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.

Neesha Meminger–Shine, Coconut Moon

The What: Samar, better known as Sam, feels rattled in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Her mother, who is the only family she has ever known, has always told her that her Sikh heritage does not make her any different than her peers. Her classmates don’t seem to have gotten the memo, and as a child, Sam was treated differently because of her skin color and last name. Now a teenager, Sam feels like she blends in better. Her best friend Molly’s large Irish family has practically accepted her as one of their own. Then a turbaned man claiming to be her Uncle Sandeep appears on her front porch, and Sam starts to wonder what her family is like. Her mother has warned her that they are controlling and awful, but she wants to meet them for herself. What does it mean to be a Sikh, where does Sam come from, and how can she reconcile her past with her present?

The Good: The reviews that I’ve read about this book have focused on how sensitively and fully the author portrays the quest to integrate different parts of one’s history into one’s identity. That’s true, but what I found even more affecting was the relationship between Sam and her mother. It’s honest, it’s difficult, and it’s loving, and I don’t know a single young woman who hasn’t been through similar travails with her own mother. Sam’s experiences with Uncle Sandeep and her Nanaji and Naniji helped her to see how her mother came to be her mother, which helped her understand how she herself came to be. Also praiseworthy is the portrayal of Molly, who proves that being an ally doesn’t mean getting everything right. And Uncle Sandeep’s involvement in Sam’s life and unconditional love got me right in my heart parts. Oof, in a good way.

The Meh: If I’d read this manuscript in any of my writing workshops while I was getting my Creative Writing degree, I would have suggested showing rather than telling for the many, many sentences that involved lines to the effect of, “… and I knew things would never be the same again.” Okay, that’s valid, but tell us what Sam’s seeing. Tell us what she feels about it. You’re a good writer–we’ll get what you mean from your images and descriptions of emotions!

Hand It To: Nancy Pearl’s character readers, teens straddling cultures, older teens

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.