Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Realistic YA Romances: The Sun is Also a Star, We are Still Tornadoes, and Our Chemical Hearts

A glowing recommendation for realistic young adult romances frequently reads "for fans of Rainbow Rowell and John Green."  My final three recommendations for 2016 fall in this category.  The highly acclaimed The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Everything, Everything) finds two teen falling in love over the course of 12 hours in NYC.  We are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen is an epistolary romance that takes place in the 80s.  Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland follows the unconventional relationship between a traumatized girl and the boy who is determined to save her.

In alternating first person chapters The Sun is Also Star chronicles the romance between Natasha, an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica whose family is being deported the next day, and Daniel, a first generation Korean American whose parents are insisting he become a doctor.  They meet and fall in love during one fateful day in NYC.  Natasha, who is an outstanding science student, is facing deportation because her dad was arrested on a DUI charge.  She is looking for a lawyer who can help her family stay in the US long enough for her to get into college.  Daniel, a dreamer and a poet, is on his way to an interview for admission to Yale.  They witness a shoplifting incident at a record store and he falls in "love at second sight."  (where you meet a person and know you'll fall in love) Their paths continue to converge throughout the next 12 hours and Daniel is determined to make her fall in love with him. Although she is in a race against time, Natasha can't help but be charmed by his insistence that fate means for them to be together.  This book has won numerous accolades, including a National Book Award nomination.

Through an exchange of letters in the 1980s, Scott and Cath, two high school graduates, continue their best friend relationship in We are Still Tornadoes. Even though Cath leaves for college at Wake Forest and Scott stays home in Maryland to work at his dad's clothing store and start a band, they lean on each other for support and advice.  During their first year apart they weather a variety of crises, including crazy roommates and band mates, as well as family problems.  While Scott's relationship with his dad is strengthened, Cath struggles with her parents' divorce and the upcoming arrival of a half sibling.   As the year progresses, Scott finds himself regretting not going to college and Cath works to resolve her feelings of anger toward an unborn sister.  Turning to each other, as they always have, isn't as easy as when they were next-door neighbors, but together they navigate their first year apart and become closer in the process.  The epistolary banter and the 80s music references, as well as Scott's overuse of quotation marks, will keep readers laughing and turning the pages hoping for a happy ending.

When Henry Page first meets Grace Town, the protagonist in Our Chemical Hearts, he is strangely attracted to her, despite her pronounced limp and baggy boy's clothes.  Getting to know her as co-editors of the school newspaper, he is intrigued by her quick wit and occasionally flirtatious behavior.  When researching her on the internet, he finds she looks nothing like her social media pictures of a beautiful smiling athlete. Digging deeper, he finds she is the survivor of a horrific car accident, and has transferred schools in the hopes of starting a new life.  Henry's best friends, Murray, an Australian party guy, and Lola, a lesbian graphic designer, dub Grace a manic pixie dream girl and warn him to stay away from her.  But he dreams of being the one to turn her life around and end up with a happily-ever-after story.  Predictably this is not in the cards. Readers will love this emotionally complex, humorous, heartbreaking tale filled with sympathetic characters and an unusual story line.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

YA Books for Boys: The Bad Decisions Playlist, My Brilliant Idea, Character Driven, and The Haters

According to the U.S. Department of Education, school-age boys read a grade and a half lower than girls.  Boys read more comic books, baseball cards, magazines and non-fiction than novels. This is not surprising when one considers boys identify with men, who, in general, don’t read as many books as women.  Boys’ tastes in books reflect how their brains are wired.  Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently! A Guide for Teachers and Parents,writes that boys’ brains engage in less cross-hemisphere activity than girls’. In other words, boys use only half of their brain at any given time.  That means that when boys read, they need an extra jolt of sound, color, motion or some physical stimulation to get their brains up to speed. Thus boys prefer reading sports, adventure stories and fantasies.  Give boys the type books they prefer at a level of difficulty that they are comfortable with and they won’t be as reluctant to read. I am recommending four books this month that are not the typical action adventure or fantasy choices that we think of boys choosing, but rather realistic reads focusing on manic witty self-deprecating  main characters with a penchant for trouble.

