Admittedly, the title is a little misleading, but I was trying to think of a way to tie together these three book reviews, and the one thing I kept coming back to was the feeling a bit isolated. I think it’s maybe a bit of a strong word, but in each of these stories, the main character feels removed from his/her world in some way. So here are three shorter reviews with three characters dealing with being on the outside. Kind of.
Nina LaCour’s sophomore novel The Disenchantments follows Colby as he pursues his post-graduation dream of hitting the road with his best girl Bev’s band, The Disenchantments. Colby’s not in the band himself but is one of their roadies. After their stint along the west coast, the two of them plan on ditching America for a year-long travel extravaganza in Europe. So they can get out together and see the world before doing the college/job thing. The thing is, as soon as their trip along the coast begins, Bev drops the bomb: she’s ditching their plans to travel. She wants to do her own thing.
Colby feels cheated now and he’s hurt. He’d planned his post-school life around Bev, knowing they’d made this promise to one another. Much as it’d be easy for him to ditch her and the band now, he doesn’t. Instead, he uses this as the opportunity to figure out who Bev is, what his relationship with her really is, and maybe most important, he has to figure himself out. What will he do now that the plans he’d prepared for are suddenly tossed out the window?
LaCour’s book took me a really long time to get into, and even when I was finally able to fall into the story, I never found myself connecting emotionally with the characters. I liked Colby, and I believed his loss when Bev tells him she wants to do her own thing after the tour. However, I didn’t find myself necessarily invested in him. Colby was good enough but he didn’t compel me beyond that moment. He’s stuck in the past of what he and Bev were (understandably) but it takes him way too long to move forward and upward. Because of that, the novel is slow and has little forward movement for quite a long time. I also wasn’t entirely sold on Colby’s voice, but because I liked him enough and I liked the premise of a story where a girl breaks the boy’s heart, I let it go.
Colby feels himself isolated now, and he comes to realize that resting his own future upon the future of someone else wasn’t very smart. When he finally wakes up and realizes the world is sort of before him, the book does move forward. The Disenchantments sort of reminded me of Kirsten Hubbard’s Wanderlove when it comes to the ideas of the importance of travel and exploration, both of the physical world and of the internal, personal one. LaCour’s writing is good, despite the challenges I had, and this book will no doubt appeal to fans of music and travel.
Brian F. Walker’s Black Boy, White School offers up another male voice in a story about Anthony (Ant), who lives in East Cleveland. It’s not a nice area, and he too often knows the victims of the neighborhood’s violence. It’s not just that, though. His family’s not necessarily the most stable either, and he and his mother want nothing more than for Ant to escape this place so he can have a brighter future. That future comes in the form of Belton Academy, where Ant’s been given a scholarship and an opportunity to start fresh. Belton’s deep in Maine, so it’ll be a huge change for him, and it’s a huge culture shock when he gets there.
Ant’s used to being the black boy in a sea of other people who look like him, but at Belton, he’s a minority, and he feels it acutely. Much of what he feels is real, but a lot of it comes from his own mind. He’s having a hard time adjusting to life at the new school and in a new social world. Yeah, there is some racism and discrimination, but the bigger issue at hand is really the one in Ant’s own head. He doesn’t feel good enough and that’s NOT because of the racism/discrimination, but his own past keeping him back.
Walker’s story lacks in writing, though, and because it’s told in third person past, there’s a level of being removed from the story. I never connected much with Ant, and I felt like most of the characters weren’t well fleshed out. The moments where there should have been emotional intensity, there just wasn’t. However, I give Walker credit with the story here, and I think that’s what will make this book resonate with teen readers. It’s reminiscent of Walter Dean Meyers, and I believe reluctant readers will enjoy this title, too. The urban life will feel real and I think the kids who will appreciate this story will be the ones who come from and understand a world where poverty, violence, and drugs are prevalent and almost unavoidable. Although it’s not as strong as Quick’s Boy21, there were many similarities in the two stories and this title could be a nice lead in to giving Quick’s a try.
Emily M Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post weighs in at almost 500 pages, and while I’m usually a believer in cutting down a story that big, I’m not sure what could be taken out of this one and still have it be successful. As soon as the book opens, Cameron loses her parents in a car wreck and she’s almost happy about it because it means she doesn’t have to tell them what she’s done. She’s kissed a girl.
Let me back up and say this is 1989 in rural Montana, so it’s kind of a big deal she’s done that. Except — and this is a big except — she’s not going to get off easy at all. Cameron’s being sent to live with her aunt Ruth who is extremely conservative. The girl Cameron kissed is kind of out of the picture.
Fast forward to 1991 and Coley moves to the same town Cameron lives in, and now she and Cameron are seeing one another. They’re more than friends. They’re feeling things much more intensely, and when they think things are going to be okay, that their feelings and their time together has been well-covered, it’s not. The secret hasn’t been hidden at all.
Cameron’s aunt decides to take action and send Cameron to God’s Promise to fix her. It’s a conservative church program to degay Cameron. And while there’s ripe opportunity for this to become a story where there is a right and a wrong, where the Promise program is made into the sort of thing that readers would laugh at, Danforth is successful in making it a place that’s scary but not unrealistic nor judged as entirely wrong (even if we as readers know it is).
This is a book about being isolated physically and emotionally, as Cameron is unable to fit into her conservative family and world because she’s a lesbian. But more than that, Cameron herself sort of struggles with what her sexuality is, if it’s anything at all. The experience at Promise, which is rapt with all sorts of less-than-angelic behavior from her and other attendees, puts more questions than answers in her mind. It’s well-done, despite being lengthy. And I think the ending of this book might be one of my favorite endings in a long time — it ties the story right back to Cameron’s loss and grief over losing her parents and her freedom in exploring who she really is. The ending made the problematic elements work for me.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post, as I mentioned, was long, and even though I don’t know if anything is extraneous or in need of editing, I found that it was slow paced and took a long time to get into. Moreover, it’s a quieter story, despite tackling a large issue. That’s not in and of itself problematic, but given the quiet nature and the fact this book is set in a quiet world and the fact it’s set in the early 1990s makes me question whether it will have wide teen appeal. I see this as a true coming of age novel that adults may find themselves enjoying a lot more than teens. While the time period is a framing device for local events that sink the story into the setting, it didn’t work for me. I also found many of the secondary characters, particularly those at Promise, to be a little thinly developed. Cameron herself, however, was a well-done and rounded character.
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Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).