Kidd Ellison has the worst of lives. Away from the mental facility Horizons where he ended up after his mother killed herself (after she killed her abusive husband), he now lives in a tent on the beach, employed by Mr Red. In I Will Save You Matt de la Peña plays with narrative timelines as the reader has to figure out the links between Kidd and Olivia, Kidd and Mr Red, and especially Kidd and Devon, a guy Kidd met at Horizons but who now also turns up at the beach.
The book actually starts at the end of it all, when Kidd somehow pushes Devon off of a cliff, and then goes back to tell the entire story in flashback, memories, dreams and notebook entries (Kidd writes in his philosophy of life notebook). This disjointed chronology may throw you off at times, but it actually enhances the sense of desperation Kidd feels. The only thing this broken and vulnerable kid wants it to save Olivia, but when the mysterious Devon arrives and starts his devious schemes, everything Kidd wants is threatened. Even though you know from the start that something is up with Devon – there are clear hints throughout the book – I’m sure some readers will still be shocked at the ultimate twist at the end of the book.
I was a bit surprised to see this listed as a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, because it’s not exactly a “quick read”. On the contrary, it really does require some effort from the part of the reader. I don’t see my reluctant readers picking this up ‘quickly’. In any case, I Will Save You is a deeply moving and engaging book about a boy with an extremely troubled past and whose future is far from bright. Definitely one of the saddest books in a long time…(less)
Hailed as the next The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Wonder is NYC-based author R.J. Palacio’s debut novel about a 10-year-old kid, Auggie Pullman, born with facial deformities caused by a genetic disorder, and his everyday attempts to defy the odds. You’d have to be a brute not to sympathize or at the very least root for Auggie. Of course, this assures that this book will be (and is) a real crowd pleaser, and reaches an audience that is broader than at first intended (Middle Graders), which in turn is very much like what Haddon achieved with his Curious Incident … Very clever marketing indeed!
Both books of course, are sort of like the definite safe Oscar winners playing on everyman’s sentiment and heart. That is not to say, however, that Wonder is a bad book. Not.At.All! But an honest reviewer looks past the sentiment and the cat, for one, thinks that Wonder is actually a good book but with definite shortcomings as well.
Up till now – the beginning of 5th grade – Auggie has been homeschooled by his mom. Now, though, his mom thinks it is time for Auggie to go to a real school (like “a lamb to the slaughter” his dad claims). At school Auggie is confronted with the myriad of ways in which the kids and the grown-ups look at him… the story of his life, unfortunately. As if starting (Middle) school for the first time ever wouldn’t be bad enough in itself, Auggie has to deal with people having all sort of emotions when they see how different he is: from sympathy to pity to hatred even. Only a minority doesn’t care what Auggie looks like and is friends with him regardless. Wonder is told from the perspective of 6 kids and Auggie’s voice – clearly the focal point – is only one of them. The other 5 voices are often interchangeable, though, which is the cat’s biggest reservation when it comes down to narration with multiple points of view.
R.J. Palacio – who in a former life was the designer of Paul Auster’s book covers – hasn’t written an earth-shattering novel with Wonder, but she deftly plays upon a human’s capacity to care and to be outraged at the same time. As is demonstrated in the book, often it’s not really the kids who judge a person’s looks, but rather, the kids just have questions, and it’s the adults in their lives who label and judge. Favoring kindness as the ultimate human value, “when given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind,” is actually the most important precept of this book – a precept the cat does not agree with, btw. If your book is written from that perspective, obviously criticizing it from a non-kind perspective, will make you seem…well, like a brute.
But favoring truthfulness over kindness, for the cat Wonder was a book about an incredibly important topic but the way this is dealt with is a bit too sugary and Disney for my liking. Everything wraps up too neatly. Characters also fall into the good-bad categories a bit too conveniently. And this is not cynicism and not about believing in the fact that literally everyone gets a happy ending.(less)
YA literature is often accused of being oversaturated with female voices… the voices of its authors is what people mostly talk about then, but by extension also often the voices of its main (female) protagonists. Anyone who reads more than a handful YA books a year will know that is as much perception as it is an actual verifiable fact (male “voices”, for instance are in no way underappreciated when it comes to “recognition”). For all those people who think there really are no great fresh male voices in YA anymore, I present you Geoff Herbach and Felton Reinstein!
Nothing Special is the second book in a planned series of three (I’m with Stupid is set for publication on 1 May 2013) and is the follow up to the excellent Stupid Fast. Although Felton’s voice is still what grabs the reader from the get go, the formatting is slightly different. Felton is now writing down his story in letters to Aleah, which he time- and datestamps along a trip to… . During that trip Felton is slowly realizing that the things he does and the things that are happening to him are not without consequence. Action. Reaction. And one of those reactions is that his brother Andrew started to feel left out after Felton mega-transformation and sort of runs away to Florida to figure things out for himself and what his family really is all about. In Nothing Special, Felton is also completely alienated from his best friend Gus, and from Aleah, who he thinks ditched him to go off to Germany. Most of all, though, his kid brother starts to act all weird… and what we get is a dual narrative timeline: Felton on his trip, writing letters to Aleah. And Felton talking about what leads up to the actual trip. And by writing everything down Felton does some more growing as he starts to understand how he basically had his head up his ass all last year.
