Archive for the ‘ Young Adult ’ Category

REVIEW: “Thinking Straight” by Robin Reardon

Thinking Straight

Robin Reardon
Kensington Books, 2008


Finished 12 Jun 2010

I initially started this book with a hefty dose of skepticism, I will confess. After The God Box, I’ve learned to treat YA novels involving homosexuality and religion with some caution, lest they attempt to beat me around the head with a message I already agree with. Me and message fiction, we tend to not get along so well.

However, I am pleased to say I think Robin Reardon pulled it off beautifully in Thinking Straight. The novel revolves around Taylor Adams, a young Christian teen who also happens to be gay. His parents are, predictably, completely horrified when he eventually comes out to them, so they ship him off to a local camp called Straight to God, where the leaders promise to pray away the gay – and any other problems the teens sent to them might have, including drugs, drinking and premarital sex. Taylor is forced to leave his new boyfriend, Will, and spend six weeks in a world full of teenagers who are, to put it frankly, screwed up, both by their own problems and by the supposed ‘cure’ they have to endure.

Taylor is an amazing character. He’s confident, intelligent and loyal to a fault. His voice comes vividly off the page and I quickly became engrossed in his struggles to hold onto who he was without endangering his future with Will and his love of God. If you’ve read my About page, you’ll know that I am an atheist. And, truth be told, I did find some of the religious aspects of the novel cloying. However, the best part of it was that 90% of the time, Taylor was right there with me, fighting back, arguing and making his own way through an extremely frightening situation with strength and grace. While I did not always agree with him, I did find his philosophy one I could accept and even respect, which made it much easier to cheer him on.

I did find him a little too good to be true in some aspects; perhaps a little too mature for his age, too sure of himself. The same with some of the other characters. However, Reardon seemed to be aware of this and managed to temper it before it became too annoying. I also found the use of “IM” terminology and acronyms jolting. Perhaps I am simply out of touch, since I am no longer a teenager, but I didn’t recognise half of them and found it irritating to have them explained to me every couple of pages. This was probably part of the narrative voice, but I think it would have been easier to stick to a few fairly obvious ones and/or leave them out altogether. Most people, as far as I know, do not typically use them in their everyday speech.

The supporting characters were believable and endearing in their own right, even (some of) the antagonists, and I found it interesting that Reardon chose to make Taylor an unreliable narrator in some respects, imputing different motives to their actions than was later revealed to be the case. While I am not entirely sure I buy that so many people could be covertly working towards the same goals without knowing it (it felt somewhat convenient), I did like the complexity and depth that they developed as characters. It underscored the main theme of the novel as well, which was generally about the assumptions we make about others and the reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily take our knee-jerk response as the truth.

With regards to the main ‘message’ of the novel, what helped this succeed for me was the fact that Reardon built a framework in the story itself which made the occasionally preachy passages about homosexuality and acceptance less of an “here we go again,” eye-rolling speech to the choir and more a part of the evolution of the story. Taylor’s personal growth, and the growth of those around him, was quite fascinating to watch, and I think got the point across very effectively. I’m not sure I quite liked the (spoiler!) part about the abusive pastor – it was well done, but it still felt like a bit of a cliche, albeit one I wasn’t expecting. That combined with the unexpectedly explicit sexual content struck me as a little too mature for the age level of the characters (and readers!), and I kind of felt the relationship between Taylor and Will was a little too rushed to be believable. However, none of these problems really detracted from the overall enjoyment of the novel.

One of my favourite books as a young adult was Fleur Beale’s I Am Not Esther, a story about a teenage girl in a very similar environment. She gets sent to live with her aunt and uncle, who are part of a religious cult and do everything they can to take away her identity and make her ‘obedient,’ including give her a new name – Esther. While Straight to God didn’t go that far with Taylor, there was always a sense that they wouldn’t be above it. Reardon did a great job conveying the helplessness and paranoia that a young person might feel when put into a situation they literally cannot escape from. There is a darkness underlying the apparent love and acceptance in the camp which is slowly unfolded throughout the story; I was honestly scared for him a lot of the time, which shows how caught up in things I became! And my inner writer was very satisfied with the way all of the elements worked in together.

Ultimately a very endearing book. I don’t necessarily agree with all the points raised, but it clearly has good intentions and carries it off well. Definitely recommended.