The Bad Decisions Playlist by Michael Rubens focuses on Austin Methune, a musically gifted teen, who is his own worst enemy.  Austin's mishaps usually involve trying to impress girls and avoiding schoolwork.  He exhausts his single mother, who has a new boyfriend, and is threatening to send Austin off to a private school  Then his absentee father Shane, a rock star who has made plenty of bad decisions himself, shows up at the door.  Although Austin is angry at him, he is intrigued with the opportunity to play music with him.  Along for the ride are his would be tutor/girlfriend Josephine and his ex best friend/drummer Todd, who never seem to be able to stop Austin from impulsive decisions. This coming of age tale involves sex, drugs, parent issues and romance, and is filled with hilarity and sympathetic characters.  

My Brilliant Idea (and How It Caused My Downfall) was written by Stuart David, the front-man for Belle and Sebastian. Jack Dawson, "the Jackdaw," is a Ferris Bueller type character, whose madcap money making schemes lead him down a rabbit hole of crazy decisions.  Hoping to avoid a future working in a factory next to his dad, he wants to design and market an app to keep kids from getting in to trouble for daydreaming in class. Unfortunately,  Elsie, an eccentric genius who hates Jack, is the only one he knows who has the brains to do the programming.  Elsie will do so in exchange for Jackdaw arranging for her to see her crush Drew naked.  Jack approaches Drew's art school friend Yatesy to arrange the viewing, in exchange for finding someone to take the fall for a fighting incident, which will get Yatesy expelled.  Needless to say, complications ensue.  Jack is an incorrigible dreamer who won't take no for an answer.  Yatesy tells Jack, "Your mind is diseased. It's a sewer.  But I think I'm starting to like you."  Readers, too, will enjoy Jack and the quick paced hilarity and British humor of this novel.

Character Driven by David Lubar (Sophomore and Other Oxymorons) introduces 17-year-old Cliff Sparks who struggles with an angry unemployed father, an overworked mother, two jobs, a dwindling college fund and the recognizable high school bullies.  His one goal is losing his virginity, preferably with his crush Jillian, but any girl will do.  Breaking the fourth wall, Cliff engages the reader in his tale of woe, where close friends, art and books are his only solace. As the story progresses, readers work to decide what is fact and what is fiction in this first person "gotcha" style meta-fiction. For example, Cliff presents an idealized sexual encounter, but then follows it up with a much more awkward but realistic version of the same encounter, making this a book best suited for older readers. 

Finally, The Haters by Jesse Andrews (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) is a tale about three jazz camp escapees who form a band and hit the road. Bassist Wes and drummer Corey, are best friends, obsessed with music and hating on everything they encounter that isn't great.  Jazz camp misfits,who call themselves "jazz-nerd chaff" or the "worst of the best" at "Jazz Giants of Tomorrow Intensive Summer Workshop" meet Ash, a lead guitarist with a sense of adventure, who talks them into forming a band and going on a "Summer of Hate Tour." They are both crushing on her and will pretty much follow her anywhere. They load their instruments in her SUV and head South. Needless-to-say, their ideas for their world tour do not go as planned.  Jealousies and travel logistics, not to mention, lack of band cohesion make this a hilarious romp. Asides within the text, such as lists of potential band names, fake Wikipedia entries and screenplay-like flashbacks, help to create a unique contemporary read. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

New Film Related YA Novels: The Movie Version, My Unscripted Life and You in Five Acts

As the chair of the programming committee for the Boedecker Art House cinema, I find myself drawn to young adult novels that are movie related.  Three new fall releases in this category are on my list of recommendations this month.  The Movie Version by Emma Wunsch is about Amelia and her brother Toby, who are obsessed with movies and living their lives as though they are in one, until Toby goes through a drastic personality change.  My Unscripted Life by Lauren Morrill (The Trouble with Destiny and Being Sloane Jacobs) focuses on Dee Wilkie, who lands a summer job as a PA on a movie which stars a teen heartthrob on whom she has a crush. Finally, You in Five Acts by Una LaMarche (Like No Other) is a poignant story about five students at a performing arts school in NYC who are preparing for graduation.

