Quick(ish) Thoughts on Four Recent(ish) YA Novels
I've been disinclined to write extensively about young adult titles lately, despite that I've been reading quite a few recent releases. I do have a few I want to be sure to write about more extensively (particularly the final novel in Gabrielle Zevin's spectacular Birthright series), but I wanted to share my thoughts on a few I've read recently.
Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill
Admittedly, I was nervous about reading Lauren Morrill's new novel, Being Sloane Jacobs. Lauren is one of the few authors I follow on my personal Twitter account and I enjoy her thoughts on publishing and tweets about being an extra on The Originals but I haven't read her debut, Meant to Be, and was worried that I wouldn't like her book. (I've had this happen before, enjoyed someone's online persona and their book didn't work for me--and I always fell badly about it.)
Fortunately, my worries were completely needless, as I enjoyed Being Sloane Jacobs a bunch. The premise is essentially The Cutting Edge meets The Parent Trap, except without twins. Instead, we have two points-of-view, both girls named Sloane Jacobs. One is a stressed former competitive figure skater from a high-powered Washington, DC political family. The other Sloane Jacobs is a tough hockey player from Philadelphia with a bit of an anger problem.
The two Sloanes meet by chance in a Montreal hotel, where they're both staying before they attend competitive camps in their respective sports. Both on the brink of burn out, the girls switch places as a way to gain a bit of control over their lives. Now here's where I had to suspend quite a bit of disbelief, since in the age of Facebook it would be hard to pull off this sort of switcharoo, and while athletes tend to perform well when they try other sports, fitting in at each other's sports camp was a bit too easy. However, let's set that aside, because once I did, Being Sloane Jacobs was a lot of fun.
Aside from the well-done sports sequences (these were so nicely constructed--I notice when they're not), what really stuck with me as something that would've resonated with me as a young person was the gentle way Morrill addresses the suckiness of not having much control over one's life as a teenager.
Let's face it, when you're sixteen you are in a pretty crummy place where people expect you to act like an adult and make grownup decisions, but simultaneously, you don't have a whole lot of control over your life. The story, while light, gets at that and the importance of figuring out what you want for yourself beyond all the noise of people telling you what you ought to do.
Morrill also has a knack for sharp, witty dialog, which fits the book nicely. One of my favorite scenes is early in Being Sloane Jacobs and the two Sloanes compare their battle scars from their respective sports--it's hilarious because it's so true for hardcore athletes.
I'm definitely looking forward to Morrill's next books, in particular one in 2015 about marching band (it is a known fact that band is inherently hilarious).
The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
My book club recently read Jennifer Lynn Barnes' The Naturals, a teen FBI thriller that I'm surprised how much I found myself sucked into this fast-paced story about a cadre of teens with a preternatural knack for criminal profiling.
This was another one that I really liked. Despite that Sandra's a big fan of Barnes' books, I hadn't read any. Clearly, that was a major oversight on my part, because this was the fast-paced sort of thriller I love in adult fiction translated into YA.
What I liked about The Naturals was that it kept me guessing. I pride myself on being able to solve the mystery before the characters do, and I can honestly say that it unfolded for me right along with the main character. No one missed obvious indicators of the bad guy's identity, which is also pretty refreshing.
There's some fun relationship drama in The Naturals too--these teens are all living under one roof, so it's inevitable. There's friendship stuff and a bit of a sticky push and pull between narrator Cassie and two of the boys in the house--one of whom is the son of a notorious serial killer.
I didn't realize this was the first novel in a series when I read it, and folks who are a bit tired of series will be glad to know that this a complete story with no cliffhangers.
Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg
Elizabeth Eulberg is another author I'd meant to check out and had the chance to thanks to my lovely book club. This was our March choice and it sure surprised me.
I'm not sure what I expected from Better Off Friends, but I didn't expect to be charmed like I was. Talk about YA romance done really, really well and in a way that has a lot of appeal for a broad range of teenagers (it seems like YA romance tends to skew older or younger to an extreme).
Like Being Sloane Jacobs, Better Off Friends makes great use of the dual point-of-view narrative style (which is one I'm hit or miss with), but this time it's told from the perspectives of two best friends, Macallan and Levi, who just happen to a boy and a girl. We follow them from their first meeting in middle school through high school and all the ups and downs of their friendship and their romantic entanglements with other people. Beyond the dual POV, what really made this story work for me were the tiny conversation vignettes after each chapter in which the two characters chat about the previous chapter's events.
Throughout the book, Eulberg dances around the question of whether or not a heterosexual girl and boy can be best friends. The resolution to this questions is an interesting one, and I would love to talk spoilers with anyone who's read this book, because while I loved it for this story and these characters, I wonder if people will read it as evidence of the inevitability of this outcome for all best friendships like this.
If you find yourself wishing that more teen stories covered longer periods of time and really dug into characters' history together, but with a light hand, you'll like this one quite a bit. I will say, however, Better Off Friends is very, very sweet, and I know that's not everyone's jam. The older I get, the more I appreciate this sort of story, both in how satisfying that tone is for me and how hard it is to get right.
Another Little Piece of My Heart by Tracey Martin
Tracey Martin's debut, Another Little Piece of My Heart, was quite uneven for me, I'm sorry to say.
This is Claire's story, who's living in the aftermath of her mother's death and the ramifications of honoring her mother's dying request that she dump her boyfriend Jared. Both Claire and Jared are musicians (he taught her to play guitar), and Jared channels is sorrow and anger from the breakup into his songwriting, coming out the other side of the breakup with a hit single all about Claire. Two years after the breakup, the two are reunited one summer when they're both staying in a small beach town.
I enjoyed the musical elements of this story quite a bit--Claire's passion for the guitar and songwriting was very well-developed and was the most emotional-filled aspect of this novel. I also really loved the snarky push and pull between Claire and her irritating younger high school-age sister.
However, I had a lot of frustrations with some very huge conflicts being very neatly resolved. In particular, the unforgivable parental behavior that was forgiven (this is a huge issue for me with YA on a regular basis--when parents don't earn their child's forgiveness and yet they get it anyway). It feels disrespectful to the audience and their experiences. In this book the parents do two terrible things:
- The dying mother asks the main character to dump her boyfriend because she should be dating someone who comes from a "good" (rich) family, which the main character does, and it kind of wrecks her life in the aftermath of her mother's death; and
- The father uses the main character's college fund for investments and kitchen renovations, which means she can't go to college (which she finds out just a couple months before she's supposed to leave for Brown).
Claire suppresses her understandable anger at her mother because the mother is dead and as a society we're often discouraged from being angry at people who are no longer with us (another thing that really bugs me) and ultimately forgives her father. He never has any empathy for his daughter's situation and the way she was betrayed by her parents. But because he's the parent, and therefore infallible for some reason, he gets off without any consequences for his actions. In this case, forgiveness needed to be earned for the character's story arc, and it simply wasn't. (Nafiza has some great observations about this phenomenon in the comments of my Goodreads review of this book.)
In the end, I kept wanting a bit more out of this story, since it's well-written and nicely-paced. It just didn't go as deeply into any of the relationships as I would have liked.
I have two final thoughts on Another Little Piece of My Heart:
- This does have a "new adult" vibe to it in terms of the narrator's life stage, so folks looking for that may want to check this one out; and
This is supposed to be a Persuasion retelling and while I can see the connection, it's a very loose retelling. If you want a killer Persuasion retelling, check out Diana Peterfreund's For Darkness Shows the Stars.
Disclosure: Review copies of these books were provided by the publishers.