REVIEW: “What Happened to Lani Garver” by Carol Plum-Ucci

What Happened to Lani Garver

Carol Plum-Ucci
Harcourt Inc., 2002


Finished 10 June 2010

What Happened to Lani Garver is a very complicated novel, so I suppose it’s only fitting that my response to it was equally complicated. The story revolves around the internal and external struggles of Claire, a cancer survivor in her last year of High School. Claire feels distanced from her friends by her illness, and is doing her best to pick up where she left off, but she can’t escape the fact that she is different — that there’s a darkness simmering under her pretty-cheerleader surface, struggling to come out. When newcomer Lani Garver comes to town, Claire’s reality starts breaking open. Lani is either a very feminine boy or a very masculine girl, nobody is sure which, and this ambiguity becomes the focus for so much anger and resentment in the people around him that Lani is ultimately swallowed up by it. But not before befriending Claire and helping her to find her own middle ground. And not before giving her – and the reader – the impression that he (as Lani is referred throughout the novel) might just be something more than a too-smart street kid of uncertain gender. He might just be a floating angel in disguise.

The main thing I took away from this book was a sense of deep disquiet at the extent to which people will go to keep their realities “convenient.” This is a recurring theme throughout the novel, and while at times I think it is a little too overdone – too bluntly stated – it certainly raises some very interesting points. Lani is the catalyst for Claire’s awakening, not only to parts of herself that she has been denying but also to the fact that she and the people around her have been looking at life through, if not rose-coloured glasses, then at the very least glasses which reduce things to problems they can deal with, rather than things they can’t explain. Lani, for example, becomes a perverted, drag-wearing gay kid who needs to be taught how to fit in, and by the climax of the novel they are so blinded by this conviction that they are driven to attempt to drown him. Only Claire looks beyond the convenient assumptions and prejudices to see who (or what) Lani really is.

The main thrust of the novel is therefore about tolerance, but it goes beyond merely “accepting” people for their differences and asks the reader to question the very basis of the assumptions they make about others and the world on a daily basis. We are presented with both sides of the story: Lani as Claire’s friend, innocent to the point of stupidity on some significant points, but blunt enough and crazy enough to see through a lot of human bullshit at the same time. On the other hand, we also see him as the others must have seen him; not quite normal, a little strange, not enough of one thing or another to decide what he is, let alone how to treat him — an unknown quantity and potential threat. Plum-Ucci plays on innate human fears of the unknown and unclassifiable, showing us what can happen when we are pushed out of our comfortable, known world and into a reality which is infinitely less convenient.

Coincidentally, I was recently talking to a friend of mine about boxes and labels, and how neither of us can understand why everyone is so intent on fitting everyone into them. This novel is pretty much my own objections writ large, and I enjoyed seeing things play out. I will say that the writing left something to be desired; there was a lot of repetition (especially of the word “spew” which was annoying) and some things felt a little flat, or a little too confusing. However, I found myself caring about the characters and became fully engaged in their struggles, to the point where I wanted to punch one of the characters (Macy) in the face a few times. Plum-Ucci has a gift for vivid characterisation and insight, which I very much enjoyed.

A very thought-provoking book, well worth a read for teens and adults alike.


REVIEW: “Saving Rafael” by Leslie Erika Wilson

Saving Rafael

Leslie Erika Wilson
Andersen Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 14 May 2010

I have to confess, I love books like this. Forbidden romance with a side of (inter)national conflict? Yes please. That said, I wasn’t entirely impressed with Saving Rafael in the beginning. It is a Young Adult novel, and you can definitely tell: the writing makes no attempt at artistry, it’s just pure storytelling, and at times it felt a little simplistic for me. However, I persevered, and after a few chapters I found myself unwillingly charmed by the characters and completely hooked by the vivid setting.

The book revolves around the life of Jenny Friedemann and her family in World War II Germany. The Friedemanns are ordinary people, close friends with their neighbours, the Jakobys,  who happen to be Jewish. As the jaws of war close over the country, however, anti-Semitic laws and restrictions make it harder and harder for them to maintain that friendship without putting themselves in serious danger. Then, in the midst of bombing raids and rationing, Jenny and Rafael Jakoby fall in love, and suddenly things get much harder. We follow them as they struggle to survive Nazi Berlin and – eventually – the labour camps, without losing each other or their hope for freedom.

As I said, initially I didn’t think much of the writing and figured this would be a quick and forgettable read. I was wrong. I was soon swept up in the danger of it all, rooting for the young couple as they faced each new challenge together. The novel has a refreshing approach to sex – matter of fact without being explicit – which I thought wonderful to see in YA fiction, and builds a believable picture of Berlin in those troubled times. I did feel that a few of the characters’ motivations were rather thin, and the ending annoyed me as it was somewhat melodramatic (followed by a complete anticlimax), but aside from these minor issues, it was a great read. Highly recommended for young history lovers who enjoy a bit of romance!