Anyone who read Stupid Fast – and you really should, because, for one, you won’t understand a lot of what’s going on in Nothing Special, but second, it’s just a Stupid Funny Excellent Book – will not need convincing here, but seriously, Felton is one of the most believable male teenage voices since Sherman Alexie’s Junior! It’s great to read a character who is as fresh as any John Green character but who also doesn’t sound like he’s way older than he actually is and just stays in teen character all the time, body odor, dumb decisions and total awkwardness included. He’s one weird dude and part of one weird family and this weirdness adds to the uniqueness of his voice. Felton may also not realize it just yet, but he behaves like he’s the center of the universe (pretty much like any teenager does, right?) and doesn’t see how this affects Andrew and Gus and his other friends. Felton is always completely charming in his utter cluelessness about his family and friends, though, and once he realizes what narcissism really is, he might be ready for the next step… a step which he’ll undoubtedly take in I’m with Stupid. Bonus: Nothing Special has quotable one-liners galore!(less)
Told as a dual narrative, Skin Deep is a cutesy contemporary romance that actually explores more than just first love. Jenna is 14 and is literally sc...moreTold as a dual narrative, Skin Deep is a cutesy contemporary romance that actually explores more than just first love. Jenna is 14 and is literally scarred for life after haviskindeepng been in a car accident that killed one of her best friends and disfigured a large part of her face. As a result of this, she has withdrawn from life because she can’t live with the way people look at her and be shocked, feel pity, etc… until she meets Ryan, a 16-year-old traveler, with baggage of his own. His mom has bipolar disorder, she’s an old New Age hippie, and travels around with her son on their narrowboat. Ryan not only has to live with his mom’s moods, but also with the intolerance of many town people against travelers (he’s often called gyppo, for instance, or people assume he’s only there to steal, get into fights…).
Jarratt also delves into hot teen topics like prejudice and being judged by appearances, peer pressure and even throws in a bit of a murder mystery in her debut novel. Seems like a lot to pull off all in one book, but Jarratt manages it adequately, turning out an emotional and honest book that the cat definitely sees as a clear winner with the middle-graders. There’s nothing spectacularly new or exciting about Skin Deep, but a book doesn’t always have to be that way for it to be a solid read. And that’s exactly what Skin Deep is: solid.(less)
Man, this is what I’m talking about! Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast hooked the cat from the very first page, all courtesy of Felton Reinstein’s great str...moreMan, this is what I’m talking about! Geoff Herbach’s Stupid Fast hooked the cat from the very first page, all courtesy of Felton Reinstein’s great stream-of-consciousness narration. The type of book you put in the hands of reluctant readers, knowing they will come back for more!
Felton Reinstein is 15 and used to be just another scrawny kid, with no social life to speak of. He just has one real friend Gus, and a back history that would make any sane person depressed. At the age of 5, he found his father hanging from the garage ceiling. Now, though, his life is totally out of control and he is telling us about it in an almost feverish one-night diary-style narration. We learn that he’s grown more than 7 inches in 8 months, and doesn’t know where all the body hair keeps coming from and whether he will ever stop eating! His only friend Gus is out of the country for the summer, and Felton’s mom makes him take over Gus’s paper round, something he really doesn’t want to do. But then he discovers that Gus’s house has been let out to talented pianist Aleah and her father. And to top it, his mom, Jerri, who’d always been a non-typical mom, completely checks out mentally on him and his younger brother Andrew, and he can’t really figure out why. Almost accidentally Felton discovers that one of the side effects of his enormous growth spurt is that he is now stupid fast. This will prove to be the ideal way to get rid of the stress that this crazy summer is giving him, and – besides Aleah who he develops a crush on – the only way to stay sane and to deal with his mother’s mental breakdown. His speed gets him noticed by the jocks and the sports coach at his high school, though, and everyone is convinced that Felton has it all to make it as a D-I football player… Meanwhile, Felton finds all of this crazy and unbelievable.
Stupid Fast is so many things at once. It’s first of all the story of a boy who is literally growing up to become a man. Seldom have the physical changes of a boy turning into a man been described so aptly in a YA novel. The awkwardness of puberty that Felton feels because of these changes is also the reader’s awkwardness. All props here go to Herbach’s natural talent for capturing the confusing mess of going through puberty so well (and what a breath of fresh air to read about this from a male perspective for once!). Secondly, it is the story of a boy who always had to struggle socially to ‘belong’: weird hair (Jewfro), weird family (he has to call his mom Jerri), weird friends… Felton was the type of kid who looked at the town honkies (a word Felton and Gus use to describe the popular kids) with both disdain and fear, but who now gets to be friends with the people who used to call him “Rein Stone” and “Squirrel nuts”… and he has to admit that they’re really not that bad after all and that he might have been too quick in judging them. It’s also the story of a boy falling in love with a girl for the first time. And now there’s this fantastically talented, beautiful girl who likes him despite and even because of all his weirdness. Finally, it’s also the story of a family slowly falling apart, and a boy figuring out what to do about that.
