Elizabeth Hand–Illyria

The What: Cousins Maddy and Rogan were born on the same day, hours apart. Each the youngest of six siblings, they seek solace in each other even as their massive family threatens to tear them apart. They can’t bring themselves to entirely break with their family’s legacy, though: their great-grandmother was a famous actress, and it seems that the two of them have inherited her talent. When the cousins are cast in their school’s production of “Twelfth Night,” events are set in motion that will change their lives forever.

The Good: This is a pitch-perfect story, and it is beautifully written. I feel as though I would know Arden Terrace on sight. Hand evokes a dreamy, ethereal feeling and sustains it throughout the book, even when relating the most mundane details; the narrative camera is always in soft focus. I appreciate her choice of an older narrator looking back on a younger self, given the rarity of that point of view in contemporary YA lit.  And ohmigod, one of the characters is bisexual, and it is not a big deal. Elizabeth Hand, you are my newest writer-crush.

The Meh: It ends so soon! After slogging through the description-heavy beginning, I connected to these characters, and then… nothing. The end. 135 pages is an awkward length: either this needs to be the story of Maddy and Rogan’s early years, or it needs to be the saga of the arc of their love, but the current arrangement feels curtailed.

Hand It To: Character and setting readers, and theater nerds.

Natalie Standiford–How To Say Goodbye In Robot

The What: Bea finds herself starting her senior year of high school in Baltimore. Her father is rarely home, her mother is acting increasingly bizarre, and her classmates are not future friend material. Then she meets Jonah, whom her classmates call Ghost Boy. As she learns more about his bizarre past, their lives become more and more intertwined. But are they friends? Girlfriend and boyfriend? None of the words seem right, and yet they mean so much to each other…

The Good: Standiford has a gift for showing brokenness. Whether it’s parental connections, friendship, romance, or simply Bea’s own ability to cope with her sadness, Standiford convincingly shows dysfunction. I was deeply moved by the AM radio crew and by their efforts to buoy each other up. Also, to reverse my usual complaint, there is a marvelous balance of showing and telling here. The writing is some of the best I’ve encountered in YA lit-land.

The Meh: This story is a fantastic ride, but it took a good 70 pages to get rolling. For a book that is 276 pages long, that’s an awfully long warm-up lap; the strongly episodic feel and slow pace of the book will not appeal to “story” readers.

Hand It To: Character and language readers, quirky teens.

Fumi Yoshinaga–Ōoku: The Inner Chamber, Vol. 1

The What: In an alternate 18th-century Japan, the Redface Plague sweeps through the populace and kills 75% of the male population. Women step into previously male roles, including that of the Shogun. The Shogun keeps an inner sanctum of men called the Ōoku for her, uh, recreational purposes. It is there that our plucky protagonist, Yunoshin Mizuno, finds himself when his samurai family falls on rough times. Mizuno trades in his freedom for money for his family by joining the Ōoku, but what price will he pay for his sacrifice…?

The Good: Oh, the artwork! The artwork! Crisp, clean lines bring the world of the Ōoku to life. Yoshinaga has a well-trained eye; there is enough detail to make a believable and engaging world, but not so much as to bog down the flow between panels. Beautiful. Also, her drawings of facial expressions are incredible. There is such subtlety in them. Outside of the artwork, there are substantive themes for the thinking reader to ponder. Questions about the nature of political power and the origin of gender differences abound. Also, with its many relationships between those of unequal social status and/or age, this title would be an excellent springboard for discussions of what constitutes consent.

The Meh: Rarely have I taken such pleasure in writing a “Meh” section of a review. Here goes: the cast of tertiary characters is poorly differentiated, the plot is ludicrous, the narrative takes a paperclip bend around the middle of the book and never recovers its momentum… and none of these problems hurt my enjoyment of the book. Yoshinaga has a sharp instinct for “feel,” for the big picture of her work, and she wisely chose to put her time and energy into the facets of the book that made it into the “The Good” section. The “meh” aspects aren’t vital to the book’s overall impact, so no harm, no foul.

Hand It To: Older teens (the sex isn’t particularly steamy, and fades to black without showing anyone’s, um, interesting bits, but the themes are mature), Japanophiles, and older reluctant readers.

