Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘identity

cover image for The Fly on the WallFly on the Wall by E. Lockhart

Gretchen Yee knows that the way to fit in at her alternative arts focused high school is to stand out, but she can’t quite manage to stop getting noticed for the wrong things.  In fact, her problems just keep piling up: Boys baffle her.  All of them, really – but especially Titus.  Her drawing teacher is less than appreciative of the comic book style art she favors.  Then there’s the news that her parents are getting a divorce, and her dad is moving out.

In a moment of frustration, Gretchen wishes that she could be a fly on the wall in the boys locker room, to see what they are like when they aren’t around girls. Maybe then she could at least figure boys out.  Then she gets her wish. Literally.

I can’t overemphasis how weird this book is.  Because yes, it’s a remake of metamorphosis, set in an alternative high school in New York City.  It’s also fun and quite brilliant, tackles bullying, friendship, and of course dealing with crushes, lust, and hormones.

Needless to say, Gretchen spying on the boys is hardly an appropriate thing to do, but she’s a fly o the wall and therefore has remarkable peripheral vision and she’s trapped in the room – not peeking through holes in the wall.  Most importantly, Lockhart handles the situation really well, both in terms of Gretchen’s decisions and how the boys are treated by the narrative.

cover image for Our Only May AmeiliaOur Only May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm

May Amelia is the only girl in her family, and she just so happens to also be the only girl among the pioneers who have settled along the Nasel River in the new state of Washington.  Being the only girl isn’t always easy, especially when her mother keeps trying to turn her into a Proper Young Lady, and her grandmother finds fault in everything she does.  But no matter how many scrapes she gets into, she’s still the only May Ameilia they’ve got.

May Ameilia’s voice is really what makes this book work as well as it does. Her syntax, phrasing, and perspective transports readers to a different time and place.  Inspired by a journal Holm found that was kept by one of her own ancestors, the novel is told in first person and covers a year or so in May Amelia’s life.  Solid and entertaining, Our Only May Amelia isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it manages to be unique and memorable.

I also want to note that there’s not any significant discussion of the impact that pioneer settlement had on the people who were already living in the area when the settlers came, as it’s told from May Amelia’s point of view.  The narrative is respectful of the rare Native American characters in the book, but of course not everyone in the story is.  I didn’t see anything that makes the book inappropriate for youngsters (although I’m also hardly the best judge) but a follow-up discussion with readers would be appropriate if possible, especially considering how rare Native American voices are in most library collections.

cover image for Where Things Come BackWhere Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Nothing newsworthy happens in Lily, Arkansas. Families scrape by – or don’t, and leave their loved ones to grieve.  But reporters begin to descend upon the small town when someone claims to have spotted the Lazarus Woodpecker, previously thought extinct.  For seventeen year old Cullen the return of the Lazarus Woodecker is merely a source of irritation and occasional amusement.  Until his younger brother, Gabriel, disappears and Cullen is left wondering if Gabriel will ever manage to find his way back home as well.

Like a lot of coming of age stories of this type, Where Things Come Back felt like it was trying too hard to be clever and introspective.  Also, the split in narrators was confusing (I suspect it was partly meant to be) and the missionary’s point of view felt forced rather than authentic. I know a lot of people loved it (it did win the Printz award after all) but I was more than happy to send my copy back to the library.

cover image for Does My Head Look Big in This?Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is sixteen and about to start her third term as an eleventh grader at the exclusive and expensive McClean’s Prepatory Academy when she realizes that she’s ready to wear the hijab full time.  But is she ready for the assumptions people will make about her – about her parents and her abilities and her dreams – if she starts wearing the hijab to school? To the mall? To job interviews?  And yet what will it say about her, and her faith, and her country if she lets fear and prejudice keep her from making her own choices.

Despite the rather slow moving plot and lack of action, I found myself liking this book quite a bit.  It’s not just that it offers a very compassionate and balanced view, and presents readers with a perspective that is sadly in short supply in YA.  Abdel-Fattah writes in a very compelling and engaging voice and I look forward to reading more books by her.

cover image for How Beautiful the OrdinaryHow Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart

Boys who love boys.  Girls who love girls. New loves and old loves.  Teenagers forced to hide their true selves.  How Beautiful the Ordinary collects twelve stories from twelve authors who know what it’s like for their normal selves to treated as different, as outside the norm.