REVIEW: “A Kiss in Time” by Alex Finn

A Kiss in Time

Alex Finn
HarperTeen, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 12 May 2010

I seem to be getting a bit behind in my reviews, so I thought I really ought to write this one up today while I had the time. A Kiss in Time is essentially a retelling of Sleeping Beauty in a modern setting. The story follows Princess Talia of Euphrasia, a forgotten kingdom in long-ago Belgium, who pricks her finger on a spindle and falls into an enchanted sleep for three hundred years. She is finally awoken by Jack, a bratty American teenager who has wandered off from his tour group, and must learn to cope not only with the modern world but with the evil witch who is still stalking her every move.

Kiss alternates between Talia and Jack’s points of view, which can at times be a little annoying. So, too, are the characters themselves: Talia is very convincing as a spoiled, if well-intentioned princess, and Jack, as I said, is the quintessential brat-with-a-heart-of-gold. In spite of this, however, the story manages to be fresh and endearing. It is, of course, a love story, and in that sense is a little trite, but Flinn allows this to develop on its own time while focusing largely on the characters’ personal development, something I greatly appreciated. The supporting cast is also fantastically drawn, and I cheered along with them as they fought their way to the climax of the novel.

I will say that there were some things which felt a little artificial – Jack’s dad’s sudden change of heart at the end, for one thing – but this could perhaps be explained as Jack imputing more evil to his father’s motives than actually existed, and in spite of my reservations about the writing style I found myself quite charmed. Kiss is nothing if not sweet (the exact word I used was “cute”) and surprisingly uplifting in spite of tackling some weighty topics; the sort of book that warms the heart. I will look forward to reading more work from this author.


REVIEW: “Hero” by Perry Moore


Perry Moore
Doubleday, 2008

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge (mini)

Finished 13 April 2010

The moment I saw the synopsis for this novel I was pretty much hooked. As you all know, I’m more than a little addicted to graphic novels, particularly ones involving superheroes, so a novel about a gay superhero was just like – I have to read this! Now! And fortunately there was a copy in at the library, so I immediately went in and got it.

Thom Creed, the main character, has a number of secrets. Firstly, he has superpowers. Sort of. And secondly, he’s gay. He can’t tell anyone about either of these things – particularly not his father, a former legend who was rejected by the League of Heroes after a terrible tragedy. But when the League offers him a place on one of their teams, Thom faces a decision that will ultimately reshape his entire life and his opinion of himself into the bargain.

Unfortunately, while the premise is awesome, the execution falls far short of what one might desire. I will say that I enjoyed the book, more or less, mostly because the main character has a strong voice and very much engaged my sympathy. Plus I’m a sucker for superhero stories. However. There were several things that bothered me intensely about the novel from the beginning.

The writing itself was unappealing and choppy: I don’t expect much from YA novels these days but coherence is definitely top of the list, and I felt that Moore’s writing was a bit schizophrenic – it kept jumping from topic to topic without clear reason to, and he relied far too much on flashbacks (and telling, rather than showing) to get the back story across. I think one of the most common phrases in the whole novel was “I remember this one time…” I found it hard to keep my attention on what was actually happening because there seemed to be no rational thread to tie things together, and descriptions of any kind were thin on the ground, making it nearly impossible to visualise what was going on. I’m not asking for huge chunks of narration dedicated to their clothing or anything, but a little bit of scene setting goes a long way.

Another thing that bothered me was the misogyny. I’m prepared to admit that this may be me reading too much into a few throw-away one-liners, but every few chapters something would crop up in the narration that just plain made me uncomfortable. Granted, I suppose I’m not exactly the target audience and perhaps they were an attempt at humour that I just didn’t get, not being of the male persuasion, but I have to say for the most part I felt they were more spiteful or dismissive than funny. Not to mention every female character seemed to have something massively wrong with her personality, with the possible exception of Ruth, who (surprise) gets killed well before the climactic battle. As I said, perhaps my sexism-sensors are set on high at the moment, but it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth on that score.

Ultimately, I found it difficult to believe in the world Moore postulated, and the fact that many of the heroes were DC rip-offs didn’t help. The romance between Thom and the Dark Hero was well done, though, I will say. I may end up reading the other books in the series when they’re released, if only to see if things improve, because the idea really is epic. I just wish a better author had got hold of it first.