In The Movie Version Amelia Anderson has always taken a back seat to her popular older brother Toby, whose goal is to live the "movie version" of his life.  Obsessed with movies, the two of them have always been close, but lately Toby hasn't been himself, disappearing into his room to write in his journal or hanging out with the stoners and doing drugs.  Amelia is in the throes of first love with a boy who lives in NYC, but finds herself distracted with Toby's struggles and covering up for his erratic behavior.  When he is finally diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized, she is devastated.  Ultimately, she will have to decide if she will let Toby derail her life, or let go and focus on her own hopes and dreams. Wunsch, a film critic turned author, provides detailed movie references that are a cinephile's dream.  Toby's flamboyant behavior which spirals into mental illness is heartbreaking and Amelia's reluctance to accept that the brother she idolizes is no more, will touch teens who are interested in realistic reads about teens dealing with family issues involving mental illness.

My Unscripted Life is a first person narrative about Dee Wilkie, an artistically talented teen, who is devastated when she is rejected by a summer fine arts program, but rebounds when fate throws her the opportunity to work on a movie set in her Georgia hometown.  Dee is thrilled to find the film stars Milo Ritter, a famous pop-star she has had a crush on since middle school, but she is then disappointed when he turns out to be a jerk. As they are continually thrown together, she gets to know him and realizes there is a reason for his standoffish behavior, and she may just be the girl to change his attitude. Although this is a fun light read, the author inserts movie script elements and stage directions into the text, making this a cut above many teen rom/coms. Dee's internal monologues reveal a girl who is in the process of self-discovery and decisions about life after high school and it all plays out on a movie set.  What's not to enjoy?

You in Five Acts is written from five points of view, telling the story of a diverse group of friends at Janus Academy, a high pressure performing arts school, in the months leading up to their final performances that will determine their futures. Joy, the African American ballerina, partners with the phenomenal Latino dancer Diego, who hopes their performance will move him out of the friend zone.  Ethan, the Russian American playwright hopes to turn his muse, the Puerto Rican actress Liv into something more, while she crushes on Dave, the movie celebrity, who recently transferred to Janus and is her costar in Ethan's play.  In each Act the narrator refers to the object of affection as "You." The plot is like a Shakespearean play in that love interests are continually shifting and emotions are misunderstood.  Ethan's passion for Classic American film informs his play and he tries unsuccessfully to get his friends to share his obsession. Although Liv is supposed to be his girlfriend, she is decidedly uninterested in a romance with him. Her snarky relationship with Dave belies the crush she has on him, while he tries to disregard the feelings he has for her, because she is supposedly Ethan's girl.  Diego and Joy indulge in dance films like Save the Last Dance and Center Stage, as they slowly acknowledge the passion they feel on the dance floor has blossomed into their offstage lives. The love relationships slowly work themselves out, as the story moves toward a tragedy that will change everything.  The well-written sympathetic characters, the frequent movie references and the author's clear understanding of life at an arts academy make this a truly compelling read.  It's release date is November 1, 2016.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Noted authors trying something new: Something in Between, And I Darken, and Kids of Appetite

When choosing books to read, I admit I am tempted to choose books by recognizable authors with a proven track record.  This month I will review new novels by three popular authors, who are trying something different. Melissa de la Cruz, who is well-known for her popular vampire series Blue Bloods, has written Something in Between, a stand alone novel about a Filipino girl who wins a National Scholar Award, only to find out she is undocumented. Kiersten White, who teens will recognize as the author of the Paranormalcy series, has penned And I Darken, the first book in a new historical romance trilogy. Finally, David Arnold, author of the critically acclaimed Mosquitoland, offers Kids of Appetite,  a murder mystery, whose main character is a boy with Moebius syndrome, the inability to move one's facial muscles.

