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.

Sheri Reynolds–The Sweet In-Between

The What: Kendra, better known as Kenny, has a complicated life. Her father’s girlfriend is raising her, she lives with three “siblings” to whom she is not related, and her biological parents are dead (her mother) or in jail (her father). She has begun to dress and live as a boy, stymieing those close to her. Add in the catalyst of a murder next door, and Kenny begins to unravel in unexpected ways.

The Good: The descriptions throughout this book are just beautiful. Each character, and each place, have a vivid life that appeals to the senses of the reader. I have not spent much time in the American South, but after reading this book, I feel as though I have lived in Virginia. Additionally, Kenny is a unique protagonist for whom you will never stop rooting, even as adversity after adversity closes in around hir.

The Meh: I hesitate to type what may be considered a spoiler, but I’ll phrase it as vaguely as I can and move on: the narrative tone, for reasons believable within the story, seems to promote a weary acceptance of violent behavior. It was frustrating as a reader to not share a character’s journey toward demanding self-respect.

Hand It To: Older teens, fans of Fannie Flagg or Jill Conner Browne, Nancy Pearl’s character and setting readers. (Note: this title is not marketed as YA, so despite its teen protagonist, I would consider it a crossover title.)

Review Minis: Less Words, Just As Much Fun!

Hello, noble readers! In the interests of writing *some*thing about the heaps of books I’ve been nomming my way through of late, I decided to do mini-reviews. I’ll do one sentence each of my usual categories, so hopefully you’ll be able to get the flavor of the book even in this brief format.

Bizenghast, volume 6: Having conquered enough restless spirits, Dinah prepares to meet her new protector at the mausoleum, but new discoveries mar the experience. The art is better than ever, the vibe is deliciously macabre, and–one word–Edaniel! Unfortunately, the problem of uneven and difficult-to-follow plot development continues to dog the series. Hand it to Goths, fans of American manga, and anyone who likes cosplay.

Black, White, and Jewish: Rebecca Walker spent her formative years bouncing back and forth: between parents, between coasts, and between cultures. Her honesty is heartbreaking, and her experiences as a “Movement Child” are unlike anything I’ve read before. I would have enjoyed the book more if she had shared more of her adult reflections on her childhood; as it stands, she tells much of her story without unpacking it. Offer it to fans of memoir or feminism, or Nancy Pearl’s character readers.

Blood Roses: Francesca Lia Block brings us another book of magical realist urban fairy tales, this time in the form of short stories. The language is beautiful and shimmering, as always, and teenage girls will relate to the intensity and awkwardness that Block’s protagonists bring to their relationships. For longtime Block readers, there may be nothing new here, but the shorter story lengths may attract readers daunted by page count of the Dangerous Angels anthology. Suggest it to fans of magical realism, high school girls, and readers with an interest in urban glam.

Graceling: Katsa is Graced, meaning that she has a superhuman ability; her Grace is killing, which her uncle uses for his own nefarious purposes. Katsa’s journey from property to person takes her through literal and figurative lands, and the writing is good enough to make this fantasy plot feel fresh. Teens with conservative convictions may find the heroine’s takes on marriage and abortion to be off-putting. Try it on fantasy fans, older teens, and fans of non-conventional romances.

Brian Katcher–Almost Perfect

The What: Logan’s a good small-town Missouri boy. He lives in a trailer, runs track, and hangs out with his friends. He can’t get over his ex, Brenda, until a new girl arrives at his small high school. Sage is attractive, friendly, and mysterious: her parents won’t allow her to date. Logan and Sage become friends, and then something more than friends. When Logan finds out that Sage is a male-to-female transsexual, he is furious and refuses to speak to her. Yet no matter how hard he tries to deny it, he misses her, and is still attracted to her. What does that mean for him, and what will happen to Sage when she begins to share her secret?

The Good: Despite the story’s potential to devolve into melodrama (poor boy with problems falls for rich girl with bigger problems), Katcher’s sense of humor keeps the tone afloat. I laughed out loud so often that a co-worker sharing the break room with me looked up from her crossword puzzle in disbelief and asked, “What are you reading?” Logan’s self-deprecating approach to life, struggles with acceptance, and quiet insights will resonate with teens, especially guys. Also, the simultaneous closeness and distance encompassed in Logan’s relationships with his mother and sister (and his father, in absentia) will feel familiar to many teens.

The Meh: Two biggies. One, I enjoyed the story, but it’s too long. The middle needs to be tightened up to spare us some of Logan and Sage’s numerous ups and downs; I kept looking at the number of pages left and thinking, “Where can this story possibly go that would require this much page space?” Two, the cover will make it hard to sell to teenage guys, but that’s exactly who this book will most appeal to. Not ideal, Marketing Department.

Hand It To: Older teen guys, fans of “Luna” or “Parrotfish,” Nancy Pearl’s character readers, anyone interested in transgender fiction.

Nick Burd–The Vast Fields Of Ordinary

The What: Dade lives in the suburbs. Dade is gay. Dade is dating Pablo, if by “dating” he means “largely being ignored by and sometimes hooking up with.” His parents’ marriage has collapsed, his dad is never home, and his mom is propped up by white wine and pills. His last summer in town is looking bleak until he meets Alex, who is suspiciously attractive, and apparently interested in Dade. Based on this framework, you probably think you’ve read this story before. Patience, grasshoppers. Patience.

The Good: Nick Burd doesn’t describe, depict, or convey what it’s like to be a queer teen in the heteronormative suburbs. Nick Burd nails what it’s like to be a queer teen in the heteronormative suburbs. The neighborhoods take on a life of their own. They are lumbering, preternatural things, and Dade stumbles through them in his quest to externally reify his inner self-awareness. The people he meets along the way are the people we suburbs-raised folks have known since birth: the nouveau riche, the never-riche, the pill-popping, the norm-obsessed… Burd knows his subject, and he brings it to life with skill and nuance. Quite honestly, I haven’t ruled out writing him a drooling fangirl letter; we’re trying to do similar things in our writing with the-suburbs-as-space, and I’d love to learn from him.

The Meh: I can’t tell you the meh without ruining the plot for you, so suffice it to say that a major event toward the end of the novel was mistimed. By the time Major Event hits, neither the reader nor Dade are sufficiently invested in its outcome for the emotional impact to resonate.

Hand It To: Nancy Pearl’s character, setting, and language readers; gay teens and those who like to read about them; suburban teens.

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