For our bracket of the Nerds Heart YA book tournament, Lenore and I judged two books with surface similarities. Both are realistic contemporary fiction, and both feature protagonists who don't fit in at a new school after moving from another city.
Teens who have experienced a family illness or other disruptive life change will likely appreciate Alive and Well in Prague, New York, whose main character has moved from New York City, because her parents feel that life in rural upstate New York will help them better cope with her dad's debilitation from Parkinson's disease.
Matisse thinks this is their worst idea ever, and she responds by whining about everything, avoiding people, and being rude. On the plus side, this seems realistic, and leaves a lot of room for character growth. On the minus side—ever spent time with a whiny teen who didn't want to be there? Reading the first half of Alive and Well is like that. Inside that grouchy obnoxious teen is a lovable person waiting to emerge—but in the meantime, you kind of want someone to slap them.
Matisse's parents (who, regrettably, don't slap her) and new friends in Prague are well-drawn, add comic relief, and help carry the story along instead of letting Matisse bog down in self-pity. But, a few plot elements (a misguided romance, an old friendship) drop out of sight as soon the action picks up, and some of the "mean girls" elements left me cold. Do teens really like that kind of stuff, the snooty cheerleader getting her come-uppance?
Lenore's review of Alive and Well in Prague, New York
Albert (Stop Me if You've Heard This One Before) has accepted his status as a social misfit, shutting himself down emotionally to the point where he doesn't bother trying to fit in with anyone but the sixth graders who hang out next door. A summer spent working with Mia at a local hotel changes his outlook. Albert tells us from the start that his relationship with Mia will fail, which adds tension to what might otherwise come across as a sweet love story, Albert and Mia bonding as they evade their boss and try not to finish the job before summer ends. You could trip over the foreshadowing here.
So, events conspire to keep Mia and Albert from their happily-ever-after—some of them the type that you might expect from a dorky-guy-and-popular-girl-fall-in-love kind of book, but there are plenty of surprises, too. Albert's mannerisms are painfully realistic--his dorkiness has more than its share of cringe-worthy moments, which contributes to the story's unpredictability. One minute things are going great for him, the next minute he does something utterly stupid that sends it all to Jupiter in a go-kart. At the same time, his emotional distance and sense of humor offer a unique perspective on high school social life.
One thing I wished for in this book was for the minor characters to be developed more. Billy, the 6th grader next door, could have added depth to Albert's floundering attempts at building relationships, but instead he's treated as more of a plot device. I'm still not sure what Yoo was going for with Albert's cardboard-cutout parents. He effectively shows the impact of being raised in an immigrant family--
It's not that they're phony in a malicious way; rather, it's that they talk phonily because they're thoroughly clueless and think it's how they're supposed to talk in this country. In keeping with the fifties feel to everything in our house, they unknowingly model themselves after Ward and June Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver.--but takes it to an extreme of caricatured proportions.
Lenore's review of Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before
So, which of these two worthy books advances to the next round in the tournament? Because of the narrative voice and the unique storyline, I think Stop Me if You've Heard This One Before is the clear winner. Stop Me will go on to compete against either I Know It's Over or Feathered, depending on which one Natasha of Maw Books picks today!
1) My Most Excellent Year wins over The Opposite of Invisible
2) The Last Exit to Normal wins over What They Always Tell Us
3) Feathered wins over I Know It’s Over
4) Stop Me if You've Heard This One Before wins over Alive and Well in Prague, New York (read Lenore's post)
5) Cracked Up to Be wins over The Shape of Water
6) The Screwed-Up Life of Charlie the Second wins over Debbie Harry Sings in French
7) The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine wins over Leftovers
8) The City of the Lake wins over Pretty Monsters