The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, by Barry Lyga

The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl

Fanboy, and unnamed fifteen year old comic book geek, is just trying to make his way through high school unnoticed. His only passion in life is for comic books, both reading them and creating his own. His magnum opus is Schemata, a complicated and time-consuming graphic novel. At school he has one friend, Cal, who is a popular jock and cannot be seen talking to Fanboy regularly. So Fanboy walks through the halls anonymously, occasionally getting beat-up or verbally abused, and having violent day-dreams about the people who are on “The List.” One day he is contacted by Kyra, Goth Girl. Another social outcast at their high school, Kyra is a troubled teenager who lies compulsively and steals cars for joyrides, and is later found to be suffering from depression. However, she is the only person who helps Fanboy break through his self-imposed isolation. Their complex relationship leads Fanboy to finally stand up for himself.

Fanboy is a tough narrator, but one who will doubtless have great appeal to many teenage boys who can directly relate to his situation. He has constructed an image for himself that he must break out of in order to make any connections with other people, and the process of breaking out of that constructed self is not an easy one. In Fanboy’s relationships with Kyra, Cal, and his family, he is often hurtful and even cruel. However, his unhappiness in school and his home, his dedication to Schemata, and his intense insecurity keep the reader on his side.

Saving Francesca, by Melina Marchetta

Saving Francesca

Francesca is one of 30 girls attending St. Sebastian’s Academy, which is accepting girls for the very first time this year. The teachers and the student body have not been exactly accommodating of the girls, and Francesca makes it to school every day only from the motivation of her mother Mia, who is extremely optimistic, lively, and often annoying. Until one day, Mia won’t get out of bed. Mia was the center of the whole family, and suddenly Francesca, her father, and her little brother Luca must struggle to keep daily life going. As Francesca slowly adjusts to her new surroundings at school, makes friends with the other girls, and begins to fall for the infuriating Will Trombal, she must also learn to live life without the constant guidance of her mother and her old, popular friends. And finally, Francesca needs to discover the root of her mother’s sudden depression, and learn what she can do to help Mia return to her life.

I imagine that well written, light-hearted novels dealing with depression are few and far between, but this title certainly fits the bill. Francesca is a heartbreakingly real character, both in her humorous reactions to everyday life and in her emotional reactions to her mother’s illness. Life and relationships are allowed to be complicated in Marchetta’s book, and Francesca deals with these complications in ways that many teens will be able to relate to.

Son of the Mob, by Gordon Korman

Son of the Mob

Vince Luca’s father’s job has always caused trouble for Vince’s dating life. There was the time his date found an unconscious guy tied up in the trunk of his car, and he gets into trouble every time a girl wants to come home to meet his family. Life’s tough when your dad is the head of the New York mafia. When he meets Kendra, Vince finally thinks he’s found someone who’s worth all the trouble. When he finds out that her dad is in the FBI, he gets a little bit worried. When he finds out that her dad is investigating his dad, life gets really, really complicated.

The classic Romeo and Juliet romantic story is satisfying, but the really engaging part of this book is Vince’s moral struggle with his role as the child of a mob boss. In his attempts to help a few men who owe his father money, Vince finds himself more and more entangled in the family business, which he has always avoided. In the end, Vince has to make a choice about his own future, but he also has to protect his family from the FBI investigation. Vince’s choices provide a moral core for a very funny book. It is this story, and not the trite love interest, that makes Korman’s book unexpectedly satisfying.

Finding Lubchenko, by Michael Simmons

lubchenko.jpg

When Evan’s millionaire dad is suddenly arrested for murder, and Evan learns that the evidence that could acquit his father is hidden in his best friend’s garage, he is left with a dilemma. Leave his father to rot in jail, or admit that he has been stealing office equipment from his dad’s company and selling it on eBay? Complicating things is Evan’s stormy relationship with his father, a penny-pinching disciplinarian. Eventually, Evan lights on a kind of solution – using the evidence on the stolen laptop to start his own investigation. With his dad’s credit card and his two best friends in tow, Evan flies off to Paris and finds himself in the middle of international intrigue, danger, mystery, and a possible bioterrorism plot.