Alison Bechdel–Fun Home

Oh my gosh, dear readers, I never meant to leave you for so long. My apologies! An upcoming interstate move and a bout with illness have kept my attention elsewhere, but I’m up for more reviews if you are. We’ll start with Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

The What: Fun Home is an autobiographical graphic novel that portrays Bechdel’s life through her college years. The anecdotes she relates weave around the mystery at the core of the book: shortly after a college-aged Bechdel learns that her father is gay, he commits suicide. She is left with photographs and other ephemera, but few answers.

The Good: This book stunned me. I’m familiar with Bechdel’s style from Dykes To Watch Out For, the long-running comic strip, but I didn’t know much about her personal life. Her accounts of growing up in a dysfunctional family that ran a funeral home (which they called the “fun home”) were riveting. One of the hallmarks of DTWOF is Bechdel’s keen yet compassionate observations about human nature; that same gift is evident in her autobiography. Also, her sense of humor leavens serious subject matter without trivializing it.

The Meh: To quote Thom Yorke’s “The Bends,” “I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish something would happen.” Long segments of description, while interesting and aptly illustrated, left me wanting more motion in the plot.

Hand It To: Older teens, NP’s character readers, fans of DTWOF, and GLBTQA high school students.


Hello, faithful readers! It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? I’ve been reading copiously, but I haven’t been reading YA. Eek. Mea culpa, and before too long, I’ll be posting a review of Alyson Bechdel’s “Fun House.” This graphic novel will have crossover appeal for older teens.

In the meantime, here’s an opportunity to change the world: the Harry Potter Alliance, which calls itself a “Dumbledore’s Army for the real world,” has a chance to win a quarter of a million dollars. If you can click, you can help them do it here. If you’re a fan of the Harry Potter books, you will definitely want to check out this opportunity.

Mary and John Gribbin–The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

The What: The Gribbins, scientists both, take on Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. They use examples from the trilogy to illustrate scientific principles. Quantum entanglement, Jungian psychology, the Many-Worlds theory, and the Northern Lights are all fair game. Even Schrodinger’s Cat makes an appearance!

The Good: The Gribbins manage to explain concepts as complicated as string theory in a clear and easy-to-follow manner (even I understood what they meant, and I had to take Physics For Poets back in undergrad.) The tone is light even when the content is mind-bending, and the illustrations and diagrams are helpful. I loved that this book illuminated in both directions: I understood the natural world better once I finished it, and I also had a deeper understanding of Pullman’s trilogy.

The Meh: Science-inclined readers who are not fans of the series will find no point in the many references to the books’ events. In conservative religious communities, many young adults are not allowed to read Pullman’s trilogy, and will consequently be more likely to avoid this book.

Hand It To: His Dark Materials fans, science geeks, imaginative teens who need or want to read a non-fiction book

James St. James–Freak Show

The What: Billy Bloom, “Gender Obscurist” extraordinaire, is starting his senior year of high school in a new place. He can’t connect to the conservative Florida teens at his ultra-rich school, and they don’t know what to make of him, either. Violent students, apathetic teachers, and a devastatingly gorgeous football-player crush who couldn’t–just couldn’t!–be gay combine to make life miserable for Billy. Billy, however, is not one to take misery sitting down. Instead, he grabs his fabulous array of makeups, custom costumes and wigs, and takes on the school in glittery head-on style.

The Good: This is a laugh-out-loud hilarious book with a great deal of substance beneath the chiffon, and it’s told in a voice that you won’t find anywhere else in YA lit today. Billy Bloom is a riot. Open to any page of Freak Show, and you’ll immediately get a sense of his singular perspective on Florida private-school life:

Yes, it was Preppies On Parade: Hi, Muffy! Hi, Buffy! Hey, Binky, Hey, Biff! There’s Moose McLettersweater! And his best girl, Abby Add-a-pearl! (pg. 15)

Billy’s manic glee successfully carries the story through a wide array of emotional registers, even when the events being narrated are quite serious. His epic crush on Flip Kelly, local football legend, manages to be at once particular (this is Billy we’re talking about, after all) and universal (it sounds like any first love, and props to St. James for recognizing that love is love is love.)

