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!”

Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus (YA)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Children’s through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Jan. 8, 2019 — in 2 days!
Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Karen McManus is the Liane Moriarity of the YA set, writing gripping thrillers with characters that draw you in immediately and hold you fast.

California twins Ellery and Ezra Corcoran find themselves in Echo Ridge, Vermont, living with a grandmother they barely know while their single mother Sadie dries out in rehab. Echo Ridge has a haunted past — it was the place Sadie’s twin Sarah disappeared 20 years ago and more recently the place that 17-year old prom queen, Lacey Kilduff, was killed in the aptly named Murderland theme park. And the haunting doesn’t seem to be restricted to the past…

Populated with well fleshed out, multi-generational, townies, the story is told in alternating voices: Ellery is a True Crime fanatic and invents crazy scenarios faster than they can be discounted; Malcolm Kelly is the younger brother of Declan Kelly, Lacey’s boyfriend at the time of her death and thought by many to be responsible for the crime.

It’s a story full of suspicion and trust, new friendships and old understandings, standard teen stuff and very non-standard teen stuff, and lots of tangled and tortuous plot twists. As with her last book — One of Us is Lying — I didn’t figure it out until the very end.

The Next to Last Mistake by Amalie Jahn (YA)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Inscribe Digital through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 19, 2019.

Writing: 3.5/5  Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Blonde haired, blue eyed, Iowa farm girl Tess Goodwin has her life uprooted when her father reenlists in the military and relocates the family to Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Trading farm crops and silos and tractors for soldiers and loud guns” — it’s a rough transition for Tess. She leaves behind a beloved lifestyle and her best (and in some ways only) friend Zander … for whom she may have some stronger feelings than just friendship. She also enters the very real and dangerous world of the military where “the practice of staying alive is incentivized” with a billboard displaying the number of days with no unit fatalities. However, as they say in her farming community, you “grow where you’re planted,” and this is the story of how she manages to develop in a wildly different environment.

Leaving the homogeneity of Iowa behind, this is Tess’ first experience with racial diversity. Establishing a strong connection with a group of three other girls — military and townie, black and white — she is forced to come to terms with her own implicit biases. While I got a little tired of her feeling “humble and thankful for clemency” so frequently when faced with racial realities of which she was previously unaware, I did appreciate the frank discussions of the topic, exemplified via experiences, educational mini-lectures, and a couple of really good literary discussions drawn from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

A coming-of-age story, it does a nice job of describing the experience for a specific, rather than generic, teen. Tess is a chess enthusiast, a skillful farmer, and has a much closer relationship with her father than her (perfectly normal) mother. The book does a nice job of challenging multiple gender, race, and role assumptions simultaneously.

At times the book feels a little over simplified (problems are solved with far too facile measures) and a few passages feel like mini-lectures rather than the natural expressions of teenage girls, but the characters are appealing, the descriptions of both farm and military life are engaging, and I liked the clear descriptions of difficult racial subjects from the perspective of a white girl who had not needed to consider them before.

Rayne & Delilah’s Midnight Matinee by Jeff Zentner

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3.5/5

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Children’s through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb. 26, 2019.

A funny and poignant YA book about friendship and making your way in the world. Jackson, Tennessee High School seniors Josie Howard and Delia Wilkes are best friends who created and host their own public access television show. Midnight Matinee is a campy creature-feature complete with dorky attire, low budget “so-bad-it’s-good” horror movies, and two delightfully risible, costumed, witchy hosts named Rayne and Delilah.

As BFFs Josie and Delia work through what will happen to the show and their friendship after high school, the action is peppered with a search for a long-lost, deadbeat, dad; a cartoonishly over-the-top sequence with a has-been film producer and his Russian mafia sidekick; a slowly developing love story with the world’s greatest guy and wannabe MMA champion; and plenty of (gratuitous?) butt and fart jokes.

The writing is good — some hysterically funny live and text-based banter (the collection of one-line descriptions of country music alone is worth the price of admission) mixed with heartfelt scenes of connection, questioning, and resolve.

Great for fans of John Green.

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy Improvement Project by Lenore Appelhans

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Lerner Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 5, 2019.

