Category Archives: book reviews

Bumped and Thumped: Commodifiying Teen Pregnancy

Megan MacCafferty, popular author of the Jessica Darling series, released two books this April*about a not-so-distant future America in which a worldwide virus has wiped out most of the population’s fertility by the time they’re eighteen years old.  This makes fecund adolescents a hot commodity and provides the source of the books’ satire.

McCafferty’s heroines are Melody and Harmony, identical twins separated at birth and living vastly separate lives. Harmony lives in Goodside, a fundamentalist Christian community with Amish and Hutterite overtones, where she has been just married to Ram — after years of spinsterhood, at age sixteen, she was considered a failure at her duty as a female, marrying and producing children.  She was taught by her adoptive Ma to live for “JOY: Jesus first, Others second, Yourself third.”  She “has God” and lives an irreproachable life, except for the secret non-consummation of her marriage, but she wants to find her sister, and so runs on the day after her wedding night to Otherside, where Melody lives the life of an upscale Surrogette who has been hired out to a couple to produce their baby with a Reprofessional.  She’s been raised by her adoptive parents to be perfect surrogate material — she’s Princeton Academy educated, athletic, attractive, accomplished — and when she scores the hottest Repro around, Jondoe, her status as teen queen is set.  Nevermind that she doesn’t really want to “bump” with Jondoe (get it? He’s a John Doe, but in this world, sperm donors are celebrities, and Jondoe appears to be as big a “fame gamer” as any).  Or that she would sort of like to bump her best friend, Zen, who is smart, cute, funny, and principled but too short to make it as a Repro– bumping with him is not an option according to the rules of Melody’s world.  For teen in her world, relationship are about sex, and sex is about procreation (for fame and/ or money),  so it’s not only recreational sex that is out of the question — love is, too.  Until a twin switcheroo puts Harmony in Melody’s place and Jondoe falls for her.  The first novel ends with Harmony running back to Goodside, ashamed of her attraction to Jondoe and convinced he’s just used her to get the job done, while Jondoe pleads with Melody to help him find Harmony and his unborn child.

Thumped begins with Harmony cutting off her braid in defiance of her order and about to give birth to twins that she and Ram will pass off as their own (as we discover, Ram’s been hiding a secret himself).  But when she’s about to be excommunicated and have her twin girls taken from her, she runs to Melody in Otherside. Melody has been sporting a realistic “fun bump” (even better than the preteens wear to pretend to be  “preg”) and shilling all sorts of products as the hottest of the Hotties, the season’s number one preg teens as she secretly plans to support Zen’s plan for revolution.  As the deceptions get sorted out, often quite humorously, McCafferty shows an America which has gone from commodifying sex while simultaneously commodifying abstinence (see the purity movement and their rings) to commodifying the thing that liberals and conservatives fear alike:  teen pregnancy.  Harmony, Melody, and Jondoe come to recognize how they have been exploited by a system (including their parents and teachers) that sees them more as breeders in some nationwide human  puppy mill than as individuals, as kids.  It’s a disturbing premise to be sure, and McCafferty presents it in a satirical way that does not detract from the seriousness of her critique.  She captures the language of this world so well as it morphs from its origins in corporate product speak to teen slang but maintains the same focus on the hyper-importance of products, whether  they’re ProPreg Bars or uteruses or fetuses.  Everything and everyone can be bought and sold here to support a seemingly wholesome ideology of serving God or the nation —  and it’s not hard to find parallels in our real world to the one Melody and Harmony try to escape.

*Bumped was re-released in April, actually.


Vera Dietz Delivers

Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a great book, and I am not just saying that because (1) I know the writer and she will be giving an interview on this very site on November 2, or (2) because it takes place in the town I grew up in, or as A. S. King reminds me, a “fictionalized” version of that town.  (For example, in the “real” town, the streets, when lit at night and viewed from a mountain road, spell the word SHIT, which for disaffected teens like me and Vera was an apt metaphor for a place we wanted to vacate.  But, like Vera, I have come to appreciate the place more.  I mean, we’re a southeastern Pennsylvania town with a neon Pagoda perched above us!  How cool is that?).

As the title alerts us, much of this book is about the things we ignore and shouldn’t.  Vera has been told to ignore a lot in her seventeen years, particularly the domestic violence taking place next door, where her best friend and first love Charlie Kahn lives.  When the story takes place, Charlie has died and Vera wrestles with guilt over his death and what might have been if she hadn’t ignored his final messages to her after their friendship grew estranged, if she or her father had called the police just once when they heard Mr. Kahn breaking Mrs. Kahn’s arm, if she could have kept Charlie alive somehow.

It’s about Vera doing her very best to be ignored by her classmates because:

  • she is a smart girl irritated with the idiots around her who can’t identify Florida on a map but who doesn’t want to look smart enough to be noticed,
  • her mom was a stripper who left her when she was twelve,
  • her best friend has taken up with some awful people who throw dog crap at her,
  • and that best friend has died and reappears in multiples, replicated like tissue paper images of himself, and wants her to forgive him and clear his name.

Flying under the radar seems like a good idea.  In fact, it seems like the only way to survive.

The story follows, with flashbacks, Vera as she grapples with all of this and finds a way to make peace with her town, with herself, with her family, and with Charlie, all under the watchful eye of the Pagoda, who has seen more than it could ever tell and thus acquired, despite its ersatz tackiness, a kind of brutal wisdom.  The book has been described by some reviewers as “harrowing”, and it’s that, for sure, but there is also a great deal of hope, redemption, and love here.  It presents a very real world and the very real problems of young adults, especially those inherited, legacies of violence, alcoholism, poverty, and pain.  But it also shows how all of this can be overcome and, in the end, a kind of peace, even justice, can be found.

