Friday, July 24, 2009

A Certain Strain of Peculiar

Gigi Amateau, April 2009. A Certain Strain of Peculiar features Mary Harold, a thirteen-year-old girl living with her grandmother in Wren, Alabama. This is one of those "three generations of strong Southern women" novels, with the twist that it's for middle-grade readers. By observing her grandmother (and her mother, to a lesser degree), Mary Harold learns to accept others' shortcomings and to love herself while still improving as a person. She tames a baby deer, raises a cow, and sets out to break the county record for doing the most pull-ups.

This book doesn't have any explicitly gay content. It's reviewed here because one of the drawbacks of being a loving, intense, not-ready-for-boys-yet young teenage girl is that her classmates will, and do, call her a dyke. (She may even be one; there is no first hetero love scene at the end.) The author handles this nicely; Mary Harold rejects the notion that she is gay without feeling insulted by the very idea.

I didn't love this novel personally - it's a little too preachy and has just a touch of magic realism, which I loathe - but it's a nice bridge from juvenile chapter books into YA fiction, and Mary Harold is a good role model for girls her age.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tillmon County Fire

Pamela Ehrenberg, May 2009. In Ehrenberg's second YA novel, she develops the story of an arson in rural Tillmon County through the voices of eight teens. Cait is a bystander who observed a sort of confession; Aiden is born-again and out to make a point; Ben and Amelia are dating, but Ben is secretly gay and Amelia has an online flirtation with another guy; Lacey is pregnant and no one knows and she works at the hardware store where the lighter fluid was purchased; Albert is different from the other kids, probably autistic, and tries to help out where he shouldn't have; Jeremy is his twin brother and has somehow become friends with Aiden; and Rob lived in the house that's burned to the ground. The story of the arson, a hate crime directed at the new kid from New York who "started prancing and lisping around Tillmon County High School" over the winter, comes out slowly via kids' stories that don't seem to be related but eventually add up.

A story with so many voices can be repetitive or difficult to control, but Ehrenberg ably avoids these problems by sticking to a slim 171 pages and not repeating most of the action from multiple viewpoints. The book starts out just a little too slowly to make it perfect for reluctant readers, who may be drawn to it nevertheless by the red and black matchbook cover art and low page count. Recommended for all public libraries and most schools as well, although teens plotting violence can be a controversial subject.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Malinda Lo, September 2009. Twelve-year-old Ash has grown up listening to fairy tales and experiencing medical care provided by greenwitches rather than doctors, so she's surprised but not shocked when her late-night wanderings in the forest lead her to fairyland. She welcomes the escape; after her father's recent death, she's been forced to work as a housekeeper and ladies' maid for her new stepmother and two stepsisters.

Ash falls in love with a scary and elusive fairy-boy named Sidhean who is cursed to love her, and she feels herself losing control the more time she spends with him in the woods. But the same paths that lead her to fairyland also bring her to Kaisa, huntress for the king, who belongs to Ash's own world. Ash's attraction to Kaisa competes with her longing for fairyland, but she doesn't feel compelled to choose between them. Nor does she feel that one attraction is wrong, as in many coming-out tales. The twist comes when Ash, in order to meet Kaisa at a ball, must ask for Sidhean's help. In return, he asks that she become completely his, leaving her in a bind between her lovers.

The tale is set against a rich backdrop of ballgowns and class struggles, minor characters that stick with the reader (I hope there's a sequel focusing on Gwen), and the delicate balance between fairyland and real life. The love story is both vivid and subtle, and the fact that each character would survive without her partner removes this from the romance genre, although it will still appeal to readers of same. In fact, this not-romance, not-realistic, not-quite-fantasy novel will probably appeal to nearly all of your teen girls. Highly recommended. And now I'm the first and last reviewer to not mention Cinderella...oops.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Love Is the Higher Law

David Levithan, August 2009. "It's starting to feel like I'm over at a friend's house, which isn't a bad thing for a seventh date, but is pretty discouraging for a first. But there's no way I'm going to make a move without him giving me some indication that he wants me to make a move -- which I guess is a way of me saying that he has to make the move, since indications are, in general, also moves."

