Tag Archives: High School

All That I Can Fix by Chrystal Chan

Squirrels falling from the sky, a ten year old stalker, problems with parents, and a friendship torn apart over a girl – these are some of the elements of the YA novel All That I Can Fix by Chrystal Chan. Yes, the Chrystal Chan who has adapted many old time favorites for the Manga Classics series.

Chan tackles numerous social issues such as drug addiction, mental illness, alcoholism, child abuse, runaways, suicide, racism, gun control, all wrapped up with the normal teen angst thrown into the mix. To push things up a notch, there is a group of dangerous wild animals on the loose (ones you normally only get to see in the zoo or on a safari) who are actually attacking and killing the local citizens.

This is Ronny’s story, told from his point of view and it’s full of anger. Furious at his dad who is suffering from chronic depression and anxiety, Ronny yearns for the days when he had a real father who actually participated in the family. Suffering the results of a gun shot wound from a suicide gone bad, Ronny watches his pop, the one person he used to admire, shuffle around in his bathrobe doing nothing except sleep and watch TV. With a mom who has to work long hours to pay the bills coming home spent and using medication to erase the reality which is now her life, Ronny has to pick up the mantle of adulthood and taken on the responsibility of the household. A fifteen year old still in high school, he does the home repairs which they can’t afford, watches out for his younger sister Mina, and, in his limited spare time, hangs out with George, the girl he worships from afar, and his best friend Jello, a photography buff. On occasion he even attends school. Oh, let’s throw into the mix the factor that Ronny is mixed race and has to deal with those who object to the shade of his skin. This is one bitter boy.

I can see this book as one of those after school specials for kids. There’s a lot going on and the melodrama would lend itself to a visualized format. From the reader’s perspective, it was difficult to empathize with such a rude, nasty teen who has a bone to pick with the world and doesn’t pull back the punches (at times quite literally). Yes, he has it rough, and yes, he does show some redeeming characteristics when dealing with the troubles of his sister’s friend Sam, but overall he’s a jerk (I had another word in mind but I’ll keep it PG). Since Ronnie is the person telling the story, his attitude tempers the entire piece, forcing the reader to experience his cruel attitude towards life, ultimately directed at his father. Not my cup of tea. As a minor annoyance, the “little” sister Mina, supposedly a genius, is actually ten, but treated more like a six or seven year old. I was actually glad when she ditched the orange ensemble and started dressing more appropriately.

This one showed potential, but it definitely needed some pruning of the subplots, an upgrade to the attitude of the protagonist, and additional depth added to the characterizations.

2 1/2 stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

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The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

When I think of The Lying Game by Ruth Ware I picture four fifteen year old school girls sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of an old sinking house in The Reach, a home in a tidal estuary located near the coastal village of Salten not far from the English Channel. What a life they had spending time together swimming, laughing, and joking, breaking the school rules until they were finally caught and expelled, although little did the supervising nun know the extent of their misdeeds. Of course to tell would be breaking the rules of The Lying Game, a fun way to put one over on people of authority.

Here it is seventeen years later when Kate texts her three former dorm mates, Thea, Isa, and Fatima, with three words – I need you, and off they all come, back to the scene of the “crime” to face up their youthful indiscretions. Unfortunately, they’re not quite sure exactly what really happened way back when. Yet that’s what they are about to find out as the story unfolds, told by Isa with flashbacks about their Sophomore year at Salten Academy, dwelling on the days they hung up out with each other and Luc, Kate’s half brother, while Kate’s father, an artist, drew what he saw, even if their attire was questionable, especially on those hot, skinny dipping days. This ultimately compounds their troubles, but it’s how they deal with these issues that will determine their future, for better or for worse, as details are revealed and the repercussions of the events which occurred that fateful summer are in danger of ruining their lives.

