defy stereotypes about poverty, small towns, and the South.  It's a story about family, value, and taking big steps.  From believing in your heart that everything will truly work out in the end to being strong enough to leave Neverland (knowing that friends and family will always be there for you in the end no matter how flawed they may be).

Perfect Ten, by L. Philips

Since he broke up with Landon two years ago, Sam has been single.  Landon's the only other gay boy in his school, so they've stayed friends.  But it's frustrating how slim the pickings are!   When their mutual friend Meg suggests trying out a spell she's researched to create the perfect guy, Sam agrees to go along on a lark.  But he doesn't really believe in magic.

But afterwards, when not just one, but three perfect guys show up out of the woodwork, all bets are off.  There's Gus, an exotic, sexy, and horny French exchange student.  And Travis, the dangerous (but ultimately perfectly safe) rock star.  Finally, there's sweet Jamie the sensitive artist.  In a world of such amazing choices, Sam finds that perfection isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

A cute and readable story, albeit without much to teach us beyond the need to be less superficial.  There certainly is room in LGBT kidlit for some vapid romance, so this fills a gap nicely.  The kids are all pretty nice and the pacing is good.

My big complaint is that I didn't find the boys all that authentic -- far more like a girl's fantasy of what gay boys are like (my wife points out to me that there are plenty more male authors out there creating fake depictions of women than this and it's only fair play).  The guys are sweet and sensitive and it's nice that they aren't constantly posturing and talking about their cocks.  But it's not very realistic that they never do and their obsessive concern over each other's feelings is much more of a girl thing.  It could happen, but it's not plausible.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Alive, by Chandler Baker

When seventeen year-old Stella receives a much-needed heart transplant, she knows that there will be a long road to recovery. But she is not expecting the strange symptoms that have best her: an intense shooting pain every day at 5:08pm, visions of people around her suffering, and bloody hallucinations.  She’s reluctant to tell her doctors (they will just try to keep her at home and, anyway, they can’t find anything wrong with her), but it is growing harder to get through the day.

Besides, school has gotten interesting.  A sexy new arrival Levi is reciprocating her flirtations.  And while her friends don’t seem to trust him, she can’t help but notice that she feels physically better when he’s around.  She can't explain that, but could it be a bad thing?

Starting off in a fairly realistic vein as a surgery recovery story, I was pretty much on board with the whole romantic interest, jealous friends, and even some of the cat fighting scenes.  But the hallucinations/visions and violent imagery sort of jolted this story off kilter for me.  The fact that all the hallucinations clearly are such, made this part of the story less interesting or coherent.  Honestly, it seemed unnecessary, which is an odd thing to say about a horror novel.  Perhaps, it is wishful thinking on my part (I’m no fan of the genre), but I think we had a pretty good story without the supernatural stuff (which in any case wasn’t convincingly developed).

Saturday, October 14, 2017

I Believe In A Thing Called Love, by Maurene Goo

Desi is cursed when it comes to finding a boyfriend -- something embarrassing always seems to happen to her.  And when she meets Luca, it goes no better (in this case, she ends up accidentally flashing him).  But then she figures out the secret to winning in love -- follow the easy steps shown in Korean romantic dramas.

But can love really be created through melodrama and subterfuge?  Desi's determined to find out and, with a focused ambition that has made her the class valedictorian and is potentially sending her to Stanford, she's going to give it a good shot. 

I had never heard of a "K-drama" before so I love the idea of building a story around them.  Moreover, the story pays loving tribute to the genre by creating equivalents for all the absurd and over-the-top plot twists that the stories apparently rely upon.

But there's a creepiness to the story when taken at face value.  Desi literally endangers Luca's life on several occasions in order to gain his attention.  And despite Luca's attempt to point out that drama doesn't really relationships, the happy ending makes it clear that Goo thinks he's wrong.  And the author's late claim that Desi isn't defining herself by her ability to snag a boyfriend isn't very convincing.  Her's Dad's reminders that a boyfriend isn't everything is largely lost in the din of the plotting.  The story is intended to be humorous and perhaps it is better to just not read it seriously.

