Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Amplified, by Tara Kelly

AmplifiedAmplified by Tara Kelly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When 17 yo MC Jasmine tells her domineering doctor dad that she'd like to defer her entry to Stanford for a year to pursue her dream of a musical career, he doesn't take it so well. In fact, when she doesn't back down, he gives her 15 minutes to "get her stuff and get out," all the while insisting that "he's not the bad guy here." Jaz heads to Santa Cruz, just over the hills from the snooty suburb where she's never really fit in. While desperately (and wildly unsuccessfully) searching Craigslist for a place to stay, she sees an audition notice for a guitarist in C-Side, an industrial rock band that seems perfect for her intense and atmospheric guitar playing. So perfect that it even includes a room in a cool oceanside house, and a chance to actually make friends with Veta, the band's awesome girl singer. Only a few obstacles stand in Jasmine's way - like, she's never actually played in public, except for the infamous "Cornflake Girl," incident which still haunts her stage fright nightmares; her house mates are three guys with strong personalities, who seem reluctant to accept her as a player and a person; and perhaps most importantly, one of them is that total dick from the auto shop where her car broke down on her way into town (not a good day all around, long story). Yep, that guy who, just when she was at her lowest (so far, uh oh) had to mock and humiliate her seemingly just because he could. And doggone it, he would have to be the hot one, too.

One of the things I liked about this book was the realistic way that many of Jasmine's problems are somewhat self-inflicted. Understandably, she's not very forthcoming with her thoughts and feelings, and that causes no end of problems for her. I say "understandably," because her dad is a relentless and harsh judger/belittler, and although it's not clear whether he blames her for her mother abandoning them when Jaz was five, or just sees too much of her mother in her, the ghost of her mom, and Jasmine's attempts to exorcise it by doing everything her dad's ever wanted has brought her to the point of feeling ... well, not very much. So, since opening up is her big bugaboo, it's so great that she goes to work for a psychic whose whole focus is on opening and reading people's thoughts and feelings. Just what the doctor (well, not her dad, haha) ordered, right? Well, no, not that simple, since the lonely, determined to be self-reliant Jasmine resolutely resists the effort. So a great part of the story is Jasmine learning to trust and open up. It's sweet and touching and feels tentative, painful and real.

Another part of the story that is really awesome is the music (ok, prob not a big surprise, given the title and all). The author really brings C-Side to life - the lyrics are poetic, ambiguous, intense and dreamy. She describes the music so well, it really is like you are listening, in the sense that it gives you that emotional rush that good music does. And Jasmine believes in the power of music so much - it's transcendent for her, it's where she finds and expresses those feelings she works so hard to deny the rest of the time, and that only makes it all the more powerful, for her and the reader. So it's especially painful when her struggles extend even to the one area where she's so invested and where so much is riding on her tough, but still vulnerable, cute little shoulders.

This is a story about a lonely girl finding friendship, a green girl growing up, the healing magic of music, the sweet scariness of new romance (though it's not a romance), and about hanging tough even after you've been hung out to dry. Really, you should read this book, it's pretty wonderful!

For music geeks, there's lots of fun and juicy details of gear, guitars and amps. Clearly written with affection by someone who knows what she's talking about. Jasmine's rig? Awesomesauce!

While this is Jasmine's story, almost every character comes to life. They are all multi-faceted, real feeling and complex. It's hard to see even the "bad guys," without seeing that maybe there's more to them, and that they are people too (except her dad, what an a-hole, I don't blame her mom one bit!)

So, all in all, a great, fun read, with real emotions, fun and intense, seriously, you should read it!

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Faking Faith by Josie Bloss

Faking FaithFaking Faith by Josie Bloss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a series of bad decisions, culminating in the widespread dissemination of some foolishly shared ("you'll never show these to anyone,right?") topless photos, MC Dylan finds herself home alone, suspended, grounded by her workaholic parents, shunned by her friends and generally very, very lonely and unhappy. What's a girl to do? Why, spend hours on the internet, of course, where she becomes intrigued by and sucked into the world of homeschooled fundamentalist Christian girls (from families that kind of remind me of the Duggers). She really connects with with one of them, a girl from southern Illinois named Abigail (I think that name means "Handmaid," appropriate for her, as it develops). Dylan (whose name comes from a guy who was the ultimate symbol of the hedonistic 60's) invents her own such persona, "Faith" (I like the ambiguity of the title, btw, referring to both her name and her beliefs). As Faith, Dylan creates her own blog, and insinuates herself into the little online community and ultimately ends up visiting Abigail and her family (she's a clever one, if a bit sneaky). Faith's visit stirs up a lot of things at the farm, including Abi's brother Asher, who's already somewhat on probation for having been seen kissing a non-Christian girl. Is Faith's presence and impact a good thing for any of them?