While the premise showed potential, as a psychological thriller, this one is a little less than thrilling. There’s quite a bit of repetition along with a meandering plot and a climax that, while unexpected, isn’t really totally unpredictable. The reader could easily have figured out a lot of this stuff before the big reveal and the subsequent wrapping up of events, although there were some unanswered questions which didn’t have an adequate resolution. This is not a happily ever after sort of book, but we do get some closure, even if various actions didn’t seem to make sense or, at the very least, are a stretch. However, this book is a good character study on the effects of a guilty conscience as each girl tries to make peace with their dark secret, one which at the time sounded like their only viable option. Some editing might have made this a more exciting read.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow, illustrated by Jen Wang

Anda’s family has just moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, not far from the Grand Canyon, and now she finds herself at a new school. She’s an ordinary teen, kind of on the chubby side, finding a place with the group of kids who play Dungeons and Dragons during their free period. Since computers are her thing, Anda is taking a programming course where Liza McCombs from Australia comes to speak with the females in the class. She’s in the process of organizing a guild, exclusively for girls, to play Coarsegold Online, a MMRPG (Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game). It seems that women players have a tendency to hide their gender behind male avatars, afraid to show their true selves for fear of discrimination. This guild is looking to induct women into its fold if they pass the three month initiation. Anda is all in, as long as her mom lets her use her credit card to pay the twelve dollar a month fee.

Anda’s avatar, Kali Destroyer, represents her inner voice – bold, beautiful, with bright red hair and skills galore. She soon levels up as she masters the game play. Inside the MMRPG, Kali teams up with Sarge (Lisa) and they begin to destroy the Gold Farmers who are illegally mining for valuable objects which are then sold to other players for profit. Unfortunately, the profit is a big business, and the Gold Farmers are actually abused Chinese workers who are forced to work long hours for little pay. Anda befriends Raymond who wants to learn to speak better English. He’s about her age and works the overnight shift, but his previously injured back is causing problems. Thinking she can help she advises he go on strike to get some health care (just what her own dad’s union is doing with his company). Unfortunately, this advice only gets Raymond fired. To top it off, Kali Destroyer has been earning money by her antics and her mother cuts her off from the Internet, afraid that she’s in danger. Liza also suspends her (and Lisa) for not following the gaming rules. Anda feels responsible for Raymond’s troubles and looks for ways she can contact him and help him out of his difficulties.

Disclosure: I’m not a gamer, although my son has enjoyed the gaming experience participating in various leagues although not an MMRPG.

There are a lot of positives in the graphic novel, In Real Life by Cory Doctorow. Number one is the colorful illustrations by Jen Wang and the fact that the characters are portrayed as real people, not ones with Barbie Doll looks. Anda has insecurities, but grows stronger as Kali Destroyer, building confidence to the point where she proudly dies her hair red. The girl power is a plus. There is also a bit of a lesson, details given by Cory Doctorow in a forward, letting the uninitiated know about Gold Farmers, a real phenomena. Anda’s attempts to assist her friend are noble, even when they backfire. After all, this is a book for teens who need to know that they have a voice in this world. However, the resolution to the storyline, although rectifying the situation, is unrealistic at best. I also question the entire premise that a school would allow someone like Liza to solicit gamers to her league.

Given all that, I feel that the intended YA audience will enjoy this book, especially the fact that an average high school student becomes the hero, no matter how impracticable the ending. Gamers need to have their existence avowed.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Loser’s Bracket by Chris Crutcher

Unless you are playing during March Madness where a lose is an automatic ejection from further play, there are two pathways to winning a basketball tournament. You can win your way to the top spot, or you can lose and play the other losers into the winner’s circle.

That’s the way Annie Boots prefers to win, by playing the other losers then besting the winning team in Loser’s Bracket by Chris Crutcher. This route may take a little longer, but it gives her a better chance of meeting up with her family. Perhaps her life is a metaphor for the loser’s bracket, since her deadbeat mom, Nancy can’t quite get her act together enough to keep her dysfunctional family intact. Annie ends up in a foster home where the Howard’s (Momma and Pop) are able to provide her a decent lifestyle. Unfortunately, her slightly older sister Sheila is not so fortunate, being bounced between foster families until she became a parent herself. Little Frankie seems as messed up as his mom and his quirky habits also make him an unlikely candidate for a loving home.

