Year on Fire by Julie Buxbaum (Young Adult)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

A quartet of students at the elite Los Angeles Wood Valley High School — each facing their own coming-of-age difficulties. Twins Immie and Archer, so close they tend to think conjoined thoughts; Paige, the strong, fearless, and ultra-competent; and Rohan, newly arrived from London with his father as a result of some pretty serious marital discord. And around them fires always seem to be burning — one wildfire after another and even a fire within the school itself as a none-too-subtle reminder of the fires that are raging within.

The dramas that comprise the story are more-or-less typical dramas faced by teens today — some run-of-the-mill first kisses, small betrayals, secrets (all still deeply felt regardless of their commonality) as well as a good array of home situations — all problematic in their own never over-the-top but nevertheless deeply felt way. I am impressed by the way Buxbaum treats these situations and experiences directly from the perspective of the student characters — each of whom have their own personalities and coping mechanisms. We are treated to their anger, sadness, confusion and the sometimes slow realization of their own parents as individuals with their own flaws and capacity for error.

Well-written with plenty of slowly gained insight and fun dialog / text streams.

Thank you to Delacorte Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 12th, 2022.

The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe (YA)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Pleasure reading: 5/5

Great YA book! This will be on my top YA book list for the year.

Norris Kaplan, a black French Canadian, born to immigrant Haitian (now divorced) parents, is forced to move to Austin, Texas, so that his mother can follow up on a rare opportunity: a tenure track position at UT Austin as a Creole and Patois scholar. He leaves behind a reasonable (to him) climate, his hockey team, and his best friend. He doesn’t like Texas, or the U.S., or cheerleaders, or football jocks. He doesn’t like the heat, or the constant sweating, or the requisite T-shirt changes. It made sense to him that everything in Texas was bigger: “With this much heat, you needed shadows.” He makes a lot of negative assumptions about everyone he meets, even as he is sure they are making negative assumptions about him.

It’s the classic “Outsider in High School” plot line, but executed beautifully, unconventionally, and laugh-out-loud funny. Norris is grumpy and always expects the worst of everyone. Almost against his will, he makes a friend (Liam — the monk — who Norris admits is “an aggressively chill human being”), helps a cheerleader with her work schedule in exchange for dating tips, and even begins to see the jocks (embodied by Patrick aka “Hairy Armpits”) in a new light.

An hysterical, coming-of-age story, where I liked the protagonist a lot at the beginning, but liked him even more by the end.

Great quotes:
“Texas cheerleaders really are just laboratory-engineered little bags of evil, aren’t they?”

“As he suspected, Original Thought had died in the desert on its way to Texas, baked under the sun for a few miles, and been slaughtered for sustenance when provisions had dwindled.”

“It wasn’t that he didn’t know what to do at parties. He just found them viscerally boring: like getting dressed for a big night out and then spending your evening in an intermission lobby, bumping against people you vaguely recognize and fumbling to align conversation topics for brief windows of validation.”

Maddie (the cheerleader) wants to help him with his dating disasters: “We’re talking about dating here. I’m the genius janitor, there’s a complex equation on the chalkboard after hours … Give me some chalk and let me solve it!”