August 24, 2006


Boy Heaven. By Laura Kasischke. HarperTempest. $16.99.

Beast. By Ally Kennen. PUSH/Scholastic. $16.99.

Kiss Me Tomorrow. By Susan Shreve. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Heaping helpings of teenage worries, fears and hormones are in the forefront of all these books.  And as differently as the novels work themselves out, there is an underlying similarity to the protagonists’ troubles and the eventual resolutions of their stories.

     Boy Heaven seems to be a typical summertime, not-a-care-in-the-world story about cheerleader friends at camp together, following their hyperactive hormones in several directions while neatly filling entirely traditional adventure roles.  The narrator, Kristy Sweetland – even the name seems typecast – is the good girl, and her friends are the slut, the rich witch, and so on.  The whole story of sunning and skinny-dipping in the great outdoors has an ageless feel about it – or rather the feel of a particular age.  “Forty?  Who ever imagined I’d someday be forty?  I was seventeen, with a perfect tan.”  The twist here is that Kristy apparently makes a mistake during a gas-station stop, smiling a touch too invitingly at a couple of boys – who then follow the girls’ car on the road to camp and maybe, just maybe, become stalkers.  So there is an occasional frisson of fear to complement the flirtations that make the camp seem like boy heaven to the cheerleaders – until, at the end, first-time author Laura Kasischke tells readers that the book’s title refers to something much more sinister.  The ending is a bit unfair: Kasischke never really gives readers a chance to figure it out.  But teens ages 14 and up who enjoy being whipsawed won’t mind.

     Beast is an even more intense book – and although it is, indeed, about a beast, a question that Ally Kennen leaves open throughout is just who or what the beast is.  You learn what the animal beast is about halfway through (although the cover, unfortunately, is a giveaway), but it seems through much of the book that the narrator, Stephen, is really a beast himself.  He lives in foster care, is shuttled from family to family, has a string of petty crimes in his past, and adds to the list during the novel.  He has a mother who is certifiably insane and a father who isn’t far from it, and he doesn’t care about anything or anyone except for his brother, Selby – who is dead.  And perhaps, in a strange way, he also cares for the beast of the title, a dangerous creature that he has kept alive for four years as it has grown and grown and grown.  Kennen pulls a few too many strings in the book, and seems to lose track of a character here and there, but her writing is undeniably effective – and undeniably British (she lives in Bristol, England).  In the absence of a glossary, American readers will have to figure out such words as “manky” (filthy), “knackered” (exhausted) and “can’t be arsed” (bothered) on their own.  Figuring out the characters’ motivations may actually be a bit harder than managing the vocabulary, but Kennen deserves credit for fast pacing and an ending that is satisfying even though it does not tie up all the loose ends.

     For lighter fare for teenagers, try a book aimed at younger teens, such as Susan Shreve’s Kiss Me Tomorrow.  This story of Alyssa “Blister” Reed has comedy as well as pathos.  As in the other, more serious books, Kiss Me Tomorrow revolves in part around a broken family: Blister’s dad has remarried and her mom has a boyfriend, and Blister is unsure in her relationships with her parents and the new people in her parents’ lives.  Blister is unsure of herself, too – not surprising when she has no good romantic role models.  She is attracted to Jakob Cutter, a stereotypical “bad boy” (seventh-grade style) who seems to like her, too; and she cares a lot for her best friend, Jonah, as well, but not in that way, even when Jonah kisses her after she rescues him after he makes an error in judgment that lands him in hot water…  The ups and downs of the characters’ lives are nothing special, and the characters themselves are not particularly well fleshed out, but Blister’s spunkiness is attractive, and the issues of friendship and loyalty are worthwhile (if scarcely unusual) ones for young teens to explore.

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