My fifteen-year old sister and I barely have anything in common these days. She educates me on the benefits of lip primer and moisturizers with SPFs, she teases me for buying my clothes from Old Navy, and she mentally catalogues every outfit she will wear for the first month of her sophomore year. But one thing I feel that we will share for a long time is our love for reading. When she and the rest of my family visited me for their summer vacation, she brought with her a bunch of books to lend me--and ended up buying even more during her two-month stay.
As with most teen titles that my sister reads, the central theme among this collection is young love, although in varying degrees. From light and flirtatious to serious and even tragic, these books are great to pick up during the summer--or, if you're like me, eager for any excuse to reconnect with your younger self:
1. Seventeenth Summer (Maureen Daly). Published in 1942, Seventeenth Summer is regarded as one of the first (if not the first) YA books around. Of course, we didn't know this at the time we bought it so my sister found it rather old-fashioned, Googled it, and then resumed reading with new eyes. While the story of girl meets boy then goes off to college sounds tame and relatively uneventful by contemporary standards, Seventeenth Summer is quiet and observant and contains an innocence not often found on today's YA shelves. Angie and Jack have their own misunderstandings like any normal teens, prompting Angie to say that 'Just because you kissed a boy doesn't mean you're going steady,' before later asking herself with fragile sensitivity, 'Why do I keep remembering the smell of pipe smoke that you can't even see, pungent in the night air, and that small, warm silence when someone is near you? (p.139)'
2. The Lonely Hearts Club (Elizabeth Eulberg). Penny Lane and her friends have been burned by love, but what starts out to be a friendly pact to swear off guys suddenly becomes an after-school club that shakes up the entire school. I was surprised to enjoy this book as much as I did. It's not just about teen romance, it's also about friendship and being true to yourself, themes that are admittedly overdone in YA but are tackled with a clearly upbeat sense in Ms Eulberg's debut.
3. Two-Way Street (Lauren Barnholdt). I was really looking forward to reading this that I had my sister buy me a copy. But maybe because of my high expectations, I ended up on a lukewarm note. It's about Jordan and Courtney, who have just split up but find themselves taking a road trip together because it's too late for them to change their plans. There's a lot of tension between these two, especially when you find out that there's more to the breakup than meets the eye. I liked the way the plot is presented: jumping from Courtney's to Jordan's perspective, not to mention going back and forth from their first months together to the current road trip. But I guess I didn't really quite warm up to the characters or to the way they dealt with their (predictable) situation. Without giving too much away, I feel that Jordan could have done something other than what he did. Both their reasons for doing things never seem too clear to me. Of course, that would leave us without a story, but I guess this was just one of those times when I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough.
4. One Lonely Degree (CK Kelly Martin). This is one of the heavier books in this list, as it tackles sensitive issues like date rape, separation and betrayal. Finn's traumatic sexual encounter with a popular boy has scarred her emotionally, and the only person she can turn to is her best friend Audrey. So when Audrey starts liking Finn's childhood friend Jersy, she only gives them her blessing. But when Audrey goes away for the summer, Finn realizes that it's not as easy as she thinks. Ms Martin's novel is very controlled with its emotions that it doesn't dissolve into drama and hysterics. One of my favorite moments is when Finn puts on a Liz Phair song as she blocks out her parents' argument and realizes that it 'is the longest song in the world (p.37)'. As far removed as I may be from Finn's world, Ms Martin has a way of making it very believable.
5. The Juliet Club (Suzanne Harper). Serious Kate finds herself in Verona, studying Shakespeare and answering letters to lovelorn teens through The Juliet Club. Of course, Shakespeare references are abound, including a plot that borrows heavily from Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, I feel that Ms Harper tries to do much with the story. There are three main love stories involving all six of the Club's teen volunteers (how coincidental), but none of these are as thoroughly explored as I would have liked. There's even a few chapters about Kate's friends who act like a Greek chorus, which I doubt the story needed. On a minor note, all the letter writers sound as if they came from the same American high school (don't even get me started on how high school students would know about The Juliet Club, much less write to a fictional character via snail mail instead of spilling their guts on some online forum). But one of the book's strengths is its lovely descriptions (its Italian setting still makes it a good choice for a summer read) and I think that cutting down on some of the other plots would have helped turn The Juliet Club into a more charming read.
6. She's So Dead to Us (Kieran Scott). This is one of the more enjoyable (contemporary) teen titles that I've read in a long time (I've always been a fantasy/sci-fi/historical kind of girl). Ally returns to the posh upper-crust neighborhood that she was forced to leave two years ago and finds out that life is different at the bottom of the pecking order. This Mean Girls-meets-Gossip Girl title may sound derivative but Ms Scott keeps it fun. Her main cast are not cardboard cut-out stock characters which really makes me want to know more about them and what make them tick. Too bad that this is the start of a series--and it really ended on a cliffhanger. I'm still looking forward to more.
7. Geek Magnet (Kieran Scott). My sister and I really liked Kieran Scott's writing that we immediately bought this one. In this book, KJ, certified geek magnet, tries to get with the one she likes by getting rid of the ones she doesn't and realizes that it's not always easy to trade one for the other. It wasn't as fun for me as She's so Dead to Us was, but if you're a fan of teen romances, this one doesn't disappoint. I liked Geek Magnet's male lead a whole lot better than Dead to Us's Jake Graydon.
8. Boy Crazy (Hailey Abbott). It was one of those teen books that does not easily appeal to me, bursting with pop culture and a contemporary take on dating and friendship, so anything more than that might be unfair. It's a popular series, I hear.
9. Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler). My sister says she's tired of reading books where the protagonist tries to deal with the loss of a significant other. But this, this was just different for us. It moved me beyond all my expectations. Best friends Abby and Frankie spend a summer together, trying to put themselves together after the unexpected loss of Frankie's brother Matt (and Abby's secret boyfriend). But when he dies, Abby not only has to heal herself but she has to heal in private, painfully aware that the world does not allow her to fully grieve for this boy she loved. Ms Ockler's command of language and her acuteness of definition, turned what could easily have been over-the-top melodrama into a story that is poignant, and diamond-sharp, and real. She writes about 'all the old ghosts I tried to leave home float like dandelion seed wishes (p85)' or that 'a banished mermaid reads my letters and weeps endlessly for a love she'll never know(p289).' Just lovely. As someone who's known loss but has never been fully able to write about it, I am always left catching my breath when someone else does.