Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee

Bloomsbury, 2009     ISBN: 1599903334

Shawna’s mother, Penny, left the family ten years ago to move in with Fran, and neither Shawna, nor her father, has been able to accept her lesbianism. Needless to say, visits to her mother never went well, and finally Shawna tells her mother that she doesn’t want to see her anymore.

When Shawna gets a call from Fran that her mother has had a stroke and isn’t going to make it, Shawna knows she needs to go see her. She is as resentful as ever of Fran, and her two sons, who know and love her mother in a way that she has been unable and unwilling to do.

What follows is the nightmare of any lgbt person estranged from his or her family: Shawna’s father moves in swiftly, wielding a medical power of attorney that her mother created when she was pregnant with her seventeen years before, and never revoked, and has her removed from life support. Ignoring the fact that she was in the process of converting to Judaism, he arranges a Catholic burial. And because Shawna’s mother has never redone her will, everything goes to her father, leaving Fran with so little that she is forced to sell her share of the home they shared and move from New York to Cleveland to live with an aunt.

Shawna’s father is not satisfied to stop there, but gets a court order to have Fran’s youngest son’s DNA checked, and finds out that he is not Fran’s, but his and Penny’s. When he goes to court and gets custody of the boy, with no visitation for Fran, Schmule, or Samuel, as her father insists on calling him, begins to show signs of suicidal intent. Shawna recognizes the seriousness of the situation, finally takes action against her domineering father, and begins to seriously deal with her own homophobia.

If at times it seems as if one more added action of her father’s will move this novel into the realm of melodrama, the writing carries it through, leaving Shawna’s father’s final capitulation as the only flawed note.

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Magic and Misery by Peter Marino

Holiday House, 2009     ISBN: 9780823421336

Another stereotypical teen novel in which the girl (Toni Jo), has a crush on the guy (Pan, short for Pansy–yes really), only to find out he is gay. Stuck together in their miserable little town where nothing’s happening, they swear best friendship and loyalty to each other, only to have it shaken when teen jock, Caspar, falls for Toni Jo.

Pan acts like a jealous boyfriend, and Toni Jo lies to both boys, alienating each of them: not telling Pan when she has a date with Caspar, and not telling Caspar that the reason she can’t go to the prom with him is that she already promised to go with Pan.

Meanwhile, Pan is the victim of increasing harassment from two classmates, and refuses to complain to school authorities. Nothing Amy can say will convince him to report the abuse, and ultimately, he and his family decide they need to move out of the area.

While there is nothing glaringly wrong with this book, it isn’t a strong title. None of the characters is well-developed, and the dialogue is occasionally wooden. Caspar is consistently portrayed as somewhat slow on the draw, and it isn’t clear what Toni Jo sees in him beyond the fact that she’s desperate for male attention.  And Pan’s jealous behavior comes close to being the frightening sort which parents ought to be warning their daughters against.

Marino is a playwright and has published a previous novel that was well-received.

How Beautiful the Ordinary edited by Michael Cart

Bowen Press / Harper Teen, 2009      ISBN: 9780061154980

Editor Michael Cart has collected twelve stories about LGBT youth identity in the form of short stories, graphic fiction, and verse, by well-known young-adult, and adult authors including Francesca Lia Block, Gregory Maguire, Jacqueline Woodson, Ariel Schrag, Emma Donoghue, and others.

There is something for everyone in this collection: stories of ghosts and girls trapped in walls serving as metaphors for transgendered teens trapped in the wrong body; handsome highway men and soldiers for a stable boy to lust after; stories of first love; and of first making love. One graphic short story is about two teens who make conflicting wishes when they meet a genie, leaving all three of them tortured; the other is about the San Francisco Dyke March.

While there is some sex, most of it is left to the imagination, good as in Julie Anne Peter’s “First Time,” and unsettling, as in William Sleator’s “Fingernail,” a disturbing story about the sex trade between older western men, and young boys in Thailand. In this particular story, the Thai “boy” is already a young man of twenty and thus technically legal, unlike much of the sex trade that actually takes place there between men and underage boys. But the abusive relationship that he finds himself in is almost equally disturbing.

Some of the stories may actually be of more interest to older readers than to teens: in particular, David Levithan’s “A Word from the Nearly Distant Past,” in which Levithan recounts the experiences of generations past as they dealt with being in the closet, dealing with the AIDS crisis, etc., and exhorts the younger generation to make sure that they live for future generations, as much as for themselves. Emma Donoghue’s “Dear Lang,” is a letter from a lesbian mother who has been denied access to her now sixteen-year-old son by his biological mother, in which she tells the story of how she came to be barred from his life, and how she is just now taking the chance of having another child with a new partner.

