Thursday, April 28, 2016

Springtime and Passover in NYC

Carl Schurz Park, Yorkville, New York City, tulips above and walkway below.

Every year we gather in New York City for Passover. My parents host our Seder, and we all take turns reading from a haggadah that has more English than Hebrew. Our mixed-faith family is also multinational: American, British, Japanese, Italian Canadian and Mexican American. Only a few of us went to Hebrew School, but we all mumble along with enthusiasm, especially in the Dayenu chorus. The week-long holiday celebrates the Jews' escape from slavery in Egypt. In remembrance, we eat matzah, unleavened bread (English spelling of Hebrew varies). On the run in the desert, there was no time for the dough to rise. All the food is symbolic.

Passover is always in springtime, but the timing shifts due to the Hebrew lunar calendar. In my neighborhood park, the cherry trees were in peak bloom. My husband and our kids had to return for school, but I stayed a couple extra days to catch up with friends and art.

There's a wonderful Munch exhibit at the Neue Gallery, including his pastel Scream. Afterwards my parents treated me to a Viennese lunch at Cafe Sabarsky (above). The museum and cafe are inside a gorgeous 5th Avenue mansion overlooking Central Park.

Meanwhile back in Maine, my husband texted me this photo of our backyard. My flight back home Tuesday was cancelled due to the snowstorm! This was unusual for late April, even in Maine.

Given an extra day, I enjoyed a leisurely walk in Central Park.

For gym class in high school, I used to jog around the reservoir with my friend Cathy, who now runs Main Point Books in Pennsylvania. Another friend of ours is a librarian at a Harlem high school. We love talking books, and they use my recommendations to restock their shelves. My librarian friend was especially grateful for my Gay YA Romances post, since those are the books that go missing. Her students love romances and dystopia so I promised to keep an eye out for diverse YA in those genres.

For my last lunch, I had matzah ball soup at The Mansion, our local diner which has been there longer than my parents can remember. On the windows were both Passover and Easter decorations. I felt right at home.

Now back in Maine, I found my forsythia blooming over melting snow. Locals call spring snow "poor man's fertilizer." This transplanted New Yorker is feeling inspired.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The New Guy by Amy Spalding

The New Guy (and other senior year distractions) by Amy Spalding is a brilliant comedy of errors about high school journalism. This newly released YA novel starts like a predictable romance set at a private school in LA. Jules is so focused on getting into Brown that she hasn't had time for a boyfriend. The "new guy," Alex, was once a member of a boy band with one viral hit. Unsure how to navigate the real world, Alex is drawn to super-focused Jules. Their romance seems inevitable until Jules discovers that Alex is part of a video news program which threatens the survival of her beloved school newspaper.

Jules is a fine role model for teens, but she's not without flaws. She edits the school newspaper; welcomes new students like Alex; walks dogs at the animal shelter, and helps her two moms cook a healthy dinner. However, her quest for perfection backfires. Goaded by new media competition, her loyalty for the newspaper spirals out of control, threatening her relationships with her boyfriend, her best friend and her faculty advisor. As a prank war between old and new media escalates, Jules makes terrible choices and faces the consequences.

Jules reminded me a bit of myself during senior year: I was the photography editor of my school newspaper, volunteered at an animal shelter and was way too stressed about getting into an Ivy League school. Most of my friends had boyfriends, but I didn't have time for boys until I was accepted to college. Although I could relate to the pressures facing Jules, I found it hard to excuse how she treated her best friend and her boyfriend. Jules's justifications sounded more like self-delusion. Her story is a fair warning to overstretched teens about perspective and priorities.

The New Guy was a fun, light read with solid morals. The content was quite tame for upper YA: no drinking, drug use or hookups. When Jules decides to become sexually active, she visits a health clinic and discusses birth control with her boyfriend. The scene fitted Jules's pragmatic personality and wasn't preachy. I'd recommend this book to college-bound teens, especially to those interested in journalism. There were some good insights on the trade-offs between print and video news. The novel was well crafted and funny too. I'm looking forward to reading more books by Amy Spalding. This is her fourth young adult novel.

Reviewer's Disclosure: when I couldn't find this newly released (April 5th) novel in three bookstores, I bought the ebook from Amazon. Photo of an egret over Monterey Bay from my trip to California.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Diverse YA: gay romances for teens by David Levithan, John Green, Seth Rudetsky, Becky Albertalli & Nina LaCour

Popham Beach, Maine. After a week of cold and/or stormy weather, the sun has finally returned.

As much as I dislike labels, I hope this post helps teens find good age-appropriate books that reflect diverse experiences. I don't mean to imply that these contemporary YA novels are only for gay teens; a good story speaks to universal feelings and isn't circumscribed by gender identification. As a heterosexual woman, I enjoyed these realistic romantic comedies too. So many novels portray homosexuals as victims of hate crime so it was refreshing to see gay characters portrayed as ordinary teenagers in love, facing everyday challenges with a fair chance at a happy ending.

David Levithan is one of my favorite authors for his humorous tone, quirky characters and fun plots. Two Boys Kissing (2013) created waves with its cover photo and rave reviews. Some of the stories in his collection were sweet and innocent and others were racier, covering the wide breadth of the gay teen experience. In addition to writing books with gay protagonists, Levithan has co-authored several heterosexual teen romances with female authors, such as Dash & Lily's Book of Dares (2010). Follow the title links to my full reviews, posted earlier on my blog.