In Something in Between Jasmine de los Santos, who emigrated from the Philippines at age nine, receives the National Scholar Award, complete with a full ride to the college of her choice. Naturally, she thinks her dreams of attending Stanford are within reach.  Expecting her parents to be thrilled, she is shocked when they reveal that they are undocumented immigrants and her accepting the scholarship could jeopardize their freedom.  All her years of striving for success, academically, as well as on an award winning cheerleading team, could go unrewarded.  To complicate matters Jasmine has started dating Royce Blakely, another Stanford hopeful, whose father is a California congressman, who has sponsored an anti-immigrant bill.  As Jasmine's family struggles to obtain visas, so that she can pursue her dreams legally, she searches for a solution through Stanford's need-blind international student program.  The story is semi autobiographical for the author, who attended Columbia on a need-blind scholarship, which she discusses in an author's note.

And I Darken, the first book in a new historical romance series, introduces Lada and Radu, children of Vlad Dracul, prince of Wallachia, who offers them as hostages to the Ottoman Empire, in the  hope of securing his throne.  They befriend Mehmed, the Ottoman heir, and the three grow up together, awaiting Mehmed's ascension to the Ottoman throne.  Homely, but fierce, Lada trains as a warrior, whereas, the beautiful Radu seeks peace and converts to Islam; yet both fall for the charismatic Mehmed.  As political intrigue and changing loyalties abound, the strange love triangle moves toward a denouement, setting up the sequel. This historical romance, set in the Ottoman Empire during the early to mid 1400s, weaves historical fact, including the real-life figure who served as the inspiration for Dracula, into an action-packed tale of war and romance.

In alternating chapters in Kids of Appetite, teens Vic and Madeline are individually questioned by the Hackensack Police Department about a recent murder.   In flashbacks to the days leading up to their interrogations, we meet the Kids of Appetite (KoA), a group of semi-homeless kids, who take in Vic, a boy with facial paralysis known as Moebius Syndrome, after he runs away from home.  Vic's father recently died from cancer, and when his mother's new boyfriend proposes, Vic grabs the urn filled with his dad's ashes and leaves. He is on a mission to scatter his ashes, as per dad's cryptic instructions, around NYC, and the group decides to help him.  Baz, a 27-year-old refugee from the Congo, is the group's father figure.  His mute brother Zuz and snarky 11-year-old Coco take a back seat to Madeline, Vic's love interest.  She is dealing with grief over her parents accidental deaths and abuse at the hands of her uncle, who takes in her and her demented grandmother after the accident. As the group helps Vic with his quest, he begins to feel a sense of belonging, and the stirrings of first love when he experiences his first kiss with Madeline. The solution to the murder mystery is secondary to the story of Vic's healing process, as he shows the KoA what it means to be a "heart thinker."  This is a book for kids who enjoy quirky reads with lots of character development. An added bonus is Madeline's obsession with S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders which she references frequently.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Romantic YA Reads for Summer's End: Suffer Love, Tell Me Three Things and P.S. I Like You

If teens are looking for a quick romantic read before required reading for school begins, or just an escape between loftier reads, I can recommend three new books that are a cut above.  Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake involves two teens, struggling with family problems, who meet when paired on a Shakespeare class project. Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum focuses on Jessie, a girl who is still grieving her mother's death and has to move from Chicago to L.A. when her father remarries.  She gets a little help in navigating the ins and outs of her new life from a secret email friend identifying himself as Somebody/Nobody.  In  P.S. I Like You by Kasie West, aspiring songwriter Lily also begins a secret correspondence that fuels her creativity when she finds a response to graffiti she doodled on her desk in chemistry class.

Suffer Love is a tale of star-crossed lovers, Hadley and Sam, who meet in Shakespeare class and find they are both struggling with family problems caused by a parent's infidelity. Hadley's university professor father had a year long affair with one of his students. Unbeknownst to Hadley, her dad's affair was with Sam's mother. Both Sam and Hadley are missing their respective parents who moved out when the affair was discovered, and are also dealing with the depressed parent left behind.   When Sam finds out the truth about the affair, he is afraid to tell Hadley, thinking he'll lose her. Complicating matters is Sam's fragile little sister Olivia, whom Hadley befriends. As they work on their Shakespeare project, the irony of his Shakespearean dilemma is not lost on Sam.  The plot tangles and references to Shakespearean literature make this a smart romance that readers will devour. If teachers wanted to use this in class, they could pair it with reading Much Ado about Nothing.

