Friday, February 23, 2018

This is Not the End, by Chandler Baker

When you turn eighteen in this alternate reality drama, you receive a one-time opportunity to resurrect someone.  Only one person and only on your birthday.  Since her brother’s accident, which left him crippled, Lake has known what she was supposed to do.  She promised to resurrect her brother so he would be whole.  Despite the fact that he’s become mean and bitter, she’s been willing to uphold her promise.

That is, until the day that she survives a car accident but loses her best friend and her boyfriend.  Now, her choice has become more complicated.  Does she honor her promise to her brother (and her family) or does she pick one of her friends?  And if one of them, should it be or best friend or her boyfriend?  And in this decision, friendships are shattered and families divided.  Unable to find decent counsel, Lake finds herself turning to an outsider, a boy with only a fleeting connection to her life, but whose own life offers lessons for hers.

An intriguing (if somewhat implausible) premise that raises many ethical questions.  Baker’s heart isn’t really into those questions and the novel drags when she goes through the motions of exploring them.  The far more interesting parts of the book are spent on Lake’s journey towards acceptance of death.  This subject may or may not interest adolescents but it is the sort of thing that is an interesting topic for others – how youth processes death.

Much of the rest of the novel is predictable, but Baker throws in a serious twist in the last fifty pages that picked up the consequences and turns out to be pretty catastrophic for the storyline.  Much of the earlier conflict in the story gets sidelined.  The most glaring example of this is the sudden pacification between brother and sister that provided much of the interesting drive to the story.

Zenn Diagram, by Wendy Brant

Eva is a brilliant math tutor.  Her skill is based not only on her knowledge of the material, but also on her ability to see inside people and know what they are struggling with.  It doesn't come from pedagogical talent or unusual empathy, but rather from a supernatural sense.  When she touches a person or an object that they have touched, she feels the troubles that they are experiencing.  While this is helpful for tutoring, it makes any regular contact with other human beings uncomfortable.  And her social life has consequently suffered.  Her romantic life is non-existent.

And then she meets Zenn, who is everything a YA heartthrob should be:  cute, considerate, and mysterious.  But there's one more thing: she can actually touch him.  And that only starts the mystery, which will bring out family secrets and unresolved issues that are much greater than just a simple romance.

Given its centrality to the novel's story, the supernatural element is a surprisingly light touch.  Instead, this is really about the relationship between Eva and Zenn, and about their families.  It works quite well as a story.  Eva is engagingly candid and outspoken and she brings out a lot from her family and friends.  The result is a chemistry that Brant has lovingly crafted full of intelligent conversation between both kids with kids and kids with parents.  No deep thoughts, but a fine entertaining story.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Little & Lion, by Brandy Colbert

Little (Suzette) was sent away to boarding school a year ago after her older brother Lion(el) suffered a psychic break and was diagnosed as bipolar.  Returning home for the summer, she discovers that her old friends have turned against Lion in the meantime, despite the fact that he appears to be better.

Meanwhile, Little is suffering from issues of her own.  During the school year, she discovered that she had a romantic interest in her roommate. But when the relationship that the two girls are having is discovered and the pair are outed, Little panicked and abandoned her lover.  Now, she feels guilt over her betrayal that is compounded by her uncertainty over her sexuality.

Things are pushed to a crisis when Lion announces that he's going off his meds and then blackmails his sister to keep quiet about his intentions.  Little finds herself anxiously watching as Lion's condition worsens.

An interesting story combining several issues -- not only mental illness and sexual identity, but also biracial families. I found the result busy and felt that the many different threads never quite came together.  I also felt that the crisis between Lion and Little was contrived, never quite believing that Little had enough motivation to keep quiet as her brother suffered.  But at the same time, the characters were interesting and I cared about them, and I enjoyed their story.

You Don't Know Me But I Know You, by Rebecca Barrow

A basic story with just enough drama to let dialogue and development bloom. The plot, simple enough, is about what Audrey does when she discovers she is pregnant.  There's plenty of internal dialogue, external conversation (with boyfriend, with mother, with friends).  What there isn't is a lot of action.  It's a story about friendships and people discussing those bonds.  And it's a story that is calculated to allow as much opportunity for tears and laughter as it can.

In sum, this is a book about talking.  It hardly matters where these characters are or what they are supposed to be doing:  They like to talk (and occasionally rage).