I expect a mixture of quality and taste when it comes to the content of anthologies, but that doesn’t excuse the disrespect for others that I found in a handful of the stories in this particular collection:

William Sleator’s Fingernail has it’s Thai protagonist and narrator telling readers that ” [English] is the most important language in the world” and pointing out that were it not for his abusive, European ex boyfriend, he never would have met his current, loving boyfriend from the West.  It’s not that it’s inconceivable for a young man like this to exist, and to have these kinds of thoughts, but that it’s not really appropriate or responsible for an white American to be putting these words into the mouth of a Thai character he created.

Jennifer Finney Boylan’s The Missing Person is in many ways a beautiful and heartbreaking tale of a girl who everyone else sees and treats as a boy.  Unfortunately, it also uses the misfortune that befalls a Taiwanese exchange student as a metaphor for the main character’s own struggles, rather than as an experience belonging to the exchange student herself, and as a source of common ground.

The stories are not all disappointing, however.  Jacqueline Woodson’s Trev is elegant and full of sorrow, determination, and hope.  Margo Lanagan’s A Dark Red Love Knot is twisted and cruel and beautiful.  Emma Donoghue’s Dear Lang, a testament to the meaning of family, left me in tears.  And lastly, Gregory Maguire’s The Silk Road Runs Through Tupperneck, N.H. contemplates paths not taken and shows us the costs of hiding in closets.

cover image for Lucy the GiantLucy the Giant by Sherri L. Smith

Fifteen year old Lucy Oswego has always towered over her classmates.  Not that she needs to in order for people to remember her, Sitka is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone else – and their business.  Which is how all the bar owners know to call her when her dad gets so drunk he can’t even stumble home on his own.  So it’s no surprise that Lucy wonders what it would be like to blend in, to fit in – to be someone other than Lucy the Giant.  And when a crabbing boat crew mistakes her for an adult, and invites her to sign on, Lucy finds her chance to do just that.

Have I mentioned how much I love Smith’s books? Lucy the Giant is no exception.  Smith has a gift for finding the extraordinary in the everyday, and for centering the kinds of characters that tend to exist on the fringes of most mainstream narratives.  Lucy the Giant is a deceptively simple story; more complicated and subtle than it appears at first, and one that packs a punch despite it’s short length.

cover image for UntoldUntold by Sarah Rees Brennan

Kami Glass no longer has to keep what she knows about her town, Sorry-in-the-Vale, a secret.  Now practically everyone in town is aware that magic is the town’s legacy, and of the power that the Lynburn family once held over everyone else.  But the person Kami most wants to talk to is no longer speaking to her. Which poses a danger to more than just her heart, for Kami is going to need all the help she can get to stop Rob Lynburn from turning Sorry-in-the-Vale back into the Lynbrun’s own private kingdom.

This books starts with killer scarecrows and kisses in the dark and mistaken identities – and just keeps going from there.  SO MUCH WACKY DRAMA. (in a good way.)  I appreciate that Brennan didn’t undo everything that happened at the end of the last book, and that Kami and Jared (and others) instead have to live with and deal with the choices they made and the things they said.  Best of all, Brennan is really great at the overwhelming angst and other emotions that is typical of young adult novels, but without resorting to the kind of situations where everything would be solved if people would just talk.  And when people aren’t talking, it makes sense.

When does the next book come out again?

cover image for The Adoration of Jenna FoxThe Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson

A seventeen year old girl wakes up without any memories of who she is.  All she knows is what she’s been told. Her name (Jenna Fox), where she is (in her parent’s house), and why she doesn’t remember anything (accident, then coma).  Her parents give her videos to watch, images of a past she doesn’t remember, in the hopes that they will help heal her.  Instead they simply prompt more questions, questions that no one seems willing to answer.

I think what I love most about this book is that it’s the kind of story that’s best told with a teenaged protagonist.  Not that I’m against young adult genre novels where the teens take on more adult roles, however unlikely that may be.  But I really do love when authors come up with scenarios that not only make more sense with teens as the center of the story, but that demonstrate how certain questions are best asked in that context.  It’s an easy read, but thought provoking nonetheless.

cover image for Mister Max: The Book of Lost ThingsMister Max – The Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

Max knew he wasn’t late to the pier, but the ship that was supposed to take him and his family to India was no where to be seen.  And neither were his parents.  Now Max’s grandmother is insisting he move in with her until his parents return, but all Max wants are answers and some independence.  Suddenly presented with a pile of problems and mysteries, Max decides that his only option to be the person who finds the solutions.