Despite Annie’s assured pathway to success, she can’t forsake her biological family, even if Pop pushes her to do just that, but if her mom or sister just show up at a game, then who can blame her for meeting up with them. The draw of blood is just too strong and no threat can keep them apart, even though everyone agrees that Nancy is a bad influence with her frequent shoplifting and drug use. Sheila isn’t much better and often foists Frankie off on her sis. Luckily Momma doesn’t mind and even has a bunch of playthings stashed away for his frequent visits. They just have to watch for meltdowns where he smears his excrement as if it were caulking, a little habit which is less than endearing. Both Annie and Frankie inexplicably need that link with their birth mothers to stay whole, even though a fresh start would be better for their mental health.

Chris Crutcher has the pulse of today’s youth, so when you find his name on any book, you know that it will be a worthwhile read. He creates complex scenarios reflecting the tangled, mixed up lives of the average teen, many from families which also have a convoluted trajectory. While the main characters in this book are white, Annie’s friends represent the diversity found in the average urban high school. There needs to be more YA books which reflect the nitty gritty of teen life and not the dream family dynamics, which even when their flaws are portrayed are still too far from the norm.

Crutcher, not afraid to show the underside of life including the warts, still finds a pathway to a realistic, yet hopeful conclusion. Warning: This one is full of four letter words reflecting the language commonly heard outside of public settings. Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Leanne Oelke

17 year old Jane Sinner should be enjoying her senior year of high school, but a traumatic incident has her constantly looking over her shoulder and second guessing the furtive glances of her classmates making it impossible for her to emotionally face their suppositions. Thus begins Nice Try, Jane Sinner where the author, Leanne Oelke, provides an interesting option for a main character suffering with depression and other mental health issues. Constantly skipping school, however, is not one of the acceptable choices, so by mutual agreement an alternative is suggested – a special program at the local community college where she can finish up high school and even take some college classes. Jane’s parents are so desperate to restore some normalcy to their daughter’s life that they agree to her demands of moving out and rooming with a friend near the campus. Little do they know that the place Jane chooses to live (sans said friend) is The House of Orange which is a Big Brother style set up filmed for the Internet with a used car as a prize for the last man standing.

Jane doesn’t have to worry about her past while attending class at Elbow River Community College, so she can relax and focus on her goal of “winning” the prize. For someone who shrinks from attention, she surprisingly doesn’t mind (too much) the invasive cameras which indiscriminately film her actions. She even forms an alliance and develops a friendship of sorts with her fellow contestants. A self-proclaimed psychology major, Jane sets out to administer a negative stimulus whenever one of her obnoxious housemates raids her personal dorm-style fridge – a nightly occurrence. Her aggressive, competitive style along with her sarcastic sense of humor and sardonic wit make her popular with an audience whose growing viewership leads to a spot for the reality show on a local tv channel along with a corporate sponsorship, complete with a scholarship and a cash award.

Complications include the fact that Jane cannot legally consume alcohol (at least not on tape) since the drinking age in the province of Alberta in Canada is eighteen. Even though she partakes the forbidden beverage off camera, the after effects of her imbibing is evident in the footage. This could lead to problems for everyone involved especially since the producer, a fellow student, assumes she is of legal age (probably because she lied on the application). It also becomes harder for Jane to keep the truth hidden from her parents as more and more viewers tune in to watch and she finally has to come clean with her younger sister who is pissed that Jane doesn’t visit home more often.

Oelke has the main character tell her story uses a journaling style with a conversational dialogue imitating lines of a screenplay, including a bit of imaginary dialogue and a few inner psychotherapy sessions where Jane unsuccessfully attempts to psychoanalyze her own uncooperative self. The addition of some explanatory narrative nicely rounds out the plot making this book a fast paced, entertaining read despite the 400+ page length.

The cast of characters from her “new” life (along with her diverse fan base) plus those high school friends she occasionally sees, as well as her family and the members of the youth group she’s promised to attend each week, provides an extensive list of names to keep track of that’s just long enough for an annotated list of “cast members” to be helpful.

My major complaints were the melodramatic and over the top conclusion to the competition and the way Jane’s little sister is portrayed – more like a whinny twelve year old instead of her slightly more mature age of fifteen. Kudos, however, for dealing with the topical issue of teen depression, along with the adolescent angst of discovering ones own identity (separate from that of their parents) which includes questioning ones faith in God and searching for the answer to the age old query “what do I do next?” Oelke provides a possible answer in an ending which promises a positive future for someone that needs a happily ever after.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

If The Story of Arthur Truluv was a movie, you’d find it on the Hallmark Channel. Elizabeth Berg has created one of those melodramatic, heart wrenching, over the top dramas filled with the angst of loves both lost and found as three disparate characters find comfort as they form an unusual sort of alliance.