One of the things I really liked about this book was the starkly contrasting nature of Dylan/Faith's two worlds. Her parents are mystified by her interest in and questions about things like baking, and why they never go to church. And of course Abi's family views the world Dylan comes from (if they think of it at all), as equally incomprehensible, and essentially a snare for the unwary, to be avoided above all. The relationshion between Abigail, the first person Dylan's connected with in so long who hasn't judged and rejected her, is sweet and convincing, and all the more dramatic for being founded on a whole lot of lying. Maybe because it is so utterly foreign to her experience, Dylan doesn't judge Abigail's world harshly, but instead sees it as something to be experienced, comparing it to being on an alien planet at one point. One of the things I liked best was how Dylan was able to see the appealing things about both worlds, and I appreciated that the author didn't engage in a lot of stereotyping or mockery of "those benighted kooks," but was able to see what they had that the more materialistic and driven lawyer family lacked (and vice versa, of course).

This is one of those "OMG, girlfriend don't do that books," a lot of the time, and it's fun (and stressful) to see how such bad judgment and poor impulse control land Dylan in so much, and so many different kinds of, hot water. But Dylan does grow, heal and learn as the summer goes on, and the Faith experience ends up being one that brings her a new appreciation of her own world and family, while also, perhaps, having a similar effect on Abigail and Asher. When Dylan applies what Faith learned to the situation she left behind, she's able to reconcile her experience of both worlds in a healing and hopeful way that make the conclusion emotional and satisfying. And isn't that what a good YA book is supposed to do?

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

If I Tell, by Janet Gurtler

If I TellIf I Tell by Janet Gurtler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MC Jasmine ("Jaz") had her fair share of issues to contend with, even before she saw her Mom's boyfriend making out with Jaz's skank-a-rific "best friend" Lacey at that party. Issues, you ask? Well, she's never really gotten over being abandoned by her Dad, who split as soon as he found out that her Mom was pregnant at seventeen. She's the only bi-racial kid in a town that is pretty backward and mean about that sort of thing. Her grandfather Joe, the one guy she could count on, died recently, and her new best friend Ashley (who is gay, btw) is pretty much too busy to hang out, what with her busy swim team schedule and all. And that new guy, Jackson? The one who transferred in from juvie? He seems nice, and he's not only utterly sa-woon-esque, he seems interested in her! But Jaz has to wonder whether he's still dealing drugs, or if there's some other reason he's so mysterioso and cryptic on those phone calls he keeps getting at the most inopportune times. So, yup, lots going on, even before the fateful kissy face event. And Jaz, perhaps in light of all of the above, is not really the greatest at handling it. Already pretty good at stonewalling her own emotions and keeping other people at arm's length, her inability to decide how to handle the secret isolates her, and makes her even more difficult to get along with. What's a girl to do? I mean, let's face it, that's a pretty tough situation no matter how much aplomb, savoir faire and maturity you can muster, and Jaz is a teenager.

Which is exactly one of the things I really like about this book. Jaz is not all wise beyond her years, emotionally capable and socially ept. She's all kinds of awkward, not terribly able to understand, let alone articulate and express her feelings. Fortunately, she has a wonderful author friend who can do that for her, so we lucky readers do get inside that mixed up, angsty head of hers, as she works things out, realizes what is and what is not her responsibiity or fault, and finds out who her friends are, and how to forgive them and herself, when they (and she) use poor judgment and bad impulse control. Which is not to say that everything is wrapped up in a pretty package at the end. Even those early crocuses peeping out of the frozen feelings tundra remain realistically vulnerable and tentative as the narrative closes. But is there anything more hopeful than those first few shoots of green in March?

Some other things I loved about this book. Girls and guitars. Just the phrase makes me happy - and the author does a great job of conveying a real guitar player's enthusiasm and gear geekiness in the discussion of brands (full disclosure alert - I own a couple of Alvarez guitars, so she had me right there!), and appropriate awestruckness at a custom Martin. The song Jaz wrote was cool, too, and added depth and a feeling for how deep her hurt and creativity ran, and how intertwined they were. This is totally Jasmine's story, but the rest of the cast is fully realized too, with believable, relatable and unique voices and vibes. This is everything a good YA book should be - character driven, and with a great conflict pushing the narrative on - should she tell, if so, who should she tell and how? There's romance, but it's not a romance. It's chock full of the aforementioned issues (spoiler alert - nobody gets cancer, otherwise, it's all in there!), and the kind of emotional epiphanies and coming to terms with the foibles and frailties of the world and one's self that sporadically, spasmodically mark the milestones of the painful process of becoming an adult.

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