There are several elements that make Stupid Fast work so brilliantly, but the most outstanding thing must be Felton’s voice, which is stupid funny. Even though Felton has pretty much given up his dream of being a comedian because he thinks he’s not funny enough, his almost too honest observations about the things around him, are seriously hilarious at times. The brilliant mix of a sincerity (almost embarrassingly so) and humor makes Felton’s voice reminiscent of for instance Junior’s voice in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. And also just like Sherman Alexie’s book it combines life-changing events and serious emotions with humor. And that is what makes both books into such hits! That, and of course the fact that it has heart, it’s smart, it’s fresh, it’s compelling. Definitely a must read!(less)
Carmen is 17 and one of the best violinists in the world. She’s already landed a Grammy and has a scholarship to Juilliard. She also has the privilege...moreCarmen is 17 and one of the best violinists in the world. She’s already landed a Grammy and has a scholarship to Juilliard. She also has the privilege to play on a 1-million-dollar violin (!) – courtesy of her uppity grandparents – and now she’s ready to get into and win the prestigious Guarneri violin competition. Raised by a former opera singer, Carmen was destined to become a great musician. From a young age, her mom sheltered her, homeschooled her, overprotected her and basically molded her into this picture perfect violinist, the star she herself couldn’t be any more after a throat surgery ruined her voice. Now, with the Guarneri competition, Carmen’s talent gets matched by that of British prodigy Jeremy King. It doesn’t take much for Carmen to feel threatened by Jeremy. And yes, the two kids also feel an attraction…
Unfortunately, Virtuosity, though definitely not the worst book the cat’s read, is just so… bland, to be considered a thrilling read and anything more than ‘a filler read’. The romance between the two is sweet-ish , in that instant attraction sort of way (from feeling threatened and severe distrust to butterflies and kisses all in the span of an evening!). The ending felt very deus ex machina, like Martinez didn’t want either of her protagonists to lose out. There were also plenty of elements in the book that just didn’t work to be believable (the pills, what mom did to the competition).
Virtuosity is the book version of an X-Files MOTW-episode… Obviously there are no real monsters here, but it’s a bit of a filler in between really great books. For a book that’s supposedly all about the way something (in this case, music) makes you feel things (both Carmen and Jeremy liken their playing music to flying), the cat felt very little of that. Too plain, too obvious, too … mèh…(less)
Trish Doller’s 2012 debut Something Like Normal deals with a pretty sensitive issue: a young Marine (19 years old) who’s just got back from his first...moreTrish Doller’s 2012 debut Something Like Normal deals with a pretty sensitive issue: a young Marine (19 years old) who’s just got back from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. Travis may have left Afghanistan physically in one piece, he’s definitely suffering mentally – from PTSD – after he witnessed his best friend getting killed. Coming back home, though, has never felt so alien to Travis: his ex-girlfriend has hooked up with his brother Ryan who’s pretty much also confiscated his car; his father still thinks he’s worthless and it seems that his parents’ marriage is going the way of the dinosaur too. Mixed in with dealing with the effects that Charlie’s death has on him – Travis sees Charlie all through the book – and his changing family dynamics, is a romance, that of Travis and Harper, the girl he pretty much humiliated when they were both 14.
Something Like Normal is well written, and Doller definitely has the voice of Travis down. It sounds honest, a little raw, but always realistic. So no qualms about Doller’s ability to write a decent character. There’s nothing really wrong with Something Like Normal. The only pity is that it’s not really a book that sticks… The romance is not exactly a necessary aspect of the novel, to be honest. It’s also the weakest element of this book, with Harper being a fairly unbelievable love interest (what girl would hook up with a guy who pretty much ruined her reputation, resulting in her being called a slut by everyone in town since she was 14?). In fact it sort of distracts of the real highlight of this book : the way a young soldier like Travis deals with PTSD, the guilt and the grief he feels.
The fact that lots of elements are sort of touched upon but not really explored to the full is due to the brevity of this novel. Although Something like Normal is a decent enough debut, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that with a bit more attention and fleshing out, it could have been so much more.(less)
In times when the cat has to tell students that “No, 9/11 was not the day that Barack Obama was elected president of the USA for the first time”, a bo...moreIn times when the cat has to tell students that “No, 9/11 was not the day that Barack Obama was elected president of the USA for the first time”, a book like Hannah Moskowitz’s Gone Gone Gone may serve as a perfect way to connect that (this) generation of teens with a past that they only know from the History Channel or from a old(er) relative musing about “Where they were when they heard about the Twin Towers” (getting the one and only Ringo the Cat, btw).
That being said, Gone Gone Gone is not about 9/11. It’s also not really about the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks. Both of these events do provide the story with the perfect eerie-sounding atmosphere, an atmosphere of not really know what exactly is happening with the world you’re living in. Instead, Gone Gone Gone is about two 15-year-old boys, Craig and Lio, who are trying to figure out what their place in the world is and what they mean to each other.
Gone Gone Gone is alternately told from Craig’s and Lio’s point of view. They first met online, because Craig is an ambassador for his school, the type of kid that shows new students around. Lio recently moved away from NYC to DC, where Craig lives. After sort-of-but-not-really breaking up with his ex-boyfriend Cory, Craig has totally lost himself in taking care of his 14 stray animals, animals that escape after a burglary at his house. So Craig has to deal with finding back his animals, but he’s also trying to juggle the emotions of losing Cory (or not quite) after an event that is never made entirely clear and finding Lio (or not quite) and figuring out what Lio might mean to him. Lio, from his part, is also one messed up kid, even his therapist Adelle agrees… When he was 7, Lio and his twin brother Theo got leukemia. Lio survived. Theo died. Not only does he have to deal with being “a cancer survivor”, there’s also his fragmented family life to consider.
