Tag Archives: friendship

Admission by Julie Buxbaum

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Admission by Julie Buxbaum
Delacorte, May 2020

This lightly fictionalized, timely and very enjoyable version of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal takes the point of view of one of the students involved and examines the ideas of privilege and entitlement along with culpability.

So I have skin in this game in several ways. Firstly, I work at a fancy independent high school whose students frequently go to some of the most elite colleges – none were involved with the Varsity Blues scandal though many have the legacy and extremely wealthy cards to play. Also, one of our neighbors was involved and it is to my eternal prurient regret that when I heard a kerfuffle at 6am on March 12, 2019 I didn’t look out the window to see the FBI. And as I write this, my son and I are in Southern California looking at colleges for him. We are a very privileged family and he is a smart kid who goes to a school that gives him lots of advantages though we probably couldn’t donate much more than a picnic table. We even toured USC (which he LOVED of course) and had a bit of a snigger about the water polo trophies.

Anyway back to the book!

Chloe Berringer is the daughter of sitcom star Joy Fields and is thrilled when she gets into prestigious Southern California College against all the odds. But when the FBI arrest her mother for fraud it emerges that Chloe’s acceptance was based on a false claim that she’s a top pole vaulter and an SAT score that she didn’t achieve on her own.

The narrative is split into what happened leading up to the arrest and the aftermath. Chloe is at top notch Woods Valley private school where her grades are not stellar and she feels dumb compared to her best friend Nigerian American Shola (the author really loads Shola up as the face of the victims of the college scam – she is super smart and comes from a low income family who are depending on financial aid for her to get into college and she is waitlisted by SCC) and her crush Levi. It’s not clear to us (or her) if she’s not smart or maybe just doesn’t work that hard, but, either way, getting into SCC feels amazing until it becomes humiliating.

This novel attempts to answer the two questions which were on everyone’s lips at the time. Firstly, why did the parents do it? Though the answer seems to be simply because they can, for Chloe there’s a bit more to it. Did they think she was stupid? Her parents just say that they wanted the best for her but did they really? The idea of prestige is certainly briefly touched on and I’ve got to tell you how much that looms in many parents’ lives despite assurances of “whatever is the best fit”.

The second question we were all asking at the time, is how did the students not know what was going on. Chloe spends a lot of time examining the idea of her culpability – she didn’t know what her parents were doing, but she did have her suspicions and does nothing. She knows she doesn’t have ADHD but allows her new “college counselor” to get this certified to give her extra time on the SAT. And why are her parents making such an enormous charitable donation to this counselor’s pet charity? Chloe concludes in retrospect that she was “aggressively oblivious” as the clues (not to say actual evidence) were there but she chose to willfully ignore them.

There is also some discussion, as there was at the time, of the legal “backdoor” ways that very rich (white) people use their money and privilege to secure college places for their children through large donations, and the unfairness of legacy is also lightly touched on (hey we feel that too! Both my husband and I are British and legacy isn’t a thing there).

There is a lot about Chloe’s privilege using Shola as both a mirror and mouthpiece. Once again Chloe is blithely oblivious of the depths of her privilege and accepts what is handed to her on a plate without much thought. Her microaggressions against Shola are numerous and Shola pushes back more times than you’d hope she’d have to do in real life before realization would set in, though in Chloe’s case, it never really does.

Buxbaum manages to keep Chloe mostly sympathetic and her family is charming but also outrageously privileged. As a contrast to this, offstage, we have Cesar, Chloe’s 1st grade reading buddy whose mother is undocumented. This is something that gives Chloe genuine fulfillment and a place where her parents money has made a difference – it is perhaps a light at the end of a very dark (but comfortably padded) tunnel.

There is of course some delightful and vicarious schadenfreude to be had from this book, but it also gives teen readers some support that if the worst happens, you will survive it and maybe even thrive on your new path. Particularly if your family is well off.

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital ARC.

This Boy by Lauren Myracle

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This Boy by Lauren Myracle
Walker, April 2020

Just before the start of freshman year, Paul and Roby meet up and then become friends once they start school: bonding over a mutual disdain for the girl-hazing bros in their year. Though they fall out over a girl, Latina Natalia, the ties of best friendship hold over the years of high school. Much of the book is a realistic and assured portrait of 21st century high school life for a boy: negotiating friends, girls, hurt feelings, alcohol and drugs, different family structures, different social and economic circumstances, and contemporary gender and sexuality mores. All this is done really well and effortlessly.

But then, because this is a YA book, Something Happens during senior year and the narrative takes a sharp turn from the quotidian to something much higher pitched though well within the bounds of everyday high school life. It is still skillfully written and resolved but I could have done without the extra drama as I was just enjoying living the life.

