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.)

Marjetta Geerling–Fancy White Trash

The What: Abby’s family is a Jerry Springer episode waiting to happen. Her mother is married to Steve, who is also the ex of both of Abby’s sisters, and the father of one of their babies. Her father is rarely around, and is trying to convince her mother to marry him for a third (!) time. Her best friend, Cody, is struggling to accept his sexuality in the face of rampant homophobia. And Abby’s got feelings for Cody’s brother Jackson, who might or might not be the father of her sister Kait’s baby… oh, the drama llama’s hooves are going to be sore tonight.

The Good: This book is hilarious, and not at the expense of its characters. Jeff Foxworthy’s career alone shows that there is money to be made from ripping on the working class, but Geerling doesn’t take any cheap shots. Abby holds her family accountable for their antics, but she keeps a sense of perspective and compassion while she does it. Whether they’re working class or not, teens and adults will relate to the feeling of finding family at once exasperating and beloved. Abby is a well-defined character who seamlessly blends ambition, loyalty, and a die-hard love of soap operas. Her romance with Jackson moves at an intriguing simmer. Her relationships with her sisters, parents, and nieces show great attention to character development; their interactions are informed by their histories and personalities. Brava.

The Meh: Elbow me if I’m being too cranky here, but queer readers don’t need another teen character whose page time is largely spent on 1) getting harassed for being gay, 2) denying he’s gay, and 3) coming out to non-supportive homophobic parents. Cody denies his sexuality, snipes about fashion, and is hyper-organized: sure, he’s believable, and sure, he could really exist. I want to give credit where it’s due here. That said, could straight writers please write more queer characters who are not self-loathing? Who meet with supportive friends and family? Whose major emotional sinkholes do not include, “Oh noes, I have the gay!”?

Hand It To: Chick lit fans who are tired of reading about rich people, the Meg Cabot/Sarah Dessen crowd, romance fans, reluctant readers.

Barry Lyga–The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

A few months ago, I picked this book up and tried to read it immediately after reading “Boy Toy.” I’d fallen in love with Lyga’s writing, and couldn’t wait to experience another of his books.

I barely finished the first chapter before putting it down and sighing with disappointment. The writing was just as solid, but Fanboy reminded me of the whiny, entitled, “I am what my parents buy me!” teen suburbanites of my high school days. Did I want to re-experience them? Not really. Thanks, Barry Lyga, but no thanks.

Fast forward to last month. I was cruising the shelves for books to read, and I stumbled upon “Fanboy” again. It occurred to me that I should give the book another chance, and that maybe I was ready to forgive it for not being “Boy Toy.” I checked it out, took it home, and read it all the way through.