Rather than focusing her attention on an intricate plot, Moskowitz is the mistress of voice and characterization,… 2 characters to be more precise. She deftly uses the alternating point of view of Craig and Lio, giving both of them distinct voices. A criticism here could be that the other characters, such as Craig’s parents, or Lio’s sisters or Adelle, are not as fleshed out as they could have been. To Moskowitz’s credit, it’s definitely something that works here. Of the two the cat preferred Craig’s voice, which was often very stream-of-consciousness-like, with Craig losing himself in his long even melodramatic sentences (not the negative kind of melodrama, though!). Even though Craig is 15, at times you get the impression he’s a very young sort of 15 (or maybe that’s just his almost OCD type of behavior concerning his animals), while at other times, he’s clearly the voice of experience. Even then, it’s obvious that it’s a vulnerable sort of experience. Contradictory, yes, but flowing from Moskowitz’s pen (or errr keyboard…) it sounds very convincing. Lio’s voice, on the other hand, was often a lot whinier (despite his not talking) – an authorial choice, btw, that the cat can get behind, it just made it a lot harder to ‘like’ Lio the way the cat immediately connected with Craig as a voice and character.
Truth be told, I hadn’t really expected it (there are so many “new” voices in YA-land), but Hannah Moskowitz’s writing definitely has a freshness to it that shows talent, conviction and a heart for character. The cat loves authors with a heart for their characters. Writing a great and intricately plotted story is one thing, but if you manage to give a character a voice so unique and special and flawed and true, then it shows you’re willing to go there as an author, and that is the hallmark of a true author.(less)
Jordan Woods has always been one of the boys. When she’s a senior, she’s made it to the star/captain quarterback of her high school football team. Her teammates respect her and she’s a natural born leader. Her dad is a professional football player, her brother plays football in College and her own dream has always been to play football in college too. In fact she has her heart set on one college in particular, that of Alabama. For that to happen, she can’t afford losing her focus, though, as she wants to get in on an all-ride scholarship. Enter the new – hot – QB, Ty Green, who make her knees go all wobbly etc. etc. Anyway, there’s a romance triangle going on with her best of best friends Sam Henry – who she considers as her brother. Except he’s not, of course, and she’s the only one who hasn’t noticed he’s been in love with her since forever. Ooooooh… didn’t see that one coming, right?
Anyway, wow. Not as in “wow, what a great book this was”, but “wow, this actually got published?” Let’s see… shallow characters? Check! Under-developed plot? Check! Double standards? Check! But what takes the icing on the cake though, was the amateur writing! Seriously, the dialogues in this book: cringe-worthy bad. A story doesn’t even have to be the most original, but if the writing is as bad as is here, you’ve completely lost the cat! And what’s with all the tears and the crying??
So, never mind that the plot is a dime a doze (I mean, why even mention that Ty’s family got into a car crash, when you’re no actually going to develop that whole plot thread?), and that you see things coming from a football field away, the absolutely worst part of this book are the double standards. In a book that so overtly wants to overturn (gender) stereotypes, it does nothing but reinforce them. First, Jordan doesn’t see why people see the girl first and the football player second. But at the same time she’s the first to say that cheerleaders are all dumb bimbos. Also, they’re considered sluts when they sleep around, but when her buddies on the team do the same thing, they get off with a mere eye-roll? Insert eye-roll here…
Anyway, there are so many different things that are just so wrong with this book. Ty. Ugh, so he’s the hot new QB, falls for Jordan, she does the same instantly (just because of his great pecs, no doubt). He gets all control-freak on her (You have to pick up your phone! I have to know where you are!) and she doesn’t even call him on it? Jordan and Ty get at it faster than you can say bingo despite the fact she’s stayed a virgin for so long, but the first hot bod to come in and she throws herself at him? Decides she does actually “love” her best friend Henry, yet keeps on sleeping with Ty? And it’s the cheerleaders who are the sluts? Then she goes on about the whole “there should be more than sex”? Hypocrite much?(less)
Then Joshua C. Cohen’s version of the American football world is a much better alternative than a book like Catching Jordan, even though , there too, there are things that don’t exactly work in the book. Not, however, because the writing was atrocious or the main characters lacked substance.
Leverage is the story of 2 boys, Danny and Kurt who will form an unlikely alliance against a common threat or ‘enemy’: the steroid-infused jocks on the football team. Danny is a small kid, but a great gymnast, while Kurt literally looms over everyone, has a stutter and is a promising football player with an awful past. At their high school the football players are everyone’s heroes and obviously their team gets all the funds. When the gymnast coach challenges the football players into a contest deciding who can use the weight training room and it turns out in favor of the gymnasts, things soon spiral out of control. The football team is out for revenge… big time. Things escalate so much that the scrawniest kid on the gymnast team, Ronnie Gunderson, gets brutally attacked. Danny, who witnessed the whole scene play out, and Kurt who walked in on the attack, don’t really know how to respond to it all. Danny, for fear of being next. Kurt, because of a myriad of reasons: being the new kid on the team, he still has to prove who he’s loyal to, plus he has his whole troubled past which may come back to haunt him.
