To say that I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult novels lately is like saying, “Air? Yeah I take it in from time to time.” Most of the books below were bought on a whim – sometimes picked up the first time, sometimes dwelt over for several bookstore visits before I finally relinquished my eight bucks. That’s one of the great things about YA – it’s such a cheap and easy fix that if you don’t like the book, you don’t hate yourself (too much) in the morning. Read on for some of the memorable (both good and bad) books I’ve finished:
The Queen of Everything by Deb Calett
Quite honestly one of the best YA books I’ve ever read. Ever get caught up in a scandalous Dateline episode or a true-life murder marathon on Court TV? Someone falls into an obsessive relationship and does inexplicably unspeakable things all in an extremely misguided view of what love is. And sometimes, in the background of a court scene, you catch a glimpse of the accused’s children. What is their life like? To be thrust in the spotlight for things you not only didn’t want, but had no control over?
The Queen of Everything is about a girl, Jordan, whose father falls into a really unhealthy affair, ending when he kills the husband of the woman. The story here is about the time leading up to the murder (you find out what happened in the first few pages of the book) when Jordan knows something is wrong and is stuck between trying to confront her father and not knowing what to do — a situation far different than having the freedom to say “What the hell are you doing?” to a friend.
The characters are so well drawn that even while you’re frustrated with some of the decisions Jordan makes, you understand why she does. Calett creates a believable teenage girl who is trying to fit into her own skin, while dealing with a father she no longer recognizes and a mother she can’t quite make sense of, finding solace instead with people of her own choosing.
There’s only one thing at the end of The Queen of Everything that bothers me with its drop-out-of-the-sky perfectness, but the rest is so amazingly good that I can forgive the one misstep.
Principles of Love by Emily Franklin
It seems that prep schools are the new black (see the success of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and the below books), and this is definitely one of the better prep-themed books I’ve read: No one’s coking up in the bathroom and making a show of how much money they have – they’re too busy trying to get through the school day. Love Bukowski’s father moves them to a Massachusetts boarding school where he’s become Principal. While it’s not the easiest transition, she makes a couple of decent acquaintances and has her Aunt Mable to fall back on. Aunt Mable owns a funky coffee shop where Love often lends a hand, chiming in for a song or two on open mike night. Love develops a crush on the hot artsy senior who’s already involved with someone else, and finds herself spilling her thoughts to the mysterious DrakeFan whose e-mail she answered when looking for a band to join.
What I liked the most about Love is that she’s real. She’s not the stunning beauty that becomes the most popular girl on the first day, and she’s not the ostracized loser who either whines about not having any friends or plots the cool kid’s demise. Instead, Love is just a normal girl who likes to sing and is hoping for some honest friendships and a cute boy to smooch. And when she does find one that she likes even though he’s totally unattainable, she inadvertently becomes friends with his girlfriend Lila – who is the first person she meets at Hadley Hall that could be that friend, the one who we all crave because we’ve finally found the person we can be honest and let our guard down with. Talk about relatable conflict. Then, add to all this Love’s inability to write her first original song, all the while trying to find her voice and way to stand out, and you’ve got an believable, engaging story that keeps you up past your bedtime waiting to see how things turn out.
The next in the series, Piece, Love and Happiness, is due out this fall and I’m anxious to see what’s coming up in the next chapter in Love’s life.
(Emily Franklin is also a staff member of Car Talk. How cool is that?)
So Lyrical by Trish Cook
I’m never listening to Liz Phair again. No, really – she obviously has awful taste in YA novels and I’m not trusting her again. When I scanned over this book on the YA display in Barnes and Noble, the Liz Phair quote stood out on the cover of this book. No, Liz, this book does not rock and I would not shut off the TV for it. In fact, I’d rather spend a day with America’s Next Top Model‘s Yaya’s mind numbing “Respeitu” speech on repeat than ever read this book again.
Ever hate a book so much that it’s not enough to hate it – you need to tell everyone within earshot (or blogspace) just how much you hate it? That’s how I feel about So Lyrical. Which is sad, because the premise – a girl living with her mother, a former 80s groupie who fled her New Jersey home for a Chicago suburb after getting pregnant, decides that she wants to find her father – has some great potential. But Cook is far too busy trying to be clever with her in-jokes, and everything falls flat. In the first 30 pages, Trace meets some rich hot guy on a run two miles from her house (that they both lived their all lives up to this point without stumbling upon each other seems inconsequential), goes to see his band play, and watches while her best friend Brina gets up on stage and grinds against the musicians like a stripper whose rent is due in three hours. Trace is pissed and books out of there, but not pissed enough not to jump into the hot tub with hot guy when she runs into him again. Oh yeah, his name is Zander, and he’s got a stuck-up ex-girlfriend named Buffy. Get it, get it? God. There’s more that I can rant on but I’m still in shock that Cook has been given the greenlight for a sequel. If you want to inflict unspeakable torture on someone that you don’t care to ever speak to again, give them this book. (I must admit that I did lend this to someone that I like, but I warned her profusely. She quit after 30 pages. I’m not sure if she’s forgiven me yet.)
Side note on The Principles of Love and So Lyrical: They’re both put out by Penguin’s new “Jam” imprint and have so many pop-culture references that I wonder if Penguin is sending their authors off with a checklist of names they must fit in before they’re allowed back into the office. Both books name-checked Ashton Kutcher and Outkast, and I know I came across a few Hilton sisters mentions. Nothing is quicker to pull me out of a story than a random reference that will be dated in six months (well, a teenage girl grinding on multiple band members on stage might top that).
