Friday, January 31, 2020

When Reason Breaks, by Cindy L. Rodriguez

Ms. Diaz's class is studying the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  For two young women in the class, the poetry has a particular impact.  Goth girl Elizabeth is largely considered a troubled teen.  Abandoned by her father, she lashes out at everyone around her.  Her disturbing artistry gets her regularly sent to the counselor.  Sweet Emily, seemingly the antithesis of Elizabeth, struggles with an inner demon of depression.  Both girls, latching on to Dickinson's melancholy, apply it to their contemporary lives, which are seemingly falling part. By the end of the book, one of them will be lead to take their life.

Unfortunately, the suicide angle feels artificial.  Yes, obviously it  provides a direction to the story.  But once we get there, the writing falls apart with the narrative becoming disjointed and passive.

I didn't clue in until the afterward that the characters are amalgams of Dickinson or people who moved in her circle.  It helps to explain some of the more forced parts of the story. Unfortunately, it is more clever than enlightening or entertaining.  Which is pretty much my issue with the entire book.

Meet Me in Outer Space, by Melinda Grace

Edie has a cognitive disorder that causes her to mis-hear words.  In English, she can usually manage to figure sentences out in their context.  But in the French class she is taking, it is nearly impossible for her and she struggles.  She'd quit, but the class is crucial for her in her chosen career as a fashion designer and her plan to go to Paris to study this summer.

She needs a tutor and the class’s TA, Hudson offers to help her.  He obviously wants more from Edie but she resists getting involved.  Any sort of relationship is just going to complicate her life.  Still, Edie can’t deny that she is attracted to him.  But really what future can they have when she is planning to study in Paris?

Quirky and original story with strong characters.  Edie, despite the temptation that Hudson presents, is pretty steadfast in her dedication to her career goals.  I did find it rough and amateur, but there is raw talent here.  Finally, it got mislabeled as YA, when it is really NA, but young readers may not care (the characters are not terribly mature so the primary visible difference is that they live in dorms and not at home).

Have a Little Faith in Me, by Sonia Hartl

CeCe lost Ethan.  After succumbing to pressure from him to have sex, he decided to break things off.  He says he needs to re-connect with his faith and is going away to Summer Bible camp.  CeCe, whose faith in Jesus was never very strong, is convinced that by following him there and proving she can be a good Christian too, that she’ll win him back.  Her best friend and neighbor Paul tries to convince her that this is a very bad idea.  When he fails to do so, he announces that he’ll go too in order to help.

At camp, CeCe is definitely in over her head.  Her ideas clash repeatedly with the staff and the campers, but her biggest shock is finding that Ethan has a girlfriend at camp.  Desperate, she gets Paul to agree to pretend to be her new boyfriend and make Ethan jealous.  It works so well that CeCe and Paul discover they have feelings for each other.  It culminates in a stand off at a campfire confessional.

So far, so predictable.  I twitched quite a bit at the depiction of organized Christianity, but that’s pretty common with writers who want a group that’s still OK to trash.  But the great climactic fireside showdown occurs on page 185 and there are almost 150 MORE PAGES TO GO!!  What on earth are they going to do with the rest of the book?

The answer is to embark on a treatise about sex and consent.  The girls at the camp, shocked by what CeCe has endured launch into an extended dialogue about sexual mishaps, questions, and consent.  Much of it is fine and the material is sound, but it is so dense that it largely comes across as a textbook.

The book's popularity may be boosted by a pretty explicit sex scene at the end that the sex education material seems to be building up for.  It contains probably the most thorough by-the-book explicit consensual sexual encounter ever recorded in a YA (or any other) book.  And there is a stress on verbalized consent (i.e., implicit consent does not count so everything must be spoken aloud), which will raise eyebrows. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with teaching that good sex is consensual sex, but it has so little to do with the first half of the book that it felt like a hidden agenda.