 Tell Me Three Things opens when Jessie, who is still grieving her mother's death, is abruptly moved from her Chicago home to the mansion of a wealthy LA widow her father met online and married. Suddenly she is trying to adjust to a new home, a stepbrother (Theo) and an elite private high school where she feels like she is swimming with sharks. When she gets an anonymous email from a boy calling himself Somebody/Nobody (SN), offering to be her "virtual spiritual guide" to navigating her new school, she reluctantly accepts his help, while wondering about her secret correspondent's identity. Is it Ethan, the cool but aloof guy in her AP English class who picks her as a study partner?  Is it Liam, the son of the owner of the bookstore where she works? Or is it Theo, who having recently lost his own father, at first treats her like a stranger at school, but slowly warms to her. As the email correspondence evolves into a game of "Tell Me Three Things," Jessie begins to get clues as to SN's identity, and at the same time begins to work through her grief, because SN is dealing with the death of a loved one, too.  The smart funny virtual conversations, filled with literary references, and the suspense as to SN's identity, as well as the sympathetic exploration of teens dealing with death, make this a compelling read that teens will love.

P.S. I Like You similarly involves a secret correspondence that blossoms into love. When aspiring songwriter Lily scribbles some indie music lyrics on her desktop in chemistry class, she is surprised to find a reply the next day. Soon she and the mystery correspondent are communicating in greater depth through notes hidden beneath the desk.  Not only does Lily enjoy getting to know him, his personal revelations seem to fuel her songwriting.  Suddenly she can't wait to get to the class she used to dread.  As she struggles to discover his identity, she crushes on Lucas, a hipster musician, and feuds with Cade, her sworn nemesis, who teases her mercilessly.  After her guitar is destroyed, ruining her chances to enter a songwriting contest, she is devastated.  Then in her role as office aide, she is sent to her pen pal's class with a note for the teacher and is shocked when she discovers his identity. She struggles to reconcile the personality in the notes, with the actual person, She can't seem to make herself stop corresponding with him and begins to realize she needs to make some changes in order to become her "best self."  Although it's fairly obvious who the pen pal is, Lily's road to discovery and reinvention of herself is the real story.  Kasie West (The Fill-In Boyfriend and The Distance Between Us) can be counted on to deliver sympathetic characters, clever dialogue and sweet romance, and in her latest offering she does not disappoint!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

YA Mysteries: A Study in Charlotte, The Only Thing Worse than Me is You, and The Art of Not Breathing

Mysteries have always been considered fun escapist literature, whether they are conventional detective yarns or unconventional narratives filled with suspense.  Although vastly different in tone, three new young adult summer reads I would recommend can be classified as mysteries.  A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro is the first in a new trilogy starring descendants of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  The Only Thing Worse than Me is You by Lily Anderson is a re-imagining of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, where the two adversaries need to cooperate to get to the bottom of a school cheating scandal.  Finally, The Art of Not Breathing by Sarah Alexander, focuses on a grief stricken girl who is trying to find out the truth about her twin brother's drowning.

A Study in Charlotte introduces Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson, the famous literary sleuths' descendants who are thrown together at Sherringford Prep School in modern day Connecticut.  Holmes' antisocial nature and drug problems are reminiscent of her famous ancestor and Watson's job again is to aid with investigations and narrate the story. When a schoolmate, who date raped Charlotte and was accosted by Jamie, is murdered, they are both under suspicion and launch an investigation to exonerate themselves.  As further crimes are committed, each mimicking a famous Holmes case,  Charlotte and Jamie use their deductive powers to solve the case.  Complete with poisons, explosions, deadly viruses and lurking descendants of Moriarty, this mystery is a real page-turner.