Barrow's strength is obviously dialogue and all of the internal motivators that drive an authentic conversation.  Unfortunately, there's not a lot of variety in the voices.  Everyone pretty much sounds the same (a type of intellectual suburban lingo and manners that is devoid of time or place or gender).  So, while everyone was well-spoken, I found it hard to differentiate characters or to visualize them.  Characters occasionally drift into selfish and irrational behavior but in the end everyone makes up and plays nice.  That makes for a comfortable read, but not one in which you feel much investment.  Despite all the heart strings pulled, I didn't feel the emotional pull I expected from such a sensitive topic as teen pregnancy or the choice between adoption and abortion.

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Authentics, by Ahdi Nazemian

Daria and her friends call themselves "the authentics" -- kids keeping things real by being honest about who they are to themselves and to each other.  For Daria, that has meant embracing her identity as an Iranian-American living in Beverly Hills.  And while she is not as rich or as pretty as a "Persian princess" (at least, according to her former best friend Heidi), she is proud of her ethnic identity.

So when she discovers that she is in fact adopted and maybe not Persian at all, she is crushed.  She seems to belong nowhere and to no one. How can she possibly be true to herself?  But in the end, she comes to realize that identity and family are fluid concepts and not tied to a fixed idea.  One can be authentic without any sort of label.

Full of lots of fun observations about Southern California Iranians and some much more nuanced observations about ethnicity, family, and adoption, there's a lot swirling around in this book.  I could have lived without the fairy tale ending, but I enjoyed so many other things in this story:  the frankness and strength of Daria herself, the realistic tension between Daria and her mother, the exploration of adoption and how adoptive families compare with biological ones.  And, as already mentioned, I loved the peek into the culture of Iranian Americans.

Where the Stars Still Shine, by Trish Doller

Life for Callie always meant just her and her mother, on the run since Mom abducted her during a nasty custody battle.  But when Callie's mother is apprehended, Callie finds herself returned to her father and his family.  There contrasts are striking: a home, solid family life, and a chance to build a stable life. There's no denying that life is better with her Dad, but it's hard to enjoy it when Callie feels like she is being forced to reject her mother in the process.

The stability is alien to her.  Things like making friends, falling in love, and getting a job are unfamiliar.  Callie's father's large Greek family would be challenging for anyone, but is particularly smothering compared to the independence that Callie is accustomed with.  Still, it all has some appeal (and the presence of young smoldering Alex in particular!).

A breezy, but ultimately fulfilling read,  Callie is smart and caring.  She makes plenty of mistakes, but owns them and tries to make her life (and the lives of others) better.  Overall, the characters' struggles sounded real and behaved in believable fashion.  The potential pitfall of introducing a Big Greek Family is handled well, deftly avoiding the usual stereotypes.  The romance is hot and the ending a real tearjerker, so all the right notes are hit.

The novel doesn't break any major new ground -- children coming to terms with their parents' failures is a pretty common YA theme -- but it is well written and enjoyable to read.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Our Broken Pieces, by Sarah White

Everly has suffered from panic attacks since her best friend Elle betrayed her by hooking up with Everly's boyfriend Brady.  Worse, Elle has taken to making up stories to turn their former friends against Everly.  To cope with the stress and her anxiety, Everly has been seeing a psychologist.

One day, in the waiting room, she meets Gabe.  Gabe has issues of his own (coping with a sister who is bipolar and straining the bonds of their family) but he and Everly click in a more fundamental and romantic way.  And through Gabe's attentions and Everly's refocusing on her school extracurriculars, she finds a road to recovery.

A fairly lightweight examination of topics like depression and mental illness that could have easily gotten heavy.  That makes for pleasant reading, but doesn't really provide the heft and depth that the topics deserved.  And while the romance was pretty hot, I found the fairly frequent sex scenes gratuitous and trashy.

But most of all, I twitched at the foregone conclusion that the only true way for Everly to dig herself out of her sense of low self-worth is to find a new boyfriend.  That this final solution follows after explicit nods to the value of support from family and friends, as well as some searching for behavior modification through her counselor, just underscores the message that when you lose a boy, the only acceptable solution is to find a new one.  I would have found the story more uplifting if the climax of the story had not been Everly's promposal.