It’s a little hard to review the book since it is really two books – one fiction and the other non-fiction.
The characters start as young people but largely become mouthpieces in the end.  CeCe and Paul get the best treatment, but that’s because they get to be the models for perfect sex.  In the first half of the novel, I found them much more interesting.  The end is a mess as the story shifts in several different directions, but finally gets the kids back home and into each other’s arms.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Call It What You Want, by Brigid Kemmerer

Rob lost everything when his Dad was caught embezzling money from his clients' investment accounts.  Most of their possessions were seized.  Rob became an outcast at school as everyone assumed he knew about it.  Meanwhile, his father escaped in his own way (with a failed suicide attempt that left him in a vegetative state).

Maegen got caught last year cheating on the SATs and caused an entire classroom's worth of exams to be invalidated.  But that scandal pales compared with her star older sister coming home from school pregnant and unsure about what she wants to do about it.  Maegan's family life has grown unbearable.

Both Rob and Maegan now lie at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but neither of them have any reason to associate with the other.  It takes a group project in Calculus to bring them together and help them discover that they have much in common.  One thing they have both come to understand is, as desperate as things seem for themselves, there are others who are in greater need.  They can make a difference by doing good deeds.  While they don't have track records for making good choices, now that are are trying to do so, they find that it is not so easy to know what is right.

A stirring and moving story of two flawed, but resilient young people.  Supported by complex and well developed supporting characters, Kemmerer has created a very strong story of love and loyalty.  Whether it's the sisterly bond between Maegan and her pregnant older sister, between Rob and his former best friend Conner, or even between the children and their parents, there's so much interesting stuff going on here.  And that doesn't even begin to touch on the complex dynamics between Rob and Maegan, who fluctuate between distrust, love, betrayal, and forgiveness in one of the more fascinating pas de deux in YA.  It's a wonderful thing to read a story where no one really acts to type and there's a believable surprise around every page turn.  I wasn't so hot on the plot twists at the end involving the scandal that got Rob's father in trouble, but that is a minor quibble for a novel when the characters themselves are so fascinating.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

True to Your Selfie, by Megan McCafferty

Twelve year-old Ella and popular IT girl Morgan aren't just taking seventh-grade by storm, they plan to achieve multi-platform global domination!  Morgan's got the vision: what they should wear, how they should act, what they should put on their website.  She's shaping the "brand" of Morgan & Ella.  But as the number of followers that the girls have start to rise, Ella finds that more and more she seems to merely be an accessory for Morgan's climb to fame.  And, as much as Ella would like to be famous on the socials, there are things about her old life she misses and opportunities she can see slipping away.

Fairly heavy-handed look at the allure of fame and fortune, from a middle schooler's perspective. It's largely over the top but the descriptions of social media will ring true enough to make any adult cringe.  In the end, Ella learns her powerful lessons about life, so the moral purpose of this fable is served, bu there are few surprises here.  Ella is not a character to really like as she spends most of the book making mistake after mistake, but she's real and one can't help but feel a bit sorry for her.

More successful for me was the entertaining and quick moving story.  It's a fun and breezy read.  It's not fine literature, but it's a good story, told well, with some satisfying lessons about being true to yourself (which is always a good message to drive home with middle schoolers).

[Disclaimer:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.  The book is scheduled for release on February 4th.]

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Haunting, by Lindsey Duga

Twelve year-old orphan Emily has a dream come true, when the wealthy Thorntons adopt her and take her away from the nasty orphanage to which she is consigned.  Life at her new home is a dream:  a huge manor house, fine food, pretty new dresses, and best of all she gets to keep her pet mutt Archie.  There's even an odd little girl named Kat who keeps suddenly appearing and disappearing, who shows Emily around the vast estate.

But then strange things start to happen:  thumps in the night, falling bookcases, exploding windows, and a brutal sudden chilly air that keeps reappearing.  What starts as oddities becomes life-threatening.  Emily and Archie must find out what haunts the place and how to rid it of its ghosts.

Extremely formulaic middle reader, full of all the usual suspects:  abused orphan, stepparents with secrets, gothic mysteries, ghosts, and that friendly canine companion.  For the target audience, the story's lack of ambition is probably fine, but this is one of hundreds of similar books and I don't see how this one is going to stand out in any remarkable way.

Disclaimer:  I recieved an ARC of this book from the publisher in return for an unbiased review.  The book is slated for release on February 4th.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Art of Breaking Things, by Laura Sibson

Skye is a promising young artist, probably on her way to a full-ride at art school, but she's grown indifferent to her success.  Getting high with her best friend Ben, she's drifted through school a party girl.  But two things startle her indifference:  Ben gets busted for drugs and her mother's ex-boyfriend Dan returns to their life.

