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.

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.

Kekla Magoon–The Rock And The River

The What: Sam Childs is the son of Roland Childs, famed civil rights activist. He has spent his life learning and adhering to his father’s pacifist ideology. His older brother Steve, known as Stick, decides that Roland’s methods will not accomplish the vast changes that must come. He joins the Black Panther movement. Through it, he improves his community, providing breakfast to children who would otherwise go without, and building a clinic for those who suffered from the racist policies of white-run hospitals. Unlike his father, though, Stick does not rule out violence as a way of creating change. Will Sam choose to stay true to what his father has taught him, or will he follow his brother into a different life?

The Good: YA lit desperately needed a book about the Black Panthers. Under-represented and willfully misunderstood in popular discourse, this group was long overdue for an accurate depiction. Many of the descriptions of the group’s goals and activities made me nod with recognition; it was a real delight to read a book about the Panthers that let them speak in their own words (through their precepts). The portrayal is not romanticized, either–in one brief scene, the group’s latent sexism comes through. Magoon does a marvelous job writing family and social relationships, and bringing out the many ways we can wound each other through pride, arrogance, cruelty, unexamined difference, or ignorance. She makes the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s feel real and immediate; I can’t remember the last book that has made me cry so hard and so often, nor made me so furious about the injustices that still mar our nation. The historical figures that she writes into the story, including Huey Newton and Fred Hampton, provide good education for those unaware of their accomplishments, and a rewarding reading experience for those familiar with them.

The Meh: Two things stood out. The simpler one is the repeated use of statements like (I’m paraphrasing here) and I knew things would never be the same again. I prefer to see truths like that expressed through showing rather than through telling, as being told that things are different carries less punch than *seeing* how they are now different. The second thing is that as far as I could tell, all but the denouement of the story was really about Stick and his journey from pacifist to Panther. That’s awesome–it’s a fiercely compelling story, and one that I loved reading and will talk up to my teens–but I was frustrated that Sam was narrating it. The story’s heart/guts/metaphor of your choice was with his brother, so hearing those events through Sam created a remove between reader and story that didn’t have to be there.

Hand It To: Nancy Pearl’s character readers, historical fiction readers, anyone interested in the non-pacifist branch of the Civil Rights movement

Meaghan Brothers–Debbie Harry Sings In French

The What: Johnny hasn’t had an easy time of it. His dad was rarely around, and before Johnny turned fourteen, he died. Then his mom fell into grief, and couldn’t take care of the house. Johnny took over, and to deal with the pain, he turned to drinking. Once his mom recovered, she found that he was someone she couldn’t stand to live with. She sent him to live with his uncle in South Carolina, where he finds homophobia, a wicked-good record store, and a girl named Maria who’s just as passionate and troubled as he is.

The Good: I’m a little swoony-in-love with this book. Johnny discovers who he is without undue angst, and with great humor and patience. He finds the supportive Maria, who’s a well-done character in her own right. The relationships between friends, family, and lovers resound with authenticity. And the music! So good! I was a little surprised that Morrissey never made an appearance, but I’m probably revealing a big ol’ musical ignorance by saying that (“Blondie fans, listen to Morrissey? Please!”) The book questions gender and the labels that we assign GLBTQ people without bonking the reader over the head–this book is no polemic. Woo!

The Meh: I couldn’t decide whether the ending (don’t wanna ruin it for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading this book yet) was sweet and warm and full of identity reclamation, or if it was so sweet that it made me throw up in my mouth a little. Also, I had trouble keeping track of some of the very minor characters, especially Johnny’s friends from before the move. And “transvestite?” Really? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure we left that behind with Dr. Frank-N-Furter in “Rocky Horror.” I thought these days, folks went with “cross-dresser.”

Hand It To: guys who aren’t afraid of their feminine side, girls and guys who aren’t afraid of said guys, and anyone who’s down with difference.

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa–Daughters of the Stone

The What: Okay, this book isn’t technically YA, but I believe that it could have crossover appeal. Mea culpa *grin*. Slavers take Fela from Nigeria to Puerto Rico, separating her from her husband, Imo. Fela brings with her the stone that she and Imo used to store the spirit of their unborn child, and plans to find a man to help her bring their child into this world. She and the women who follow her are linked together by the magic in the stone, and by their powerful shared histories. The book shows five generations of women in good times and bad.

The Good: The voices–all five of them–are distinct and believable, as are the women’s personalities, dreams and choices. I felt like I knew them, and I felt their successes and losses keenly. The settings are stunning, and made me feel completely immersed in them. The mother-daughter relationships are tumultuous and varied, and literally made me cry. I loved the progression of the women’s attitudes through time, which showed the characters as both unique individuals and products of their moment. I think it says a lot about how well-written and moving this book is that although I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe that there was anything mystical about the stone or its powers, I was still deeply affected by the women and their stories.

The Meh: In Concha’s section, there comes a point (I won’t spoil the plot for you) when the structure of the writing becomes awkward. Llanos-Figueroa may have been trying to reflect the narrator’s state of mind at that time, but it might have been easier on the reader and better for the story to shift narrators after The Thing That I Will Not Spoil For You.

Hand It To: Fans of magical realism, fans of inter-generational sagas, feminist readers, Nancy Pearl’s character and setting readers.

Laurie Halse Anderson–Wintergirls

The what: Laurie Halse Anderson tackles eating disorders in “Wintergirls.” Main character Lia has already been institutionalized twice for anorexia. After her best friend’s bulimia proves fatal, Lia makes up for being unable to control grief by becoming hyper-controlling of her food intake and exercise habits.