Killing Britney by Sean Olin
I kept picking this up in the bookstore and Amazon would recommend it to me every time I logged on. Then I stumbled across a reviewer’s copy and boy, am I glad that I did – because I didn’t have to pay for such a blah novel. Killing Britney claims to be about a girl who went from geek to chic, whereupon people close to her started dropping like flies in a murderous fashion. Except, if you’re going to mention that she went from geek to chic, there should be a purpose to it. And if you’re going to kill off people, maybe there should be enough build-up so that the reader could care just a smidgen for them. And if you’re going to bother with a police officer investigating all the murders, how about giving him half a brain and actual reasoning capabilities? There’s virtually no suspense in this book at all and I was utterly bored. My copy says that Sean Olin is a pseudonym. I can understand why.
The Rise and Fall of a 10th Grade Social Climber by Lauren Mechling and Laura Moser
Another one that I’d pick up and put down in the store over and over. Mimi moves from Texas to New York after her parent split up and she decides that her dad needs some emotional support. She starts at a new prep school that is lax in grades but high in cliques, and on a dare from an old friend infiltrates the popular girls’ group in hopes of scoring an invite to the mysterious holiday vacation.
It’s not a bad book, but the characters are thinly drawn caricatures. The (mostly rich) popular girls? Well, they may appear to be mean, but they all have real!problems (like shoplifting and bad grades) and hearts of gold. Gold, every one of them, I tell you. Mimi has legitimate gripes about her mother and mom’s new boyfriend, but they are never addressed. The father that Mimi cares so deeply for is pretty much ignored throughout the book. Mimi gets caught up in things like looking down on preppy Amanda for getting excited about low-carb orange juice when Mimi herself has become a Screwdriver-at-breakfast kind of girl. Still, as annoying as she can get, Mimi never evoked more than a “Eh, she’s annoying” reaction.
And people, have we not learned by now that keeping a diary of your evil plotting will only lead to bad things and ultimate downfall? You pretty much know how things are going to go once Mimi starts documenting her process, down to the extremely unbelievable and cheesy reconciliation. I wondered if Mechling and Moser wrote some parts purposely vaguely in order to set up for a sequel, but by the end of The Rise and Fall of a 10th Grader I honestly didn’t care to have these characters in my life anymore.
The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty
Quite cute and surprisingly engaging. This is a distant cousin of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in its letter-writing ways, but far more lighthearted. It’s an Australian novel consisting of letters between three couples: Cassie and Matthew, Emily and Charlie, and Lydia and Seb. (I particularly adore Lydia and Seb.) They’re matched up in a letter-writing exchange between rival schools, one prep and the other a supposedly rougher public school. The premise is a bit forced but the banter back and forth is certainly entertaining. There were more than several occasions that I literally laughed out loud.
The relationships go off in various directions – cautiously friendly, conspiratorial and downright contemptuous – only intersecting when it appears that one of the boys is not who he appears to be. The girls enlist the two other boys to track down the truth about the third in hopes of exacting revenge for the pain he inflicted on their best friend.
With the trends of backstabbing, scheming characters in YA, the sincere concern between the characters in this book is refreshing, and Moriarty illustrates beautifully why Cassie, Lydia and Emily are best friends. That’s not to say that this is a happy, bouncy feel-good book: Cassie, in particular, is still reeling from her father’s death and Lydia’s famous parentage makes her feel even more alone in the shadow of the spotlight. (However, Emily’s lawyer father’s notes, while oddly formal, are quite hysterical.) The secret assignments themselves are a mix of mischievous fun, wary meetings, and a manipulative move or two born out of friendly concern. Each of the girls has tricks up her sleeves, sometimes only revealing them several months later. There are mysteries that you don’t even recognize until the very end, which makes you want to immediately read the book again to catch all that you missed.
Heart on My Sleeve by Ellen Wittlinger
Another book written entirely in letters and instant message conversations. Not as entertaining as The Year of Secret Assignments, but it raises an interesting point about how we portray ourselves through letters. Heart on My Sleeve captures that feeling you had in high school when every note meant so much and you couldn’t wait to hear from the one you liked. During a prospective college visit, Chloe, a Boston high school senior, meets singer-actor Julian from Florida. There’s lots of sparkage that neither wants to end, so they decide to keep the flirtatious fun going online – even though Chloe already has a boyfriend.
It’s not until the Chloe and Julian meet face to face that Wittlinger’s strongest point comes through – that it may not necessarily be our best face that we put forth in our correspondence, but that we pick and choose what items from our lives we share with one another, thus creating a very specific image in another’s mind. On one hand we can be far more honest in letters than we would in person, where fear sits in the corner of every hard conversation, making us wonder how friends will react. But spill your feelings on paper, and you can choose to share or ignore, as you can also choose to ignore the words sent to you if they do not mesh with the image you’ve established. Not every correspondence courtship is all fireworks and roses once the couple meets again, and sometimes that’s more interesting.
Wittlinger gives all her younger characters such honesty in actions and thought that you get wrapped up in each of their stories. Especially those of Chloe and Julian, who try to stay fairly level while not quite feeling like they fit into the world that they’ve been living in for the past eighteen years. Chloe and her three best friends in Boston are on the brink of breaking up their group as they leave for college, some still harboring those naïve thoughts of forever that you really only have in high school. While personal drama erupts in their last weeks of school, the friends find a sort of peace months later as wounds heal and they make tentative steps towards reconciliation through carefully worded e-mails. It’s the very nature of letter writing to force yourself to sit down and think about every word you write instead of spilling out hurtful phrases mindlessly in person. Heart on My Sleeve reminds you of the power of words when you so desperately need to hear them, but maybe more importantly, how important it is to see people for who they are and not what they say.