In the witty homage to Much Ado About Nothing, The Only Thing Worse Than Me is You, Trixie Watson and Ben West have been rivals since first grade.  Their constant snarking against each other is exhausting for their friends, but as we all know there is a thin line between love and hate.  Trixie is determined to pass Ben in class rank before graduation, but when their best friends Harper and Cornell, who are dating, ask them to declare a truce, she ends up falling for Ben instead.  She can't resist staying up at night talking with him on the phone about all their common geeky interests including Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Wars and Marvel comics. When Harper, number two in the class, is accused of cheating to pass Cornell, who is number one, Trixie can't believe it and sets out to prove her innocent.  Finding out who is really the culprit in the cheating scandal challenges her relationship with Ben.  Nerdy references and stinging wordplay, as well as riffs on Shakespeare's original story, will charm readers as the suspense-filled plot keeps them hoping for a happy ending.

The Art of Not Breathing adds an element of mystery to a tale of grief set in Scotland.  When Elsie's disabled twin brother Eddie drowns in the North Sea, her family falls into dysfunction.  Dad disappears, Mom drinks and older brother Dillon stops eating; all of them seemingly overreacting to Eddie's death.  Five years have passed and Elsie, who can't remember what really happened the day Eddie drowned, is still searching for answers.  When charismatic free-diver Tay befriends her, and she begins to explore the underwater world with him, things that happened that day begin coming back to her.  But everyone is hiding secrets, thwarting her attempts to unravel the mystery. The enigmatic setting and the vivid details describing Elsie's free-diving episodes where she communes with Eddie, are riveting, as she unravels the various subplots in this multi-level mystery.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Beach Reads: The Girl from Everywhere, Smash & Grab and Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies

Summer beach reads come in all shapes and sizes.  If you want a hefty fantasy novel, I would recommend The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Helig. This time travel fantasy imagines a girl who travels around the world across centuries looking for a map that might alter her future.  Smash & Grab by Amy Christine Parker is a heist novel that unites a rich thrill-seeking girl with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks in planning a caper that will benefit them both.  Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies, a romantic comedy by Laura Stample, finds Harper Anderson with a dream internship in NYC, writing about a topic she knows little about - love.

The Girl from Everywhere is the first book in a duology, which introduces 16-year-old Nix, a girl who has traveled around the world through centuries aboard her father's time-traveling ship.  Nix was born in Hawaii in 1868; when her mother dies in childbirth, her roguish opium addicted father sets sail with her.  He can sail anywhere in time that he wants, as long as he has a map; but now he is seeking a map to take him back to 1868 so that he can change the past and resurrect his wife.  The question is, what will that do to Nix's future, in fact her entire existence?  Along with her Persian thief love interest, Kash, who has been sailing with them for two years, Nix struggles to keep her father from acquiring the map that could lead to her demise.  This skillful mashup of science fiction, Hawaiian history, and mythology is filled with swashbuckling adventure, making it a must read for summer.

In Smash and Grab Lexi is a rich adrenaline junkie, whose greatest joy is executing dares like base jumping off a skyscraper with her crew.  Christian is a studious guy from the wrong side of town, who is blackmailed into committing bank robberies by the gang leaders in his neighborhood.  Their paths cross when Lexi, whose father had been jailed for bank fraud, is trying to find evidence to implicate his boss, at the same time Christian's gang is casing his bank for their next job.  Romantic sparks fly as they cooperate to plan a heist that will help Lexi exonerate her father and Christian find a way out of a life of crime, so he can go to college.  Told from alternating points of view, the story unfolds at a breakneck pace, keeping the reader turning pages and hoping their star-crossed love will find a way.

Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies focuses on Harper Anderson, a California girl who longs to be a writer.  When she is offered an internship at a teen magazine in NYC, she jumps at the chance.  However, her "edgy" personal essay about her fictitious dating experiences, leads her editor to make her the magazine's dating blogger.  As she tries to fit in with her fellow interns and come up with witty articles, the web of lies she spins spirals out of control.  Harper begins dating Carter, the son of the magazine's owner, but the guy she really connects with is a dog walker named Ben.  Her snarky articles make her a social media darling, but when her best friend finds out Harper has appropriated her dating experiences as her own, Harper must come clean.  The love triangle is predictable, but the author creates a sympathetic character, whose hilarious dating blogs and comedic misadventures keep the reader in stitches and rooting for her all the way.