The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry

Provence in 1241 is still recovering from being besieged during Innocent III’s crusades.  It is a land wracked by fear of the power of the Church and its Dominican inquisitors.  And it is precisely the wrong place for a young woman named Dolssa to appear, claiming to be in direct communication with Christ and performing miracles wherever she goes.  Sentenced to be burned as a heretic, she escapes and is rescued by three sisters.  They themselves are struggling to get by but grow fond of Dolssa when she heals the youngest sister.  As one would expect, it all ends very badly.

A rich and well-written story.  As one would expect, there is a certain amount of anachronistic modern behavior among the largely independent young women, but it makes for good reading.  Dolssa remains a bit of a cypher, but Botille (the middle of the three sisters) is endearing.  I’m too familiar with the history to feel indignant about the injustices that Barry wants to illuminate, but I imagine that much of this will be new to young readers.  Still, the book’s purpose is to entertain and it certainly performs that function.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Saints and Misfits, by S. K. Ali

Janna’s world swirls around “saints” (girls who are too good to be true), “misfits” (girls like herself) and the “monster” Farooq (the boy who assaulted her).  And while she’s every bit a contemporary teenager, she knows she can’t out the monster, because he has such a pious reputation in the local Muslim community.  The fact that Janna herself is not a saint (she’s been crushing on a non-Muslim) doesn’t help matters.

The plot is nothing particularly remarkable -- mostly plodding through a few events in Janna's life like an Islamic knowledge competition and a very restrained romantic flirtation.  The conflict with the creepy monster pops up here and there but doesn't dominate (and actually seemed unnecessary to me).

The striking thing about this novel is not the story, but the character of Janna herself.  As a contemporary hajib-wearing American girl, she is a striking protagonist.  It’s far too easy to assume that wearing a hajib (or a more-restrictive naqib) is reactionary and thus the wearer must be as well, but Ali’s book challenges this, showing Janna to be a very normal American adolescent who finds covering her head empowering.  She’s articulate on this point and there is a fascinating aside about whether controlling who can see what is a form of empowerment.  Let's face it, there simply aren’t characters like this in books, let alone YA.  She is intelligent, sympathetic, and friendly – the sort of person you want as a friend – with an utterly normal social life.  Yet still a devout Muslim. 

That Ali shows how Muslim teens are normal is another plus of the story.  That they can be so and also be devout is another plus.  And if there’s anything that’s rarer than a positive portrayal of Islam, it’s a positive portrayal of religion in any form.  Here, religion is not a source of conflict but a source of support.  Even the restrictions on her dating choices is approached and handled with sensitivity far beyond the usual adult-child stalemate and hysterics so common in YA.

Waking in Time, by Angie Stanton

Abbi begins her freshman year at UW-Madison on a sad note.  Her grandmother has recently passed away and Abbi misses her horribly.  Otherwise, she settles in to her dorm Liz Waters and makes friends like normal, until one morning when she wakes up and finds the world has changed.  Somehow, she has traveled back in time to the year 1983.  Her roommate and friends have changed, but somehow everyone knows her.  And just as she is getting acclimated to the change, she wakes up to find herself back in 1970 and then again in 1961.  Each time, heading back ten-fifteen years or so.

But she is not alone.  There is Will who has been traveling the other direction, from 1927 towards the future.  And there is a professor at the University who may understand what is going on, although getting help from him will be challenging as he becomes younger and younger every time she meets him.  What becomes clear as her voyage unfolds is that it is being driven by unfinished business in her family's history.

A curious time travel tale that I admittedly enjoyed most of all because of its setting (it's sort of fun to read a book that takes place in a town I know very well)..  The pace of the story is brisk and the logic holes (usually quite glaring in this particular subgenre) are kept to a minimum.  The romance plays out a bit weird since it's in reverse for one of the characters so there isn't much heat to it (a similar problem befalls all of the character development outside of Abbi).  So, this isn't a memorable read, but it's still quite pleasant entertainment.