You have the teen girl who doesn’t know where her life is headed living with a father who has been disconnected from his daughter since the tragic death of his wife. Maddy doesn’t seem to fit in with anyone at school and even the new boy indicates he is not interested. Since everywhere she goes her peers whisper and mock, she skips school to spend time reflecting at a local cemetery. She’s not the only one who finds the locale soothing. It is here that Maddy meets octogenarian Arthur Moses, an elderly gentleman who every day brings a bag lunch to his wife’s gravesite to enjoy a meal with his long gone mate. Somehow the two form a connection and Arthur lets Maddy know that he’ll be there for her if she ever needs a friend. Then there’s Arthur’s elderly neighbor, Lucille, who spends her days sitting out on her porch keeping track of all the doings, collecting gossip the way some people collect stamps. Her opinionated manner is excused by her skill in the kitchen, freely sharing her creations with Arthur. Arthur, who mostly eats canned beans and franks (which he divvies up with his cat), sympathizes with the lonely woman as he eats her mouth watering butter orange blossom cookies. Somehow, through a series of events, the three end up facing the future together finding comfort and even happiness as they create a unique sort of blended family transcending the usual mother, father, child homelife.

Add in a kind hearted teacher who reaches out to his artistic, though lackluster student, a lost love who finds his way home, and a skeevy boyfriend who just wants a good time without any commitments, and you have a charming little story perfect for a rainy afternoon.

While the simplistic style fits the subject matter and the rotating point of view between the three main characters gives us a decent grasp of their motivations, I had a problem with the use of present tense to tell the story. Very few are able to use this technique successfully, and Berg, unfortunately, is not one of those authors, at least not in this book. Perhaps modifications were made before publication, since my copy was an ARC provided by Netgalley (in exchange for an honest review). I also felt the ending was too abrupt, I would have liked a little more closure, especially considering the book was only 220 or so pages (and give us some dates, not just clues from the headstones). Of note, however, were the sweet little vignettes from the graveyard, where Arthur was able to relate telepathically with the deceased and share bits and pieces of their life and death with the reader. Three and a half stars.

Venn Diagram by Wendy Brant

Zenn Diagram by Wendy Brant is as cute as the title suggests. High School Senior Eva (pronounced “ever” without the “r”), is gifted in mathematics and helps tutor other students who need a leg up. A PK (Pastor’s Kid), she has extra responsibilities involving her quadruplets siblings, the eees, who at three are a handful requiring more than one set of hands. With so many mouths to feed, her dreams of attending a top notch college hinge on receiving a hefty scholarship. Then she meets Zenn, (pronounced like Zenn Diagram), who captures her heart as she helps him up his math grades. Zenn is a true artist who also has dreams of attending a prestigious college despite his lack of funds to pay the all-too-expensive tuition.

Sounds like your typical teen novel, but there are a bunch of twists starting with a terrible car accident which occurred when Eva was a baby, killing her parents and leaving her with a rare gift/curse – the ability to decipher the emotions of people through physical contact with them or the objects they have touched. With small children it’s all pastel colors and sweet thoughts, but adults radiate complicated vibes which often leave Eva prostrate as their angst can be overwhelming. Eva fantasizes about touching Zenn, a feat she fears is beyond her ability due to the anticipated negative reaction. Somehow she must figure out how their relationship can move beyond the pupil/teacher stage, especially when Zenn seems to feel a mutual attraction. Of course, Eva is not the only one with a secret, and the mystery in Zenn’s life threatens to affect the future of both of their lives. Add in a lifelong best friend who kinda goes MIA when the popular athletic boy shows an interest and an interesting home dynamic which interferes with any thoughts of romance, and you have a fun little YA novel.

While this debut novel by Wendy Brant is well worth the read, the author needs to watch out for repetitive thoughts (Eva too often laments about her inability to touch Zenn and her difficulty going to her first choice college). However, there are several twists which will keep the reader guessing and a hopeful conclusion which seems reasonable without being too sicky-sweet. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.