That's what's going through Peter's head as he tries to figure out whether he and Jasper will hook up while watching Cabaret on their first date. Later, we hear about the experience from Jasper's point of view too; he and Peter are two of the book's three narrators, detailing how they experienced September 11, 2001, and its aftermath as residents of New York. Peter, the indie kid, is waiting for Tower Records to open so he can get the new Bob Dylan. Claire, the moral center, was at school near the towers and led her little brother on the long walk uptown away from the smoke. Jasper, the slacker college kid, slept through the whole thing.

As in the outstanding Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and the solid Naomi and Ely's No-Kiss List, this novel is partly about the drama of older adolescents, partly a love letter to New York, and partly a celebration of music geekdom. Levithan drops references to Travis and Ryan Adams and the Magnetic Fields, and these tidbits make Peter's character the most interesting and relatable voice in the book.

Summary: Outstanding. Moving, realistic, funny, hopeful, and a page-turner. Multiple copies recommended for every library.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Secrets of Truth and Beauty

Megan Frazer, July 2009. Dara's family life seems pretty normal - sure, her mom is strict, but whatever - until she finds a folder of family birth certificates and realizes she has an older sister, Rachel. When she confronts her parents, they admit Rachel ran away before Dara was born and that they have no relationship with her.

Dara was crowned Little Miss Maine when she was a kid, but now she's seventeen and significantly overweight. She plans her junior autobiography project around this theme, but parts of it are taken out of context by her teacher and counselor, so her furious parents pull her out of school. Dara rebels by going off to live with Rachel on her Massachusetts dairy farm. While there, Dara finds out some family secrets (hint: the farm is historically a refuge for gay kids whose parents kick them out) and makes some new friends, including Owen (gay!) and his brother (not gay! likes Dara!).

Summarizing this plot in these few words makes it recognizable as your basic coming-of-age story, and it is - but it's extremely well done. Plot threads like the out-of-order diary pages Dara finds in a closet interweave with tales of Rachel's love life, domestic scenes of the "family" cooking dinner together, and Dara's eventual decision to enter a local beauty pageant. Such peripheral characters as silent, elderly matriarch Belinda and Dara's kindly and undersung father contribute to a novel more complex than it might seem initially. Perhaps the best detail is Dara's commitment to fashion despite her size; she and Owen are always creating spectactular outfits that would delight the members of fatshionista. Highly recommended for all public, middle and high school libraries.

Candy Everybody Wants

Josh Kilmer-Purcell, 2008. In case the shiny silver color with hot-pink lettering doesn't give it away, this book is one big gay party. In the opening scene, fourteen-year-old Jayson is shooting his Dallas/Dynasty crossover (that'd be Dallasty), starring himself as the female lead - as good a plan as any to make out with the cute neighbor boy he's cast opposite. Jayson has never been kissed, although he's quite comfortable with his identity, having "decided that he was homosexual while watching a Phil Donahue episode on the topic eight years earlier. He'd come home early from kindergarten that day because he'd gotten a stomach ache from wondering whether his Hee Haw overalls were too outré for his peers. Jayson had been sent home from school fairly often over the years, including the first day of kindergarten when he'd become inconsolably agitated that the school wouldn't change their spelling of his name from 'Jason' to 'Jayson.' He felt very strongly that he needed the extra flair to set himself apart from the other, obviously less special Jasons in the class."

Jayson's home life is somewhat chaotic; he doesn't know who his father is, his younger brother suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome, and his mom has been married eleven times. After kicking out her latest live-in boyfriend, she announces to Jayson that his father is an old movie star, Oscar Harlande, and that Jayson will be visiting him. Tomorrow. By himself. When Jayson shows up on Oscar's doorstep, he learns that Oscar, who runs an escort service for older gay men interested in sleeping with young Broadway talent, has no idea who Jayson is. Moreover, Jayson's long-time celebrity crush just happens to be living in the house.

The plot only grows more far-fetched from there, but it contributes to the soap-operatically gay smorgasbord that is Candy Everybody Wants. Recommended especially for fans of How I Got into College, Freak Show, and other big gay carnivals of teen fiction.