I kept feeling like I ought to like this book, but instead it left me feeling like I was merely trudging through in order to be done with it.  I suspect it will hold more appeal for it’s middle grade target audience, but not nearly as much as it could have.

cover image for The Infinite Moment of UsThe Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle

I am going to skip the synopsis this time around because I CAN’T with this book.  It’s  a badly needed update of Judy Blume’s Forever (at least, that was my impression, and I’m clearly not the only one) and while I’d recommend it over that any day, and I’m so very glad both books exist, I was still frowning through most of this novel.

To be fair, this is in part because, in trying to show that it’s normal and ok and healthy for teens to have sex – as long as they are responsible – one ends up presenting that specific relationship as a model for how to Do Things Right, rather than exploring these characters in particular.  And this book really could have done better when it came to exploring the characters.

It’s the caveat (the “as long as they’re responsible” part) that’s the kicker.  Everyone should be responsible, not just teens, and putting that condition on teens’, and only teens’, right to take pleasure in their own bodies is bound to imply that only certain people have the right, and those certain people are usually going to be the ones that adhere to the status quo.  This may not have been was Myracle was going for, but it is the impression I got, particularly because of the way Wrenn and Charlie’s relationship was compared to Charlie and Starrla’s.  I suspect Myracle was simply trying to acknowledge that not all sex is healthy, but it came across as more: not all sex is healthy for teens.

And on that score, this book does have much to recommend it: teens having sex, girls in particular finding pleasure in sex, and all without either of the two main characters being punished for it!  Still, I am rolling my eyes so hard the way the book ends and absolutely everything involving Starrla – the sexually promiscuous and not very nice girl who acts as a foil to Wren’s innocence.

cover image for The Weight of WaterThe Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

Back in Poland, Kasienka had friends, a home, good grades, and both parents.  Now in England, she is an outsider, assumed behind in her studies because she doesn’t speak the language well, and lives in a barren, ramshackle apartment with a mother who refuses to believe that her husband has left her.

Told in verse, Kasienka’s story is honest and poignant.  A quick and easy read, it nevertheless covers a wide variety of topics, from friendship and bullying to keeping secrets from one’s parents.  Unlike some novels told in verse, the poems themselves feel both natural and like something a twelve year old might write.

cover image for Girl at SeaGirl at Sea by Maureen Johnson

For a brief few years of her childhood, Clio’s family was rich.  Her dad designed a board game (with Clio’s help) that became an instant hit, and before she knew it she and her father were off traveling the world.  But sound decisions had never been her father’s strength, a flaw that Clio learned the hard way when the money quickly ran out.  Now seventeen, Clio prefers her quiet life at home with her mother (divorced) and looks forward to spending as much of her summer break with her crush as possible.  But Clio’s mother has other plans – ones that involve Clio traveling once again with her father.  Clio’s father has plans as well – and that’s never a good sign.

Although Girl at Sea is a bit uneven and unpolished, it’s much better than it sounds like it ought to be.  Mainly because the conflict is not really at all about the money that was lost, but about the fact that it was lost because Clio’s father lacks basic adulting skills, and the more immediate consequences that had for Clio, as a minor in his care.

cover image for Star Wars: Jedi AcademyStar Wars: Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown

His whole life, Roan has looked forward to becoming a starfighter pilot, just like his father and older brother.  That means attending Pilot Academy Middle School.  So when Roan receives his rejection letter (recommended alternative school: Tatooine Agriculture Academy) he’s sure that he’s DOOMED to be nothing but a failure.  Until he receives a letter from the Jedi Academy in Coruscant as well, this one inviting him to enroll.  Is it possible that Roan has what it takes to be a Jedi?  And can learning to use the force replace his old dreams of being a pilot?

As ridiculous and hilarious as it sounds, this twist on the classic school story is sure to delight a great many pre-teen Star Wars fans.  It’s not nearly as clever or funny as Brown’s other Star Wars books, mostly because it repeats tropes and cliches rather than presenting them with twists, but it should keep it’s target audience entertained.

cover image for Writing the OtherWriting the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward

The main portion of this book is the titular piece; essentially a workshop on Writing the Other bound into a book format.  There are examples and exercises to go along with the arguments; it’s definitely intended to be useful to writers.  Added to the end of the slim volume are some related works by the Shawl: Beautiful Strangers, Appropriate Cultural Appropriation, and an excerpt from The Blazing World.