Paul and Roby are great, well-drawn characters – not in the popular gang but also not in the lower strata. In some ways, they are a step to the side, marching to the beat of their own drums, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. This is a lovely portrait of regular lives which can so easily slip awry, but with heart and support can get back on track.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Smooth by Matt Burns

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Smooth by Matt Burns
Candlewick, June 2020

Intensely self-conscious about his severe acne, 10th grader Kevin is pleased to be prescribed Accutane, despite its many side-effects, and things definitely look up when he connects with Alex, a girl he meets at his regular blood tests for the drug. While he invests this relationship with a weight that it can’t really bear, he retreats from his former best friends and family and his life starts to spiral downwards. He invests his energy in a slew of creative projects, but they are more about impressing other people than expressing himself, and they all fizzle out.

Debut author Burns imbues his first person narrative with the authentic solipsism of a teenager: Kevin observes and judges his friends, family and classmates with little empathy and without really listening to them, particularly Alex. And so much of what Kevin is thinking and feeling about himself, doesn’t get shared outside his own head and his isolation increases. Like many teens he snarkily views other people only through his own lens, claiming he doesn’t care about friendships, though to be fair to him, the other teens (all white from the suburbs) do seem to him (and me) to be remarkably well-adjusted.

The author does a fine job of chronicling Kevin’s descent into a vicious circle of hopelessness, and it is never clear (to the reader or Kevin) if his depression is caused by the Accutane or is genetic or if it’s just what a sensitive 10th grade boy experiences. Ultimately, though the Accutance does help, it is Kevin himself who has a Judy Blume-inspired epiphany (nicely done!) about his own role in his social isolation. For me, this came a bit too abruptly and a bit too late in the novel and felt rather unbalanced against the amount of time Kevin has spent in despair.

Though only a few teens suffer from such serious skin conditions, many will be able to relate to Kevin’s isolation, withdrawal, and desperate thoughts. A good choice for readers who like dark and some light, but not till the end.

Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.

Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen

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So it’s been quite a while since I posted and I’ve been enjoying the break. I re-read the Harry Potter series which was wonderful, read some novels for adults, and even read some YA novels. It was very relaxing to just read a book without having to keep notes or write a thoughtful review. But I’m back now, at least for a while. I’ve got several reviews ready to go, so there will be one a week at least for the next couple of months, and then I’ll see how I feel after that.

Words on Fire by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic, October 2019.

As regular readers will know, I’ve been a long-time fan of Jennifer A. Nielsen, but I feel like I might be coming to an end with her. I did not enjoy a previous historical novel, A Night Divided as much as many, and, in terms of her fantasy novels though I thought The Scourge was excellent, I wasn’t a fan of The Traitor’s Game and didn’t bother with the sequel. However, I was given this book to review and though I loved the idea of it, I didn’t love the execution so much.

In late 19th century Russian-occupied Lithuania, the Lithuanian language, both spoken and written, is banned in an attempt to erase the country and assimilate it into the Motherland.

When 12-year old Audra’s parents are arrested for the crime of book smuggling, Audra joins the resistance, bringing Lithuanian books in from Prussia and distributing them to patriots. As Audra begins to understand how Lithuanian words are their freedom, she realizes how vital her network is to keeping that idea alive.

In tense and exciting sequences, she and Lukas, a boy of her own age, take daring risks to keep the supply of books flowing while being pursued by Cossack soldiers. Though Audra is initially scared and clueless, she credibly gains confidence when she realizes that the magic tricks her father taught her can be used to outwit their enemies.

The prose, plot, and characterization never rise above workmanlike in their service to the fascinating central idea of using language to control the narrative: what can’t be said, can’t be thought. Though Nielsen brings this little-known piece of history to life through Audra, the book lacks further information and resources about the Lithuanian freedom fighters and book smugglers.

Tin by Pádraig Kenny

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Tin by Pádraig Kenny
Chicken House, 2019

The cover and title rather misleadingly suggest a quest akin to the Wizard of Oz, and I found it puzzling that the author has his breath taken away by it given that it seems unconnected to the story. Having said that, it is a very attractive cover and may well pull in some readers looking for warmly human speculative fiction.

Set between the wars in an alternate steampunk England, this novel brings charm and exciting adventure to a story about home and family. 

Living with a incompetent and unlicensed engineer and an oddball group of “mechanical” children, 12 year-old Christopher had always thought he was a “proper” boy, but an accident reveals that he too is constructed of metal and he is a rare and illegal machine with a transferred soul. 