Leverage is a book about Mean Boys, which is totally refreshing considering YA usually feature Mean Girls as the main bullies. Cohen convincingly shows what bullying can lead to, and the consequences really are devastating. Cohen definitely goes for the gut here.
But, the main problem Cohen has in Leverage, is the debut syndrome: trying to put it all in. There’s bullying, there’s pressure, there’s steroid abuse, there’s suicide, there’s sexual abuse… And while the topics in Leverage are in and of itself totally gut-wrenching, the book as a whole could have been even more powerful if Cohen had focused more on the development of mostly ‘the bad guys’ and written some well-rounded antagonists… because seriously, the football players are nothing more than cardboard stereotypes. All of this made a lot of what you read in Leverage predictable, and yes also quite implausible at times (e.g. the ending is totally contrived!).
All in all, Leverage is a brutal book, extremely brutal… and maybe Cohen was going a bit too easy for the emotional response, but at least you’ll get some hard-hitting truths out of it, which is more than you can say about Catching Jordan!(less)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post would be the cat’s entry for the William C. Morris award if she had a say in it. As a first break onto the YA – or any literary – scene it is definitely one hell of a statement, both topic-wise and literary wise. Giving us a brand new take on coming-of-age, Danforth introduces us to Cameron Post, who tells her story sometime after the event she’s narrating in the book, that of her finding her (sexual) identity.
At the age of 12, Cameron’s parents die in a tragic accident during a weekend trip up to Quake Lake. After the obvious initial shock Cameron can’t but feel relief…relief that now they will not find out that just the day before Cameron had kissed her best friend Irene Klauson. Having grown up in desolate, conservative, Miles City (aka Miles Shitty), Montana, Cameron is convinced that what happened to her parents is her punishment, and she no longer just feels relief, but also shame and guilt for having done what she did. Her parents’ death marks a shift in her friendship with Irene (the girls had previously been almost inseparable, the way 2 best friends can be in that innocent pre-teen stage of life). From then on the two drift apart – not just because Irene moves away to a fancy boarding school due to her family’s newfound richness – and Cameron tries to find solace in being cooped up inside, watching rental movies. The events surrounding Cameron’s first hesitant chaste kiss with Irene Klauson, her feelings for Irene before and after the kiss, the feelings of guilt and shame because of what happened to her parents are what determine the first part of the book. In the second part, Cameron’s aunt Ruth has moved in to take care of her. The kiss between Cam and Irene may have made Cameron feel guilty, the feelings which lie at the bottom of it don’t just disappear, and in the following years Cameron starts experimenting, mostly very innocently through the movies she rents (from Thelma and Louise to The Hunger). She also hooks up with Lindsey, a girl who comes to Miles City every summer for the swim competition. Contrary to Cameron, Lindsey is well aware of her sexuality, and seems to know all about the LGBQ-community (she’s from Seattle). In part 3 of the novel, things take a turn for the best and worst for Cameron when she gets to know Coley Taylor, a beautiful cowgirl who goes to the same church and youth group as Cameron. See, Aunt Ruth is a conservative person, conservative even in Miles City, and she has found God again (she’s a born again Christian), and she has Cameron join her when she attends Gates of Praise. Cameron has been in love with Coley ever since she first lay eyes on her. The two girls form a friendship, a friendship which of course gets complicated because Cameron clearly has romantic & sexual feelings for Coley, while Coley has a boyfriend and is (or seems) as straight as can be. Yet, the two girls bond, and when Coley’s boyfriend is away for the summer, they take their friendship to a new (sexual) level. But this is Miles City, Montana, and Coley exposes their relationship, overcome by feelings that she probably can’t explain herself, after which Aunt Ruth finds out, and ships Cameron off to “conversion camp”, God’s Promise… a de-gaying camp. God’s Promise is a religious school where Cameron is forced to face her sins, and where she will be “cured” of the sin of homosexuality. The stay and this camp and the way that Cameron has to deal with who she is forms the last part of the book.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is bulky book, closing in on shy of 500 pages, but it’s exactly this broad scope that renders the books its authenticity. Cameron’s voice is nothing if not real and authentic. From the way she talks about the period when she was 12 (1989) to the period at God’s Promise when she’s 17 (1993-1994), there’s a believability in what she tells us she felt at those times, and the way she behaves. Cameron may have been a good little girl at 12 (except for the shoplifting, of course), but over the years she starts to behave like any other teenager, experimenting with drugs, alcohol and yes , … sexuality. The only thing with Cameron, though, she doesn’t experiment with teens of the opposite sex, but of the same sex. And, yes, the conflicting feelings of being gay in an all-out conservative town isn’t lost on Cameron. She even ‘tries out’ her friend Jamie, despite the fact that she feels that it’s not how or who she is.