I was commenting to the friend I borrowed this from that it felt very “how not to be a racist writer, 101 level” at times, and she pointed out that it’s not only several years old already, but grew out of a specific incident and conversation two decades old, so that’s to be expected somewhat.  Nevertheless, Shawl and Ward make some very good points here.  Not just about writing people different from you, but about thinking about characters in general, and keeping in mind that readers will also be different from you in many ways.  They do a very good job of demonstrating, throughout the book, that being aware of these things makes you a better writer, no matter what kinds of characters you are writing about.

cover image for The Lives We LostThe Lives We Lost by Megan Crewe

With her family gone, taken away by the plague, and the situation on the island worsening by the day, Kae decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands.  With only a handful of friends to help her, Kae sets off with the cure her father created, desperately searching for someone who has the knowledge and equipment needed to make copies of the vaccine.

Crewe’s third novel isn’t the type of to prompt glowing superlatives, but it’s a definite improvement from the first book in the series, and more than good enough to convince me to read the third when it arrives.

While the tone and style is similar to The Way We Fall, this middle book has a more interesting and active plot – and one that better fits the atmosphere that Crewe creates.  Where Kae spent much of the first novel simply watching her world crumble around her, the second book is instead in the mold of the classic quest, zombie plague style.  There are no zombies here, but the illness that has wiped out a huge chunk of the population does involve a very chatty stage where the infected are also at their most contagious.  Together with the bleakness and lawlessness of the landscape (it’s winter in Canada and there are mercenaries after them at one point) it’s very reminiscent of stories like 28 Days Later or the second and third Resident Evil movies.

And it works.  Not brilliantly, but well.  The lack of brains eating stage in the sickness is also a plus in the end, for it creates a stronger emotional resonance when friends and loved ones become infected.  Actual zombie movies are filled with cohorts promising each other a bullet to the head the moment symptoms appear, making what should be a tricky ethical question an obvious one, and thus robbing the decison of much of its angst. Here our protaganists struggle with the choice between maintaining their humanity and saving the world – via doing whatever it takes to get the cure to someone who knows how to replicate and distribute it.

cover image for The Revolution of Evelyn SerranoThe Revolution of Evelyn Serrano by Sonia Manzano

It’s 1969 in New York City’s El Barrio and the tension in fourteen year old Evelyn Serrano’s home is mirrored by the clashes between activists and the establishment happening just outside their front door.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this book didn’t work for me.  I think perhaps the problem was that it felt very juvenile at times, and not simply in the “age appropriate” sense.  The basic story was interesting and well done, the characters intriguing and believable.  The sentences just didn’t seem to flow together very well, as if the author felt she couldn’t or shouldn’t get too complicated or fancy in terms of vocabulary or structure.  It’s still a book that I might consider for a library collection because of the plot and themes, but chances are I’d choose other books first.

cover image for The FoxThe Fox by Sherwood Smith

Back home in the country  Inda has been exiled from, the war is not going terribly well and his friend Sponge despairs of keeping his promise to restore Inda’s honor.  Aldren-Sierlaef, Sponge’s older brother and heir to their father’s throne, is still pursuing Joret, despite her obvious lack of interest – and the fact that he is promised to someone else.  Meanwhile, just about anyone who might want Inda alive knows that he probably is, and desperately hopes he can be found.  Inda himself is, of course, in danger once again, his crew of private marines having just been captured by a notorious pirate and facing certain death.

I’m pretty sure I inhaled this book rather than read it, so I don’t remember the details quite as clearly.  While I did start to get impatient for Inda to be found already, dammit! I was also fascinated by the politics and intrigue – and possibly over-invested in the characters, just as I was with the first book in this series.

cover image for OffsideOffside by M.G. Higgins

I requested this from Netgalley because it was about soccer.  That was a mistake; this book was just awful.  I know it’s meant to be a hi-low novel, but that’s no excuse.  I can forgive some of the clunky writing, not because its impossible to write an elegant hi-low book, but because it’s is vastly more difficult to do so. However, the vocabulary constrictions that the hi-low category presents still don’t explain the lack of plot logic, nor the fact that there is absolutely no depth to any of the characters.

cover image for The Face on the Milk CartonThe Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney

Janie Johnson wishes she had a more glamorous name, not to mention parents that are a little less overprotective.  Janie’s wish is granted when she recognizes the face of a missing child on the back of a milk carton one day.  The face is her own, which means that Janie is not her name, and her parents are not her parents.

