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.

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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

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.

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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