What makes this book also one of the truest around is the way the antagonists are portrayed. It would be very easy to put the blame on Aunt Ruth and the people at God’s Promise. But that’s not what happens. All of them are so completely and utterly convinced of what they are saying and doing that any form or trying to tell them otherwise is futile. So it’s like 2 parties talking/not talking to each other, and the only thing either of them say is “you’re wrong”. Cam is who she is, there is no changing, or de-gaying, or converting her, and Aunt Ruth, Reverend Rick and even Lydia are who they are, despite Lydia’s secular Cambridge (England!) education. After a particularly horrible event at God’s Promise, Cameron observes: “I’m just saying that sometimes you can end up really messing somebody up because the way you’re trying to supposedly help them is really messed up.” (p.399) This is the farthest that Cameron herself goes in condemning and blaming the others for sending her to the camp. And even though this might not sound all that militant, it definitely reinforces the feelings of frustration that she feels, and that you as a reader will feel about what’s going on not just with Cameron, but with and to so many other real teens who go – willingly or unwillingly – to these types of camps. In a side note, the conversation that Cameron and aunt Ruth have when Cameron gets to go home for Christmas and when they reflect on Cameron’s ‘healing’ process is probably one of the most lifelike conversations ever between a teen and an adult who’s supposed to be the person with all the control and power over said teen (p. 342-344): neither of them know what the other feels and they just can’t get out of that situation.
Apart from an honest exploration of a teen’s sexual identity, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is also descriptively a beautifully written novel, yes slow-moving, but oh so atmospheric because of it. The detailed descriptions of the rural Montana setting will draw you into an almost alien world if you’re – like the cat – not accustomed to the landscape Danforth is describing. Likewise, when Cameron describes how the other girls make her feel, for instance, it’s like she wants you bring home that experience as much as possible so that it feels not just the most natural thing ever, but also universal, because ‘hey look, this is all how we fall in love, how we experience first kisses,…’: “There’s nothing to know about a kiss like that before you do it. It was all action and reaction, the way her lips were salty and she tasted like root beer. The way I felt sort of dizzy the whole time. If it had been that one kiss, then it would have been just the dare, and that would have been no different than anything we’d done before. But after that kiss, as we leaned against the crates, a yellow jacket swooping and arcing over some spilled pop, Irene kissed me again. And I hadn’t dared her to do it, but I was glad that she did.” (p.10)
The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be hailed as a great LGBQ-novel, but it’s more than just that. It explores identity and sexual identity, yes, but in doing so in transcends that mere label, which could (but definitely shouldn’t) limit its exposure. It’s also just a beautifully written novel with a great protagonist who’s at a turning point in her life. And again, what is more engaging and beautiful in a piece of literature than a character finding his/her place in the world?
 I am glad that Emily Danforth also denies this book being just another coming-out story. (less)
Deb Caletti’s Stay is about how a chance encounter leads to an obsessive relationship and the consequences this may bring about for the victim(s) involved. Clara is the 17-year-old protagonist who tells the story of her relationship with Christian: Scandinavian, blond, perfect… right up until she realizes that beneath his good looks, his concerns for her ‘well-being’ basically lies some seriously disturbing stalker-ish Edward Cullen obsession, and that staying with him is just not an option.
Deb Caletti takes the all-consuming love concept (a concept that many if not most teenagers are prone to identify with) to its most literal extreme and poignantly describes how – in the name of love – people can be emotionally used and abused up to an absolute breaking point where the victim in the relationship feels like they have to make allowances for the other one constantly. At first, there’s nothing really wrong with Christian: he’s loving, devoted and extremely caring… a little bit too caring. And Clara starts to feel like she has to watch what she says, what she does, what clothes she wears, the people she sees, her entire life starts to revolve around accommodating Christian and his sick jealousy, even obsession.
In a narrative line that is set after the entire experience, we get to see Clara as she is coping with things now. With her father they have escaped to a beach house for the summer, telling other people they have gone to Europe. Because even after she has severed all ties with Christian, it is clear that she is not yet free of him. Caletti, though, manages not only to make the Christian-Clara storyline interesting. Also the Clara-Dad relationship is a very believable relationship. Clara’s mom died when she was young, and it’s obvious that her dad clearly has some issues to get through himself. Away from their life for the summer, they may both just manage doing that.
Stay is nothing if not a very important story about obsession, manipulation and the bravery it takes to turn your life around. It is the type of book that should be read by anyone who feels they might be in the wrong type of relationship. Also, it’s a great way to learn about appreciating who you are yourself, as an individual person, not linked to or bound to anyone else. It’s an ambitious story that is not without its flaws (the footnotes are not really pertinent to the story; the newish relationship felt a bit ‘too fast’), but one which is nevertheless convincing.(less)
The fact that the cat sort of forgot to give this book a review may say it all… Seriously: the cat forgot about reading this book…um, last week… which goes to show that it’s fairly forgettable.
Anyway, wild bad-ass chick Meg – blue hair and all – likes getting drunk and doing guys. Yup, that’s the start of this MTV book. But then, she goes that one step too far when she and her guy for the night and their 2 friends decide to go on the railway bridge… They get stopped by a cop, John After, who doesn’t turn out to be a 40-year-old has been guy with 14 children and wife at home, but a 19-year-old stud who used to be in one of Meg’s classes the previous year. The story then focuses on how John makes some kind of deal with the DA that Meg and the other 3 (but one of them just gets out of it because of daddy-o, who’s got some pull) do some kind of community service. Meg’s punishment? Driving around with Officer After for a week… And yes ::::insert big sigh here::::: Officer John is the love interest…. Who has zilch chemistry with the main character… who’s annoying, stupid and every kind of unbelievable. This book also has a myriad of predictabilities, and all kinds of wannabe shock factors (like that pesky plot device aka “the hard past that just has to make you feel oh sorry for the main character”?? What’s that all about? Reader manipulation much!) . But it just didn’t work at all for the cat who kept rolling her eyes at the things that were being described.