Years ago, when Skye was ten, Dan molested her during a family camping trip.  Her oblivious mother never acknowledged the incident and Skye withdrew into drugs (the party girl was in fact just self-medicating).  She could manage things when Mom was no longer seeing Dan, but now Mom's talking about marrying him!  Skye can't deal. Especially not when she catches Dan grooming her younger sister Emma.

I'll get my big complaint about the story off my chest first:  a plot that rests precariously on a misunderstanding.  I hate hate hate when authors set up these entirely artificial conflicts.  The trauma and its extension over seven years rest entirely on Skye and her mother unwilling to find a way to communicate.  Given how wonderfully they do so in the end, I'm simply not buying it.  I get that trauma can silence a victim, but this is just made up.  And made up for the sole purpose of creating a story.

That complaint aside, I actually thought this was a well-written book.  The character relationships between Skye and her BFF Luisa, between Skye and her sister Emma, and all the little relationships with casual friends were complex, nuanced, and realistic.  I didn't find much of a flame in Skye and Ben's romance/friendship, but I also didn't find it an important part of the story (despite its placement front and center).  Skye herself is a bit of a screw up and makes some amazingly bad choices, but that mostly illustrates the corrosive nature of the trauma she's carry with her and she actually comes across as pretty tough.  Finally, the importance of art in her life felt very organic to her character and not just something tossed in.  Sibson shows some great writing and I look forward to her next novel.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Michigan vs the Boys, by Carrie S. Allen

Michigan had just learned that she was going to be this year's girl's hockey assistant captain when it is announced that the team is being shuttered because of budget cuts in the school district.  Michigan has to figure out some way to stay on the ice.  But in her small town in the Upper Peninsula what opportunities are there to play?

The obvious solution is to try out for the boy’s team.  But in her town, that doesn’t go down well.  She finds herself the target of discrimination (some subtle, some overt) and hazing.  As the threats and attacks grow more serious, Michigan has to ask herself how much getting to play is really worth it?

Full of lots of hockey action, fans of the sport will enjoy themselves. However, I’m fairly ignorant about hockey so most of the play-by-play went over my head.  As a story, I found the book gripping and engaging.  There’s some fairly intense scenes of violence, but that merely reinforces how tough Michigan is and how hard she has to fight.  The ultimate pay off at the end is, of course, very rewarding.

The Goodbye Summer, by Sarah Van Name

Caroline has a secret she can’t tell anyone:  she and her boyfriend Jake are going to run away at the end of the summer.  Sure, she’s going to just turn 17 in August, but Jake is already 18 and has figured the whole thing out!  They are young, but they are in love and that will be enough to get them through. Jake is her entire world now. Ever since she and Jake started dating, her friends have pretty much all drifted away.

But then Caroline meets Georgia.  Georgia has issues of her own (mostly dealing with her over-controlling parents) but the two girls find something in the other that they need.  As Caroline confides in Georgia the plans that she and Jake have, Georgia begs her to reconsider the plan.  Caroline pushes back, but even she realizes the craziness of her plans.  Always a pleaser, Caroline is faced with the dilemma of who she can afford to disappoint.

A well written but cringe worthy story.  I was disappointed that Van Name didn’t make more of an effort to depict Jake more appealing.  He really didn’t seem worth all the fuss.  Still, I sincerely believed Caroline’s struggles with making the right decision.  And it all just reminded me of how much it sucks to be young and immature.  I’d love to say that I don’t know anyone who was like this when they were her age, but the story is intimately familiar.  Faithful and authentic and heartbreaking.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Year We Fell From Space, by Amy Sarig King

Liberty's got a plan to redesign the constellations.  She's going to modernize them by asking people to look at unlabeled star maps she creates and describe what shapes they see.  She thinks it will get people as excited about the stars as she is.  Every night, she goes out and creates the detailed maps.  One night, she witnesses a meteorite enter the atmosphere.  With devastating impact, it lands near her (an unbelievably rare event) shattering windows around the neighborhood.  But the damage is superficial and Liberty's home has already been destroyed when her father has moved out a few days before.