REVIEW: “Beating Heart” by A. M. Jenkins

Beating Heart

A. M. Jenkins
HarperTeen 2005

CHALLENGE(S): 2010 Challenge

Finished 28 Feb 2010

I picked up this book from a library display because it looked deliciously creepy. I love that cover, and I love ghost stories, particularly romantic ones.  From the blurb, it looked like this would be right up my alley:

She is a ghost: a figure glimpsed from the corner of your eye, a momentary chill, and a memory of secret kisses and hidden passion. He is 17 years old: Evan Calhoun, warm and alive, and ever since moving to this big abandoned house, he has dreamt of her. Ghost and boy fascinate each other–until her memories and his desire collide in a moment that changes them both.

Combining verse fragments with chiseled prose, A. M. Jenkins captures the compelling voice of a long–dead ghost and the perspective of a modern teen, twining mystery and romance in this evocative, sensual, and unrelentingly engrossing novel.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

In the first place, this is not about a ghost-human romance. He doesn’t even realize there is a ghost, he’s just fascinated by (a) the hot dreams he’s been having about her and (b) old news stories/photographs about her death. There’s pretty much no interaction beyond that.

Secondly, the poetry was, um…unique, and it did to some extent give the sense of a disconnected, ethereal narrator, but to be honest it came across as rather pretentious as well. I don’t mind small verses at the beginning of chapters and such, but in general I find verse to be rather off-putting in novels. It also made it feel rather insubstantial – I read the whole thing in an hour or two because there was a lot of wasted space so that the verses could be “formatted” in bizarre ways, so that sometimes there were only two to three words to a page. Minus points for wasting precious resources.

And finally, I was left feeling a little confused about the message of the book. Other reviewers seem to have felt bludgeoned by the anti-teen-sex message, while I felt the complete opposite; it seemed to me that the book treated sex and teenage relationships with respect and honesty. There never seemed to be any judgement about whether or not they should be physically intimate at that age (I think the protagonist was about seventeen). However, I can see how you might come to the opposite conclusion; the ghost girl dies because her illicit boyfriend smothers her accidentally while trying to keep her quiet and avoid discovery. A similar scenario is almost enacted by the modern protagonist and his girlfriend as well.

In all honesty, this seems very implausible to me and smacks of being contrived to fit the author’s agenda. I can only wonder why I didn’t spot it when I was reading the book. I guess I was simply not looking for it (and I got distracted by the irritating poetry). However, I’m not entirely sure whether I’m meant to get the idea that “all premarital sex is bad!” or “relationships based solely on sex end badly.” Hence the confusion.

It wasn’t altogether bad; the characters felt authentic, if unsympathetic, and as I said, I felt the treatment of teenage sexuality was refreshingly direct. A quick read, but an intellectual lightweight. Two stars from me.


REVIEW: “House of Dance” by Beth Kephart

House of Dance

Beth Kephart
HarperTeen 2008

CHALLENGE(S): Beth Kephart Challenge

Finished 14 Jan 2010

Since I am both a dance-lover and a Kephart convert after Undercover, I was looking forward to reading this book, and it did not disappoint. From the front flap:

“Rosie and her mother coexist in the same house as near strangers. Since Rosie’s father abandoned them years ago, her mother has accomplished her own disappearing act, spending more time with her boss than with Rosie. Now faced with losing her grandfather too, Rosie begins to visit him every day, traveling across town to his house, where she helps him place the things that matter most to him “In Trust.” As Rosie learns her grandfather’s story, she discovers the role music and motion have played in it. But like colors, memories fade. When Rosie stumbles into the House of Dance, she finally finds a way to restore the source of her grandfather’s greatest joy.”

There is definitely a great deal of joy in this book; I loved the way Kephart described the dancers and their movements, and her use of colour was, as usual, quite striking – almost like a painting come to life. However, I have to admit that I didn’t like Dance as much as I did Undercover.

I think this is partly because it didn’t entirely seem to end. Throughout the book you get the sense that it’s building up to something, which turns out to be the party Rosie throws for her grandfather at the end of the book. But we never get to hear about it, never get to read about the culmination of Rosie’s dance classes, what happened with Nick, and how her grandfather reacted to her gifts. I guess I felt a little cheated; while Kephart does something similar in Undercover, there it provided an emotional high point that nicely rounded out the novel, whereas here it just feels like somebody tore the last chapter out of the book.

In addition, I felt the same problems with this novel as I had with Nothing But Ghosts. It was wispy and distant, more like walking through a dream than anything else, and I felt the characters did not ring true for me or seem as strongly outlined as those in Undercover. I think Kephart’s style is such that the beauty of the writing overwhelms both story and characters, and while for some plots this works well, those which require sufficient external grounding to carry the story suffer from this lack of substance.

Not a bad novel: well written and and an interesting plot, but ultimately unsatisfying.