Nope, this is not my thing. Johnafter didn’t make me swoon (like e.g. Sarah Dessen’s love interests often do!). Meg didn’t make me think there was so much more besides her being annoying and obnoxious . And Jennifer Echols’ writing – though not bad in itself – doesn’t make me forget that the story is predictable ánd over the top at the same time!(less)
On her website Jo Knowles writes about how she became a writer. She mentions that it was first and foremost Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War that turned her into “an avid reader, and eventually a writer. There is something about the raw truth of that book that showed [her] how powerful words can be. She then goes on to say how Robert Cormier was kind enough to send her a letter back after she sent him her manuscript telling her she was “a talented” writer. There’s more than a thing to say about the power of words, of course, and on this account the cat wholeheartedly agrees with Jo Knowles. However, I feel that her own novel Jumping Off Swings – not her debut, by the way – lacks in exactly that particular department: the words are really not that powerful when that’s exactly what you want from a book that deals with an issue as sensitive and troubling as teenage pregnancy.
Although all Ellie has ever wanted is to feel loved, at her high school she’s considered as ‘easy’, basically a slut. At the age of 16 she’s had many sexual partners, but they have always left her feeling empty afterwards. One night at a party (and that’s how the book opens) she hooks up with virgin Josh hoping this time the encounter will lead to something more. Josh, though, has been put up to doing it with Ellie by 2 of his ‘friends’. She’s an easy lay, so an ideal person to lose your virginity to. At the end of it all, Josh can’t get away from her fast enough, leaving Ellie feeling unwanted and empty all over again. Except, this time is different, and Ellie ends up pregnant.
The story of Jumping Off Swings is told by 4 alternating narrators, Ellie, Corinne (Ellie’s best friend who doesn’t understand why she gives herself so easily, yet stands by her time and again), Josh and Caleb (Josh’s friend, who’s had a crush on Ellie for a very long time). By using this particular narrative technique, Jo Knowles wants to show that an event like a teen pregnancy has an effect on so many different people. However, what she wants to achieve by widening the scope this much, she ends up losing in depth. Depth in the characterization and depth in the plot…
Ellie, the ‘real’ protagonist, is not drawn as strongly as she should have been. I don’t even mean strong as in “she’s a determined kind of person”, but strong as in: multi-dimensional. Like most of the characters here, Ellis is too one-dimensional. She mistakes lust and sex for love, but once she gets pregnant, that whole plotline is just forgotten about, and we don’t get an insight in how her frame of mind has changed or is still the same, or what she will do in the future… I mean is the pregnancy a punishment for having sex in the first place or what? That’s a fairly disturbing message… The inclusion of the point of view of Corinne, Ellie’s best friend, is also fairly moot . So she questions Ellie’s decision, and she has a crush on Caleb, but we don’t hear what makes her tick as her own person! Corinne is only there to serve as a loyal sidekick to Ellie, who already was a insufficiently drawn protagonist. And then there are Josh and Caleb. Although Josh is the one who got Ellie pregnant, we don’t get much from his perspective, and he’s not exactly a very useful asset here in widening the scope or adding much depth to the plot (he feels sad, and that’s about it). The only thing that Josh and Caleb (who seems to be super-boy) added to the whole story was showing how every other boy is basically just a stereotype (they aren’t of course, they can feel emotions like guilt and they can cry like a girl if they have to!): driven by hormones, thinking about parties, drinking beer and getting laid. I mean, of course every boy Ellie has ever been with has let her down.
Another drawback of having 4 alternating points of view is the almost endless repetition of how a particular character feels about the actions of the other characters, or his/her own actions. This is told over and over again, to the point of annoyance. With a quick read like this one, you can’t actually connect with any of the four narrators, because before you’re well and truly in their head, the point of view changes again and you get yet another rehashing of what they feel about the whole pregnancy. And it’s not as if each of the four narrators’ voice is much different from the other three, so having 4 POVs seems… unnecessary. If you want to prove how a pregnancy affects many different people, there are better ways to do this besides having 4 narrators (whose voices are almost interchangeable). Then there are the inexplicable plot jumps…, so this is the story of a teenage pregnancy, right? And how all of these characters feel before, during and after they find out, and think about what exactly they should do next? But, why would you want to skip months in the story? Also and yes this is a minor thing about the plot… Ellie ends up having a C-section. She is then sent home 2 days after the operation??? WTF? In what sort of hospital/country was this? Speaking from experience, the cat can say you don’t get to leave the hospital after 2 days when you’ve basically had major surgery!