So far, this second YA offering from A. S. King — her first is The Dust of 100 Dogs — has garnered 3 starred reviews (Kirkus, PW and Booklist) and a highlighted review from VOYA.  Expect to hear more about this book!

Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Knopf Books for Young Readers, October 12, 2010

Tangled, but not messy

I’ll begin with full disclosure here, before I launch in to how much I like this book.  I have a bit of a beef (pun intended) with Carolyn Mackler’s Vegan Virgin Valentine, because I wanted the heroine to remain a vegan and not become one just because she’s a bit of a control freak and diet is one more thing she can control.  (And I admit this even as I dislike reviewers who pan books and movies just because they expected the text to go somewhere it didn’t.)  Also, as someone struggling to get just that right hook in the first ten sentences of her book to make an agent/editor gasp with joy at the originality and obvious appeal of my manuscript, I have to admit I found the first paragraph of Tangled to be a little calculated in its draw. But, forget my bitterness.  “Paradise sucked until I found the suicide note.  And then it didn’t suck at all” is a great beginning.

On the surface, the four characters here whose lives intersect seem like pretty stock characters — the beautiful teen actress, the geek with the blog, the bad boy, and the dorky girl – but that’s the point.  As each of them learns to look beyond the surface, Mackler allows us to find unexpected dimensions to the characters.

The characters are wholly believable, even the beautiful but troubled Skye, who describes her mom as someone “who tells me I can tell her everything but by that she means everything good” and her ex-boyfriend, “typical Matt, the Golden retriever of teenage guys.”  Those lines exemplify the funny,sad and very real nature of the narrative.

You’re as likely to get drawn in to Mackler’s  not-so-tangled web as I was.  It’s one of the best YA reads of the year.

Tangled, Carolyn Mackler, HarperTEEN, 2010

E. Lockhart’s Latest: The Treasure Map of Boys

The third in a series, The Treasure Map of Boys invites us into the head once again of Ruby “Roo” Oliver, who may be my favorite of Lockhart’s characters.  Unless it’s Frankie Landau Banks.  Or Sarah/Sadie from Dramarama. As with these heroines, the reader is pulling for Roo throughout the narrative, even if she’s not always completely likable — which is what makes her so real.  Like many Lockhart heroines, Roo is both maddeningly self -assured and completely neurotic.  At times, like many of us, she is a little too sure of her rightness in most matters, and wants us (and her therapist) to undersatndthe depth of  her suffering in the dire state of “No Boyfriend” for thirty-seven whole weeks.  She sees herself as friendless, a “rolypoly”, even though she still has two pretty loyal girl friends.  And then there’s Noel. And Gideon.  And even Finn, plus more ex-boyfriends who are starting to seem interesting again.  what’s a girl to do?  Roo’s also just been put in charge of the CHUBS (Tate Prep Charity Holiday Bakesale), though her drive to move the goods beyond cutesy snowman cupcakes and to get the word out that Tate Men Bake causes more friction between her and most of the school population, again.

Fans of Lockhart will want to follow Roo again as she tries to figure all of this out– and even recognize where she could have done a few things differently and saved a lot of confusion and heartache (hilarious as it is for the reader).

Released July 2010 by Delacorte

kid reviewer: Luv Ya Bunches

Take a kid’s word for it.  Here’s a review by my ten-year-old daughter:

Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle was an awesome book about four girls going into fifth grade.  Their names are Camilla (Milla), Katie-Rose, Violet, and Yasaman.  Milla is friends with Modessa (who Katie-Rose calls “Medusa”) and Quin, the mean, popular girls.  But when they start being mean to Milla, she stops being their friend.  Later in the story, Milla, Katie-Rose, Violet, and Yasaman (who are now friends) put mud in Modessa’s ice cream at the ice cream social and blame it on Quin.  At the end of the book they all become friends and talk to each other on, a website created by Yasaman.

I like the suspense and drama.  My favorite part was when they put mud in her ice cream.  I didn’t like when Modessa threw Milla’s favorite scarf in the mud.

review of _Will Grayson, Will Grayson_

by John Green and David Levithan, 2010, Dutton Juvenile Books

“The first book starring gay characters ever to appear on the [New York Times Bestsellers’] list,” according to co-author John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson tells the story of two guys, one gay, one straight, who meet by accident and have their lives change forever.  Green and Levithan present dual narrators with utterly believable voices — I’m always amazed at authors who can collaborate and create such a seamless narrative (another great example of this is How to Be Bad, by E. Lockhart, Lauren Myracle, and Sarah Mylnowski).  Both Wills are easily differentiated by voice, character, and typography (Gay Will does not use caps). Straight Will follows his own personal motto of “Don’t care too much and shut up”, but there is humor and vulnerability inside.  Gay Will’s voice is darker, and harsher — he is isolated and relies on online relationships for sustenance, which leads to the cruel joke that brings the two together.  But in serial romancer Tiny Cooper, “the world’s largest person who is really, really gay” and also “the world’s gayest person who is really, really large” Levithan and Green create their most compelling character.  As in many YA books, the boys learn a lot about love and friendship, but WGWG presents those lessons in such a real, sometimes heartbreaking, often hilarious way, making it stand out from so many others.  The same wit and intelligence you may have liked in Green’s Paper Towns and An Abundance of Catherines , you’ll like this one a lot.