One of the best stories is Jacqueline Woodson’s insightful “Trev,” about a transgendered child, and the struggles he has with his family and at school to be who he really is. Trev’s mother both reassures him that he isn’t the reason his father left, and yet whispers her wish to him every night at bedtime, that Trev will wake up “my sugar and spice, and everything nice.”

Recommended for all teens.

The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, An Enola Holmes Mystery by Nancy Springer

Philomel, 2009     ISBN: 0399247815

Enola Holmes, younger sister of Mycroft and Sherlock Holmes, puts her disguises and brilliance to work when her landlady receives a threatening note that makes no sense to her, and is subsequently kidnapped. Enola is fast off the starting block, but has to avoid her brother, Sherlock, who she is on the run from, and who has also been called in on the case from another direction. Enola rescues Mrs. Tupper, and manages to flee into the night one step ahead of Sherlock who has finally begun to wonder if he and Mycroft are right about wanting to send Enola to finishing school. Budding cryptologists will enjoy the challenge of over a page’s worth of deciphering.

The Gypsy Crown by Kate Forsyth

Hyperion, 2008     ISBN: 1423104943

This book draws the reader from the beautiful cover art into a story full of adventure, danger, and history, as the two main protagonists, Luka and Emilia, members of a Rom family in Cromwell’s Puritan England, seek out the members of four other Rom families for assistance in getting their family out of jail before they come to trial and are all executed. Traveling with them are Emilia’s horse, Alida, their performing bear, Sweetheart, their dog, Rollo, and Luka’s monkey, Zizi.

Emilia has been instructed by their grandmother to reunite the family’s five magical charms, whose separation many years past has brought bad luck on the Rom. Each family is supposed to have one charm, but finding each family, and then convincing them to part with their charms even temporarily is a struggle. Emilia has to leave her horse with one family in surety for their charm, and Luka ends up leaving his violin with another.

On their trail are a group of henchmen led by a man called the thief-taker who is under orders to capture and imprison them with the rest of their family. There are many near misses and their travels are exhausting and nerve-wracking, and are well-plotted to keep the interest of the reader.

A subplot involving Royalist spies and secret meetings about restoring Charles the Second to the throne add to the suspense and danger. Various historical figures play a role in the story and the author provides detailed notes about the history of the time, and about the Rom culture.

This book is highly recommended to readers between the ages of ten to fourteen, and anyone who enjoys historical fiction with some good adventures thrown in.

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin

Dial Books, 2006.    ISBN: 0803730012  $16.99

Written as a letter to his youngest sister, Emmy, –a letter that he hopes she won’t choose to read until she is much older, seventeen-year-old Matthew describes how he and their sister Callie, tried to protect Emmy as much as possible from their mother’s increasing unpredictability and mental illness.

Nikki, their mother, is a pathological liar, a drug and alcohol abuser, and a negligent parent, who will do anything to get what she wants, including stalking a boyfriend who has rejected her, leaving the three children unattended, or taking dangerous risks with them in the car or elsewhere. Very occasionally, she can be fun, although often in a scary way, and even more rarely, she shows an attentive and caring side, all of which leaves the kids confused.

Matthew and Callie feel hopeless about their situation. They don’t think their situation falls into the kinds of abuse that have been described to them at school as reasons to talk to a teacher or other adult. Their father has been unable or unwilling to step up to the plate beyond child support, even when Matthew finally lets him know that they aren’t safe, and Aunt Bobbie, who lives downstairs seems to be involved in her own little world. Matthew finally reaches out to their mother’s previous boyfriend, Murdoch, and while he promises to do something, it seems a long time in coming, and Matthew ends up having to respond to the ultimate crisis on his own, while Murdoch shows up at the last minute, in time to prevent Matthew from doing something he will have regretted.

Teens will appreciate the struggles Matthew describes as he tries to protect his siblings from an ever more out of control situation.

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd

David Fickling Books, October, 2009.      ISBN: 0375849718. $17.99

When fourteen-year-old Holly finds out that her caseworker, Miko, at the group home is leaving, she retreats even more into her fantasies about making her way back to Ireland from England and being reunited with her mum who fled an abusive boyfriend, leaving Holly behind.

She reluctantly agrees to try a foster placement since without her caseworker, she doesn’t feel strong ties to the group home, but she resists Fiona and Ray’s middle class life, and kindnesses, and ultimately runs away, planning to find her mother somewhere, somehow in Ireland. She disguises herself in a blond wig of Fiona’s that she finds, and sets off with some money of her own, and some more she lifts from Ray’s pockets, and a very few belongings.

On the road she soon finds her money won’t take her far, and she resorts to begging, stealing, hitch-hiking, and stowing away on a train, and then a ferry to Ireland. Unfortunately, as she gets closer and closer to Ireland, her memories about her mum become more and more clear, and she is forced to finally the reality of her situation.

While this book got a number of good reviews, I felt that the interesting premise is bogged down by slow story telling, and not a lot of action.