When Christopher is kidnapped by a government agency, the misfit mechanicals, Jack, Round Rob, Gripper, Manda, and their human friend, aspiring engineer Estelle, set off in pursuit. Along the way, they go to Ironhaven, the town where discarded and broken mechanicals go, to seek the help of the country’s most gifted engineer. Switching narrative point of view between Christopher and Jack, the reader can follow both strands of the story leading to a revealing climax in an old prison. 

This world of magically created, and all-white, mechanicals lacks some logic. Christopher is haunted by vivid sensory memories of his home and mother, but these turn out to be false memory “patches.” Jack and the others, particularly Rob, though lacking souls have definite personalities, can make decisions, feel despair and joy, love and friendship, and I found myself wondering how they differ from real children or even “ensouled” ones like Christopher. 

The switches of narration, especially at the end, get confusing and there are a lot of pseudo-scientific terms thrown around which are incomprehensible and irrelevant. I also found the end battle to be rather overdone given the more sophisticated storytelling that led up to it.

But that said, I liked this more than my review above might suggest. The characterization, problematic or not, is well done and the team of mechanicals and their human companions are delightful and sympathetic. The author has a fine imagination and the world he has built here could certainly sustain some more stories. And while I started by grumbling about the misleading Wizard of Oz cover, the mechanicals do find out that there’s no place like home.

The Color of the Sun by David Almond

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The Color of the Sun by David Almond
Candlewick, 2019.

In Little Felling in the North-East of England, the body of a teen boy, Jimmy Killen, is found. Davie sees the body and then sets out towards the top of the hill outside the village looking for the suspected murderer, a teen boy from the Craigs, a rival family to the Killens.

As he wanders on this hot summer’s day, he encounters and converses with several people, including an old priest, two young girls, the Craigs, a dog, an old man who lost his leg in a mining accident and a gardener as well as his recently deceased father.

Set in an unspecified post-war era, the spare lyrical prose and dream-like mood hint at a larger journey towards manhood as artistic, imaginative Davie absorbs and reflects on the tales, both real and apocryphal, that he is told along the way.

I really loved the author’s 2015 The Tightrope Walkers and this has some of the same virtues, but feels much slighter and less grounded. Here, Almond creates a wonderfully atmospheric picture of that stage in life when childhood is left behind but adulthood has not yet been reached and of an England that no longer exists if it ever did. But I feel the setting and meandering pace will likely limit its appeal to American teen readers, as well as the Geordie dialect and customs.

Thanks to Candlewick for the review copy.

Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
Scholastic, 2019

I really enjoy British dystopias – they are so much grungier than American ones – so I was excited to see this novel (originally published in the UK in 2018) on the review table. It reminded me a little of Maggot Moon, which I adored, and also of the communist East German regime which I was immersed in recently on a holiday in Berlin.

In a near-future England, the Coalition has brought in Brexit on steroids: nobody is allowed in or out of the country. The Coalition looks after you from cradle to grave and for your safety (of course!) they want to know where you are at all times, so all citizens have a chip embedded in their necks.

12 year-old Jake had led a happy and unremarkable life with his parents who were scientists for the Coalition, but when they both die in a car accident he is taken away to a Home Academy – a boarding school/prison for parentless children. But his parents had made him promise that if anything happened to them, he would make his way to his grandparents in Scotland accompanied by his dog, Jet.

Jake manages to escape from the Home and rescue Jet from his neighbors, but he can’t shake the pursuing “hub police” because of his chip. Just in time, he is rescued by a group of outwalkers: teens and children who have removed their chips and want to escape over the New Wall to Scotland. This motley group of seven, all white except dark-skinned Poacher, are richly characterized and are the heart of the novel.

As they crisscross England avoiding capture, the plot crackles along at a high intensity pace with occasional, welcome moments of slack. The group has its harsh rules for survival: no technology, be outside, be hidden, and obedience to the gang; any infractions and you’re out. Jake is initially uncomfortable with the outwalkers, and the feeling is mutual, but they gradually let him into their motley family.

However, the kids do seem to be unfeasibly lucky in getting out of apparently no exit situations and a late turn of the plot adds in a new character. This takes the focus from the personal and sets up an unnecessary sequel, a development of which you just know I’m not a fan. 

The author has used current events and attitudes and turned up the jets of speculation to create a grim but very plausible world. The Coalition’s promotion of jingoistic nationalism, its manipulation of the media and the narrative, the social hierarchy based on wealth and privilege, and the restricted access to healthcare will feel as familiar to American readers as it does to British ones.

I’ve seen some criticism of this book – Poacher, the only black character is the only one whose speech is written in dialect, one of the other characters uses “throws like a girl” as an insult – and these are fair objections. Nonetheless, I found myself thoroughly gripped and invested in the quest for belonging made by these characters and would recommend it to teen readers who enjoy bleak speculative fiction.