Whenever anyone points to the current resurgence in young adult novels, and the depressing number of Twilight clones, and wonders what all the fuss is about, I want to point them to horrendous novels like this one.  Because not so long ago, this was the standard for popular reading for teens.  Cooney’s books in particular were must haves for any library.

What makes this book so awful?  Well, we can start with the fact that in 1990, when it came out, the pictures of missing kids no longer appeared on milk cartons (they came in flyers on the mail).  Yet, that could have been a forgivable misstep – IF the story itself was good.  But, honestly, Punky Brewster did a better job with this plot line back in 1985. The writing was so miserable to read as well; no matter how twee or purple prose-y young adult paranormal romance gets, it never gives us sentences like: “The only thing Janie liked to do with her hands was put nail polish on them and dial phone numbers.” I can also promise you that Janie is even more annoying than Bella and that sparkly vampires make more sense than the cult twist Cooney came up with in order to make neither Janie’s adopted nor biological parents at fault.

At least I understand the reasons why teen paranormal romance is popular; the appeal is in wrapping up all of teen girls confusion and doubt and the conflicting messages they get into a comforting package.  It doesn’t necessarily make for good literature, but it tends to be readable and even sometimes entertaining in an angsty sort of way. I am completely confused, however, by the fact that The Face on the Milk Carton spawned three more sequels.  What about the first novel was appealing enough to warrant even one more book?

cover image for LiarEverybody lies.  We say that we adore gifts that we hate, profess delight in meals that are lacking, and assure our parents that yes, our homework is all done.  For most of us, the lying ends there.  Not for Micah though, she doesn’t just tell the occasional white lie, she’s a compulsive liar.  “But [she’s] going to stop.”  She has to.  So pay attention, because she’s going to tell you the truth and she’s “going to tell it straight.  No lies, no omissions.”

Layer by layer, Larbalestier peels back Micah’s deceptions to expose the truth and banish the lies, but they are rarely what you’d expect.  Micah doesn’t pretend to know bands that she has never heard of, claim to own trophies that she never earned, or fake an illness to get out of class.  Rather, she decides to wear a Venetian mask to school – and forges a doctor’s note to justify it.

There is a peculiar and unexpected honesty in Micah’s fibs.  False as they are, they also let her push against the edges of conformity and let Micah be herself without forcing her to claim to know who she is when she doesn’t yet.   At the same time, they also act as role to play and hide behind – even from herself.

When her friend Zach disappears, however, Micah discovers that her lies might finally cost her more than just the goodwill of her peers.  No longer simply a cathartic confession of past sins, Liar quickly becomes an especially twisted kind of mystery, with Micah’s admissions of falsehood and guilt taking on the urgency of someone both digging for the truth and fighting for survival.

The twists and turns that Micah’s story takes also do more than keep readers on their toes. Because of the way that the story is structured, the lies rely as much on our assumptions of what constitutes normalcy as they do on Micah’s audacity. It’s beyond brilliant, exceptionally appropriate in a novel for young adults, and Larbalestier deserves nothing but praise for pulling it off.

This is a novel that, like Micah, refuses to be boxed in.  It’s not simply that it flirts with genres the same way that Micah plays with her identity.  Rather, like Micah herself, how you classify it and how much you enjoy it will greatly depend on which parts of her story you choose to believe.

Larbalestier’s clear understanding of the fandom traditions of genre fiction bleed onto the page, demanding that the conversation expand beyond the reading of the book itself.  Liar is a novel that is meant to be talked about, it’s value and interest is fundamentally tied to comparing notes and possibilities afterwards.  The obvious conundrum is that spoilers for a book such as this – even mild ones – would also impose points of view that would limit the discussions afterwards.

So when I tell you that you must read it – and now – know that I say this not just because I adored it, nor because it is lacking flaws, but because I am eager to hear what you thought of it.

Larbalestier, Justine. (2009). Liar. NewYork: Bloomsbury.

Best for Ages: 14-18

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