Levithan collaborated with another favorite author of mine, John Green, to write Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) about two boys, one straight and the other closeted gay, who share the same name. They also have an openly gay friend in common who is starring in his autobiographical musical at school. My husband and I listened to the audio book in the car, laughing for miles. This book is best in audio format for hearing the soundtrack of the musical satire.

Following on this musical theater theme is My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan (2012) by Seth Rudetsky. His writing style is similar to Levithan's, but Rudetsky's experience on Broadway adds depth to the musical content. This delightful comedy features both gay and straight romances and enough gender identity plot twists to rival Shakespeare. In pursuit of popularity and his crush, a closeted gay boy poses as a straight girl's boyfriend.

I related to Rudetsky's novel on a personal level since my first boyfriend was gay. We were eleven and twelve-years-old so there wasn't anything sexual about our relationship, but it was my first kiss. He dated at least two other girls after me before coming out in high school. I remember feeling happy for him but confused. This novel helped me understand what might have been going through his head. By coincidence my first boyfriend was also involved in musical theater both then and now. He reminded me of Rudetsky's protagonist: funny, talented, smart and kind-hearted. This novel was diverse in more than one dimension. It was a nice change to read a YA novel with mostly Jewish characters that wasn't about the Holocaust. I want to read the sequel, The Rise and Fall of a Theater Geek (2015) too.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli was one of my favorite books from last year. The heterosexual author used her experience as a child psychologist to tell a typical coming out story in a true teenaged boy voice. Simon's secret gay romance is threatened when another boy finds their flirty emails and blackmails him. Simon struggles to protect the privacy of the other closeted boy, whose identity is unknown even to him. It's set in the suburbs of Atlanta with racially diverse secondary characters.

I raced through Albertalli's debut novel in one day, laughing at Simon's witty observations and eager to uncover the identity of his mystery love. My only criticism is that all the pop culture references will date this novel. Still, this is a marvelous book for gay teens and for readers of all ages. The parents were hilarious. This author clearly knows how to laugh at herself. You can read my full review in an earlier post about Diverse YA Romances.
Coming in June: After reading an excerpt in Buzz Books, I'm looking forward to You Know Me Well by David Levithan and Nina LaCour. Here's the publisher's blurb: "Kate is lost, having just run away from a chance to finally meet the girl she has been in love with from afar. Mark, meanwhile, is in love with his best friend Ryan, who may or may not feel the same way. When Kate and Mark meet up, little do they know how important they will become to each other -- and how, in a very short time, they will know each other better than any of the people who are supposed to know them more." This looks like the start of a beautiful friendship. I love the cover too.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I purchased Rudetsky's ebook from Amazon after searching for YA novels about musical theater since my work in progress features a high school musical. I bought Abertalli's, Ellis's, and Levithan's books and audiobook from indie bookstores. Buzz Books 2016: Young Adult Spring/Summer was provided by netgalley.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

This Is the Story of You by Beth Kephart

Beth Kephart is one of my favorite young adult authors because her sophisticated writing challenges teens to think for themselves. In literary prose Kephart explores real world issues through complex characters and surreal imagery. Well-developed adult characters make her books cross over easily to grown ups too. Her evocative settings transport the reader to another world. Don't you love her latest cover?

This is a Story of You is a modern parable of the horrors of climate change. When a storm cuts off an island from the Jersey Shore, 17-year-old Mira must fight for survival with only a stray cat for company. Earlier that day, her single mom had driven her disabled brother to the mainland hospital for emergency treatment. As the storm rages and the sea floods their beachside cottage, Mira must decide what to save and how to stay alive. If that weren't scary enough, a mysterious intruder is lurking outside, and without power or cellular service, Mira can't call for help.

Of the eight books I've read by Beth Kephart (my review index), This Is the Story of You is the most accessible to a general audience. It's more plot-driven and faster paced with the storm acting like a character in itself, a merciless antagonist threatening Mira and her friends. I read most of the book in one afternoon, flipping the pages anxiously and shivering as a storm raged outside my own house. As a survivor myself of an ocean storm that flooded an island (No Name of 1991), I could relate too well to this story.

Although the storm results in tragedy, Kephart's outlook on humanity is sunny. This is no Lord of the Flies. My only criticism is her Story would have felt more realistic if some of the characters had acted selfishly or tried to benefit from others' losses. Still, this harrowing tale was quite believable in our world threatened by climate change. There were lots of useful survival tips too.

Birds and nesting are a recurring motif in Beth Kephart's books.

What was special about this environmental thriller was the literary style. The narrative language was as rhythmic and balladic as a campfire song:
"Our training was impeccable. We were used to weather. We were proud of being used to weather." 
"The birds were flying closer still and the tide was high and feisty, the foam shearing loose from the sea and bouncing down the shoreline. The dune planks rattled when the breeze kicked in. The window boxes beneath the front bay window complained. The monsters of the sea were out there churning...." 
"A great blue heron sauntered over the keys of the piano."
Sarah Laurence with author Beth Kephart at Main Point Books.
I'd recommend This is the Story of You to readers of all ages. This contemporary YA novel is being marketed for teens, but it would also be perfect for younger, precocious readers who don't scare easily. The protagonist finds a dead body, but that's as edgy as the narrative gets. Unlike most YA, there is no substance abuse nor much in the way of romance. It reads like a classic adventure story/mystery with modern teen updates. Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal gave this book starred reviews. I predict that This is the Story of You will be a big hit.

Reviewer's Disclosure: the author is a blog buddy. Upon my request, Chronicle Books sent me a free galley, but I was not compensated for my review. This book will be released in hardcover & ebook on April 12th.

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@Barrie Summy