The Meh: St. James gives enough insight into Billy, and enough detail about the other characters, that I came to care about them. However, the novel shies away from showing high-stakes moments between the characters: why don’t we see Billy and his dad working out a better way to relate to each other? Why doesn’t Billy face his mother? I enjoyed the way that things ultimately worked out with Flip, but I found it hard to believe that Flip covered so much emotional ground so quickly. It would have been easier to believe if I’d seen more of his process on the page. Also, Blah Blah Blah is the most under-used character in YA lit today. I want a sequel from her perspective!

Hand It To: NP’s character readers, and fans of all things over-the-top and glittery

Francisco X. Stork–Marcelo In The Real World

The What: Marcelo Sandoval is on the Asperger’s spectrum. He has gone to a special-needs school, Paterson, for his whole life. In the summer before his senior year, his father Arturo insists that he enter “the real world”: Marcelo must work in his father’s law office for the summer. If he succeeds in navigating its challenges, he will be allowed to choose where he will finish his high school career. If he fails, his father will force him to attend public school so that he can learn to function in the outside world. Marcelo goes into the law office intimidated and unsure of how to interpret people, but little by little, he learns about them and finds a mystery whose answers will change his world forever.

The Good: Stork did a beautiful, masterful job of creating Marcelo’s voice. While clearly neuro-atypical, Marcelo is a brilliant narrator who is easy to care about. His use of the third person, attention to detail, and “internal music” make him unique and bring his world into life. As wonderful as Marcelo is, the book is not only about him. It grapples with great questions: what is good? What is evil? To what should we give our loyalty? How do we decide what to do when every path in front of us stands to cause harm? Without bonking the readers over the head, Stork engages them with important issues, and resolves them without pat or easy-way-out answers.

The Meh: Story readers won’t fall in love with this book. It’s shamelessly for people who read for characters and ideas, so if a brisk plotline floats your reading boat, chart a course for elsewhere.

Hand It To: NP’s character and language readers, teens looking to understand neuro-atypical friends or siblings.

Lena Prodan–The Suicide Year

The What: Nameless Protagonist (no, really, zie doesn’t have a name) lives on a military base. Hir father is physically abusive, hir mother is mentally unstable, and zie hirself is transgendered and suicidal. Add in fairweather friend Eric, their mutual crush Alex, and lots of drug-soaked trips to the local porn theater between church group hiking trips, and you’ve got yourself a premise.

The Good: The main character is easy to care about. Zie has so little to look forward to, and receives so little love and affection from the other characters, that it was impossible not to root for hir in hir quest to hike the Appalachian Trail and find love. Prodan gets props from me for finding a new story to tell in the often repetitive world of YA lit: I can’t say that I have ever read nor heard of another story whose protagonist is a nameless, overweight, female-to-male pre-or-non-op transsexual military brat.

The Meh: Numerous typos inhibited my enjoyment of this book. Sneaky grammar problems would be one thing, but “sheer” instead of “shear”? Underscores where there should be spaces? Letters left off of the ends of words? Torquere Press, I bet I could do better than that. Freelance offers welcome. : p  In terms of the story itself, it’s… it’s missing something. It lacks the alchemical touch that turns good components into a good story, and would be best for YA libraries with a substantial GLBT collection.

Hand It To: Fans of hardcore gayngst (gay angst, for yall uninitiated out there), violently emo teens, Ellen Hopkins fans.

Peter Cameron–Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

The What: James uses precise language, doesn’t want to go to college, and wants to live at once as an observer and as someone who doesn’t examine himself too closely. His mother’s art gallery is nearly as unsuccessful as her third marriage, his father is a lawyer who doesn’t make time for him, and he gets along better with his sister’s married boyfriend than he does with her. What’s a New York teen to do in a world too cruel and senseless to bother caring about?

The Good: There are lots of goodies here for the adult reader. Characters like Rainer Maria, a professor who touts “linguistic purity,” bring welcome satire to the table. James’ depression and its consequences convincingly imbue every motion, however quotidian it may be. His intelligence makes him a compelling narrator, and his social ineptitude makes for cringe-inducing scenes that will bring back adolescence for older readers. Strong writing keeps the reader’s interest, even when plot points are few and far between.

The Meh: I struggled to write the “The What” section of this review, which is normally the easiest, because this book isn’t really about anything. “A teen is lonely and searches for fulfillment” would pretty much capture every relevant plot point. If you read for story alone, skip this one; if you liked “Catcher In The Rye,” don’t miss it.

Hand It To: Nancy Pearl’s character and language readers, older teens, writers, Salinger fans.

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