The topic of Jumping Off Swings has so much potential, but unfortunately Jo Knowles just doesn’t quite have the necessary skills to present it believably and powerfully to the reader . If Robert Cormier is her big example, then she still has a long way to go.(less)
After her very engaging debut novel Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour, Morgan Matson is back for more! Second Chance Summer has many of the same ingredients that made Amy & Roger so endearing and such a great, great summer/beach read (and I use this term with the greatest respect possible!): there is a flawed yet likeable main character, there is a life-changing story about loss, yet there’s a sense of optimism that permeates every page of this excellent sophomore novel.
Taylor Edwards and her family used to spend every summer at their summer lake house in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. That is, until 5 summers ago, when something happened that made Taylor run away from things, which is what she always does when things get hot. This summer, however, she will no longer be able to escape conflict and she’ll have to face her past, as her family have decided to spend this summer at the house once more. Taylor will be forced to confront the reality of her family life, her past (ex-boyfriend Henry and ex-best friend Lucy) and hopefully come out the better and stronger person at the end of it.
The strength of Second Chance Summer does not lie in its original plot (yes, all of the inevitables do happen), but in the careful treatment of its characters. Matson takes her time introducing Taylor and the rest of her family. She switches back and forth between this summer and 5 summers earlier to show how an individual can change over the years (what you found oh so important at age 12 may seem petty at age 17!) and how it’s never too late to fix what’s wrong and it’s never too late to get to know the people you are close to. The way that Matson treats her characters and the hopeful optimism of her stories made me think of Sarah Dessen, with which she also has a certain earnestness in dealing with emotions in common. Moreover, she also has that natural flow in the use of language and a dash of humor interspersed in the novel now and again. What is most important here, though, is that I believe Taylor when she says that she doesn’t know how to confront a problem. I also believe Taylor when she says she’s done something incredibly wrong and Henry and Lucy should hate her for it (even as an adult you can see that it’s a typical teen reaction of blowing things way out of proportion). And I also believe Taylor when she is forced to take that second chance yet doesn’t really know how to…
Matson is definitely a writer who understands how to write believably about grief, loss and falling in love all over again. Second Chance Summer is the type of book that the adjective heart-breaking was invented for. This is a story about a girl meeting a boy. It’s a story about a girl and her grief … and it’s also a story about a girl growing up … And, for the cat, Morgan Matson doesn’t even have to wait until next summer to publish another one of these!(less)
Sometimes all you need is a book that is as far from the YA clichéd stereotype of “dark”, “problematic” and “depressing” as possible. On a bad day when you feel that even chocolate chip cookies can’t help you, what you need is a double dose of Amber Appleton.
Amber Appleton, the protagonist of Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like A Rock Star is an uncompromising hopeful despite the mishaps that life has thrown at her so far. At age 17 she lives with her mom in Hello Yellow, the school bus her (alcoholic) mom drives for a meager living. Her mom has left her nth boyfriend so they are now homeless – safe for Hello Yellow. Because Amber is the self-proclaimed spreader of hope – she teaches a bunch of Korean women English by letting them sing Supremes songs (the Korean Divas for Christ); she visits a bunch of old folks at the local retirement home battling a mean old bat called Joan of Old, all just to make her smile; and she has a deep faith in JC (yes, that’s Jesus Christ for you) – luckily she has a large support team: her dog, a puppy mutt she found and rescued called Bobby Big Boy; Frank’s Freak Force (named after Frank, her marketing teacher, consisting of herself and the 4 misfit boys she’s been friends with for a long time); Donna, Ricky Robert’s attorney mom who keeps Amber fed and makes sure she gets clean and can also feel like a girl at the same time ( make-up!); Father Chee, the Korean priest of the KDC; and a haiku-writing war veteran called Private Jackson. When tragedy hits Amber in the shins even more, that relentless optimism of hers gets the worst of blows and Amber slips into a depression so severe, that not just her hope falters, but her faith gets shaken at the same time. When Amber is at her lowest, and she asks Father Chee ‘why her’ in so many different ways, and he can’t really give her any satisfying answers, that is when you realize Quick has written that rare YA book that doesn’t avoid those unanswerable questions of faith.
Although it does have an oddball cast of characters in common with many other contemporary YA fiction, Sorta Like a Rock Star is like no other YA book you are likely to read. Dealing with JC and Christianity but not in a mocking, nor in a self-important type of way, this is not a Christian novel per se (there are also atheist characters, and probably also Buddhist characters if PJ’s attitude is anything to go by), but a novel about hope and faith and what it means to believe in other people, seeing the good in others even if they don’t see it themselves, and re-discovering what was driving you all along.
Sorta Like a Rock Star is also a novel driven by the fierce voice of its protagonist, one that you will find irresistible once she’s got you. True? True. She’s the type of character that faces all the challenges that come her way head-on, manages to reflect on them, but not be numbed by them. For her the glass is always truly still half-full. Matthew Quick has written Amber in a very convincing way: her voice is pure, strong, real and she’ll break your heart with it.
Amber Appleton doesn’t get drunk. She doesn’t do drugs. She doesn’t cut herself. She’s not anorexic. She’s not sarcastic. She doesn’t go around dressed all in black. Amber Appleton is lovable and hopeful and yes, sorta like a rock star. Sorta Like a Rock Star really is a compulsively readable book, and it actually has an upbeat message and such a streetwise yet totally innocent main character at the same time. If you can manage to set aside your self-serving distrust for optimism and hope just for one day, then let that day be today when you go out and buy and read Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star.(less)