While the book’s plot is fast-paced and fun, the true delight in reading Finding Lubchenko is Evan’s narrative voice. Yes, Evan is a sarcastic, whiny, self-involved narrator, but he is also uproariously funny. Refreshingly, Evan does not grow up a whole lot of the course of the novel. In keeping with the rest of Simmons’ funny, irreverent book, there is no tearful reunion with his father, and Evan is still the same aggravating teenager at the book’s end.

King Dork, by Frank Portman

dork1.jpg

The Catcher in the Rye changed Tom Henderson’s life. But not in the way you think – he’s not a part of the Catcher cult, who carry the book everywhere and idolize Holden Caulfield as the perfect teenager. It was Tom’s dead father’s copy of the book that changed his life, when Tom finds a mysterious note written inside. Notes in several of Tom’s father’s old books lead him into a strange conspiracy involving his father’s death and the Vice Principal’s seedy past. At the same time that Tom is investigating the mystery of his dad’s library, he is also trying to navigate the strange world of girls, several of whom suddenly and strangely drop into his life. Add to this the daily struggle that is high school, and Tom’s best friend Sam’s constant re-vamping of their band, and Tom’s life is suddenly very complicated.

Portman’s first novel is a brilliant, cynical look at the life of a high school dork. That he leaves the plot’s complex intricacies fairly open-ended and unresolved at the finish of the novel was a perfect reflection of Tom’s high school life, where nothing ever has any deeper meaning. The Catcher in the Rye allusions add another layer to this pastiche of a teenager searching for something. Tom’s narration is caustic, thoughtful, and most of all funny. It is easy for most readers to relate at some level to a clever outsider, and Tom fills that role well. However, Portman never lets his novel fall into the typical YA cliches. Instead, he consistently challenges and surprises the reader, and also treats them to a really excellent book.

The Dashwood Sister’s Secrets of Love, by Rosie Rushton

The Dashwood Sisters Secrets of Love

In a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the sudden death of their father places three very different sisters into a life of relative poverty. Ellie, the sensible one; Abby, the romantic troublemaker; Georgie, the tomboy; and their frazzled mother are suddenly forced to move to the small town of Norfolk on the coast of England, and their beloved family house is left to their father’s awful new wife. While the plot focuses on the three sisters romantic exploits in the new town, the book’s real center is the girls’ struggle to adapt to their new surroundings and circumstances. It is their relationships with Blake, Nick, and Adam, as well as their strong bond as a family, that eventually help the girls accept their new home.

I was surprised to find a generous portion of Austen’s novel Emma inserted into the plot, as the basis for Abby’s relationship with Nick. While Rushton’s novel certainly does not have the depth of either of Austen’s classics, it was pleasantly readable and engaging, with three likable main characters and will appeal to many teenage girls – or to anyone who, like me, is a sucker for anything Jane Austen.

The Year of Secret Assignments, by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Year of Secret Assigments

None of the girls at Ashbury High School are pleased about the penpal program with Brookfield, the rival school. When best friends Cassie, Lydia, and Emily start their letter exchange with three Brookfield boys, they see it as a chore. But all three eventually find themselves drawn to their new penpals, setting off a series of secret missions and mistaken identities. A falling out between the girls and their penpals leads to a similar falling out between the three girls. When Cassie’s penpal turns out to not be the person they thought he was, the other four must come together to get revenge for Cassie and to prove that they did not vandalize the boys school.

This light novel, told mainly in epistolary form, was charming and funny. There was, however, one part of the novel that I found problematic. The climax happens when Cassie meets with her penpal in a park at night. The meeting is not shown or discussed for some time, we only see Cassie’s reaction. She is found sobbing by her friends and is unwilling to talk about her experience. From her reaction and the writing at this point in the book, my assumption was that Cassie had been assaulted or raped. While this seemed to be the books implication for several chapters, it eventually comes out that Matthew was just very unkind to Cassie. This fit in much better with the light-hearted tone of the book, and I wonder why it was made into a secret for so long, leaving the reader to assume something much worse.