(My last YA review for a while…)

Cute and whimsical, this early YA book explores the world of stereotypes using fictional characters who long to be more than their boilerplate dictates. Riley is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy who works hard and is true to type, but chafes a bit under perceived Author mismanagement. He is sent to Group Therapy with a set of Manic Pixie Dream Girls — just one step away from termination — in order to learn to “remember his place” and “The Author is always right.” However, when the Trope Town Council decides that perhaps the Manic Pixie Dream trope is more trouble than it’s worth, Riley and his therapy cohort have to come up with something big to show how truly important their trope is.

On the surface this is fun and a little silly and will appeal to the younger part of the YA demographic. However, there is some depth to the discussion of literature, the use of stock characters (stereotypes) and the impact that can have on readers. In the Trope Museum the characters bear witness to old stereotypes that have been “retired” due to being offensively racist, sexist, etc. The Uncle Tomfoolery trope is a prime example. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is on the chopping block for being sexist. But Riley, as an experimental “Boy” version, shows how it may be the association of a particular race, gender, sexual preference with a particular trope that is the issue, not the trope itself. I liked that a lot — there are various personality stereotypes that exist in the world — the damage (I feel) is associating them with whole groups of people based solely on physical characteristics.

*** Spoiler alert *** One more small thing I appreciated. Riley finds himself at the center of a love triangle between Zelda (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl) and Ada, a “Developed” girl in the novel he is working on. At the end of the book, all three step off into the sunset on the Termination Train to Reader World without having to resolve the triangle. They are happy to pursue their own lives and see where it takes them without necessarily “winning” the boy. When I was growing up, just about every movie I saw and book I read focussed on the girl falling in love with the right boy. Regardless of her other pursuits, if she didn’t get the boy at the end, she felt like a failure. Since I was never taught this explicitly, it was difficult to question to the premise. Fiction has a powerful ability to teach us norms of expectations and behavior under the covers as it were. I like the not-so-subtle messages in this book.

Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills

#2 in the children / YA review series!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on January 15, 2019.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

A beautifully written book about the strength of friendships.

Sophie loves everything about her small Illinois town of Acadia — the Yum Yum Shoppe with its fourteen flavors, the school marching band, and the music of their one famous singer / songwriter — Meagan Pleasant. Most important is her close friend group, encapsulated in their WWYSE (where will you spend eternity) group chat — though newcomer August is a pretty intriguing addition.

There is plenty of plot — some romance, some adventure, and some revenge planning along with a well-paced unfolding of surprising secrets. However, the real attraction of the book lies in the characters themselves — likable kids dealing with the realities of life in ways that are focussed, but not dripping with drama. The dialog is natural and (very) funny. There were several points where I teared up reading inspired descriptions of the importance of friendships and family in life. While there is little of the grit present in some urban YA novels, it doesn’t shy away from elements in the environment that today’s teens may be exposed to: blended families, drug use, casual sex, single mothers, open sexual preferences, and even relatives in jail. Acadia isn’t a fairytale locale but a very real place where teenagers are simply trying to grow up and understand what is important to them.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group for an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest opinion. Book to be released on Jan. 22, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

New word (to me): deliquescence — the process by which a substance absorbs moisture from the atmosphere until it dissolves in the absorbed water and forms a solution.

Shakespeare’s sonnet on grave robbers starts “Before the golden tresses of the dead…” which gives a hint as to the subject matter of this delightful installment of the Flavia De Luce series. For those of you who haven’t met Flavia before, she is the precocious pre-teen with a penchant for poisons and passion for chemistry and now the owner of Buckshaw — the somewhat decaying family estate in Bishop’s Lacy. This episode was internally referred to as the “Curious Case of the Clue in the Cake” (said clue was the finger bone of a recently deceased Spanish guitarist found in Flavia’s sister’s wedding cake!) — but the digit-based investigation uncovers a more deliciously evil plot swirling around homeopathic distillations and murder.

Bradley’s writing is fun — every volume is full of arcane references in the fields of literature, history, anthropology, architecture, and of course Flavia’s favorite: chemistry. My favorite line:

“Like a sponge the human brain can only absorb so much before it begins to leak.”

This one is pretty good too:

“Great music has much the same effect upon humans as cyanide, I managed to think: It paralyzes the respiratory system.”

You can certainly read this one without the others — or really start anywhere you like in the series, though there is a nice progression to going in order.