While this book could be seen as just another middle grade story about divorce, it's significantly more complicated.  Liberty and her father both suffer from depression.  Her younger sister and her mother have emotional issues of their own.  And, as a result,  no one is an entirely reliable narrator.  The resulting insightful tale takes a very honest look at the dissolution of marriage and redefinition of family in a way that all ages will understand.  Hardly just "adult talk," Liberty observes, each of them (parents and children) have a "quarter share in the divorce."

I really liked this novel.  It is a very well-trod topic and hardly one that would seem to need a new treatment, but King has a gentle way of handling what Liberty calls "irrational" behavior as her characters (both children and adult) behave in authentically imperfect ways.  And the message that reflection, communication, and (ultimately) forgiveness is crucial for all of us is uplifting.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Dear Sweet Pea, by Julie Murphy

Sweet Pea’s parents are getting a divorce.  Their “perfect solution" is that her Dad has bought a house on the same street (just two houses down).  The two houses are nearly identical and they fill them with matching furniture.  Her parents want her to have a “mirror” home, so that whether she’s staying with Mom or Dad, she pretty much has the same space.  But it just seems creepy to Sweet Pea and she would much rather that they all just stayed together in the first place.

Between these two houses lives Miss Flora Mae – an eccentric old lady who authors a local agony aunt column.  She hires Sweet Pea to handle her mail when she has to go away for a few weeks.  While Sweet Pea is only supposed to bundle up letters and forward them, she succumbs to the temptation to read and answer a few of them for herself.  Those actions have consequences.

A lovely middle reader from the author of NA stand-outs Dumplin’ and Puddin’.  Sweet Pea is basically a little sister to the heroines of those books – full of resourcefulness and a bit of mischief, but with a heart of gold.  It’s rare for an author to manage success in different genres, but Murphy does so with aplomb, dialing down her style for a tween audience.  And while she pulls out some well-trod topics (divorce and friends outgrowing each other), she gives them a nice original (Texan) flavor.  A fun and enjoyable read.

How to Make Friends With the Dark, by Kathleen Glasgow

Sixteen year-old Tiger has a typically turbulent relationship with her overly protective mother.  But as much as she resents her mother's clingy behavior, she is devastated when her mother suddenly dies.  Without another parent or any near relatives, Tiger is in for an even greater shock as she is shunted into the foster care world. Overwhelmed by grief, Tiger must learn to navigate an alien world without roots and without a home.

A brutal story about grief. It's vivid and realistic, but ultimately numbing in its length and breadth.  The good news is that it ends well, but for anyone who finds that they can take grief in only small doses, this is not a good read.  It will suck you down into a very dark place alongside its heroine.  Only in the end do things start to look up and this, surprisingly, is the least authentic part of the book.  For masochists only!

Friday, January 03, 2020

Forward Me Back to You, by Mitali Perkins

Robin is drifting, not really sure what he wants to do with his life. He feels rootless.  Adopted, he wonders why his Indian birth mother gave him away.  Kat, on the other hand, knows exactly what she's running from:  a boy at her school who attacked her.  She's a fighter (a fact which actually saved her during the assault) but the school's turned against her and she's come to stay with a friend of her martial arts trainer in Boston.

Fairly soon after arriving, Robin and Kat learn of a unique opportunity to spend the summer in Kolkata, working at an organization that rescues children from sex traffickers.  Robin realizes this might be a chance to search for his birth mother and make peace with his past.  For Kat, it is a dream of sharing her knowledge of self-defense with other girls who have suffered from the hands of men.  But once Robin and Kat reach Kolkata, they realize how far out of their depth they are.

A unique story of young people who are struggling with their past and find that what they really need is so much different from what they thought.  They both start off arrogant, but they go through some humbling readjustments and eventually adapt.  The result is a satisfying story of growth and maturation.  The characters are distinct and have clear personalities (ranging from Kat's tendency to describe everyone she meets as animals to Robin's embrace of his Bengali heritage). In sum a well-developed story and strong characters are combined with the exotic locale and a true respect for Bengali culture (as well as a little comic relief) to created a readable and enjoyable adventure.