October 14, 2010


Suicide Notes. By Michael Thomas Ford. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Getting the Girl: A Guide to Private Investigation, Surveillance, and Cookery. By Susan Juby. HarperTeen. $8.99.

The Ivy. By Lauren Kunze with Rina Onur. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Ascendant. By Diana Peterfreund. HarperTeen. $17.99.

The Lorien Legacies, Book One: I Am Number Four. By “Pittacus Lore.” Harper. $17.99.

     It sometimes seems as if there are only about half a dozen plots for novels aimed at teenage readers – making even well-written books like this handful fairly predictable, despite the different twists and turns that individual authors bring to them. Suicide Notes and Getting the Girl, for example, are both realistic fiction – which means they are books about self-discovery and coming of age (or to self-awareness) in a modern, recognizable setting. Suicide Notes takes place in a 45-day inpatient hospitalization program, in which 15-year-old Jeff has been placed after trying to kill himself. It is one of those depressing, earnest, oh-so-meaningful books that deal with teen angst and sexuality – Jeff is gay, although it is not until Day 37 that he writes, “I’m gay. I know it sounds stupid. Tons of people are gay, and you’d think it would be no big deal. But I was really hoping I wasn’t, that it was all just a big mix-up and I’d get over it.” Jeff interacts with the hospital psychiatrist, Dr. Katzrupus, whom he always calls Cat Poop, and with other hospitalized teens – especially a boy, Kevin, who is avowedly gay, and a girl, Sadie, with whom Jeff tries to demonstrate that he is really heterosexual. Michael Thomas Ford makes sure every event in the book Means Something, and that Big Issues are dealt with in a Highly Sensitive Way. Although overdramatic and overdone, the book often rings true, as when Jeff comments, “Goddamn it, I don’t know how he does that, but the doc always manages to ask you the one question you really don’t want him to.” The intensity of the story, though, is quite contrived.

     So is the lighter plot of Getting the Girl, which is not as quirky as Susan Juby wants readers to think it is, but does have some pleasantly amusing elements and does go in a few unexpected directions. This book is all about social acceptance in high school – about as unoriginal a teen-book plot as can be imagined. The “charmingly conspiratorial caste system” at the high school has a D-list (D for “defiled”), and Sherman Mack is determined to make sure his crush, Dini Trioli, does not end up on it. Sherman is a nerd and an amateur private investigator, so it is easy to imagine the troubles he finds himself in as he deals with jocks, girls, teachers, sneaking around the school, and all that sort of stuff. The chapter titles help move things along breezily: “Farrah Fawcett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Unpleasant and Unattractive Characters,” “With a Little Help from My (Hot) Friends,” and so on. There is also a giant lacrosse stick called Thor. Most of the way through the book, the school officials finally figure out that “there’s something rotten going on in this school” – well, duh – and eventually, thanks to Sherman putting together a dinner party with just the right guest list, the mystery of who arranges to Defile people is partly solved, leaving room for a final twist and a full solution at the very end of the book. Oh, and Sherman (who prefers to go by Mack Daddy) does get a girl, although (not surprisingly) even that does not go quite the way he had originally hoped.

     Social scenes and ostracism are also the main theme of The Ivy, the big difference from Getting the Girl being that The Ivy takes place at college rather than high school. The college is none other than Harvard, and this how-to-make-it-in-the-big-leagues book (one among many) is all about money, connections, clothes, boyfriends – and only in the most incidental way about education (of course). The central character, Callie Andrews, has to deal with having brains, beauty, great roommates and plenty of determination and drive. Oh, that’s realistic. The book is a somewhat odd collaboration: Lauren Kunze is listed as the author, with a note that Rina Onur “collaborated on developing the story line.” Sounds like a joint script effort for a straight-to-DVD movie, and in fact there are many cinematic touches in The Ivy. Classes exist mainly for making social connections. The library still has a place in the Internet age – for study dates, where classwork is not what is being studied. Getting into the right parties is at least as important as getting the right (perfect) grades. Who knew that Harvard was so superficial and so much like a glorified high school? Onur actually majored in economics there, so maybe The Ivy is her way of giving something back – or getting back at the school. In any case, the book is stuffed full of Callie’s mostly predictable problems with fashionistas, boyfriends and maybe-boyfriends, a secret from her past, social issues in general, cliques and gossip. The occasional bits of advice to “dearest froshlings” from the Advice Columnist of Fifteen Minutes Magazine are the most amusing parts of the book and the only distinction in its style. But readers who get vicarious pleasure from this sort of plot will be happy to find out that – what a surprise! – Callie eventually negotiates all the shoals of Harvard life and comes through a stronger and better-adjusted person (within the book’s context, anyway).

     Really, The Ivy is fantasy masquerading as reality, but straightforward fantasy is another common offering in books for teenagers. Diana Peterfreund’s Ascendant, for example, is about unicorn hunter Astrid Llewelyn – who, among other things, comes to question whether she should be hunting unicorns or protecting them. Astrid lives in a world in which unicorns are deemed dangerous and virgin girls (but only ones who are descended from Alexander the Great!) are used to entrap them so hunters can destroy them. Peterfreund’s previous book, Rampant, established unicorns as venomous man-eaters with huge fangs, which Astrid learned to hunt at a place in Rome called the Cloisters – a place where she also began a relationship with a boy named Giovanni. In Ascendant, the Cloisters is having financial trouble, Giovanni is leaving Rome, and Astrid is finding herself more interested in becoming a scientist than in upholding her family legacy of unicorn hunting. Given her own chance to leave the Cloisters and use her scientific skills, Astrid happily heads for the French countryside – where she starts to question everything she previously held dear (including her love for Giovanni). The fantasy concept, the learning of an arcane skill and then questioning its value, the changing attitudes toward love – all these are standard in many books for teens. The most interesting elements of Ascendant are in the world in which it is set, for this is not a faux medieval land but one in which science matters as much as magic: there are warriors and mythical beasts but also telephones, trucks and television. Still, Astrid’s development here is one of familiar self-discovery: “I could stand in the moonlight and make an entire pack of venomous monsters bow down before me,” Astrid finds, so what are unicorns really? And what exactly is Astrid? In Ascendant, she is searching not only for her own identity but also for “a unicorn-specific disease,” and her involvement with a baby unicorn becomes a key element in her decision-making and her increasing knowledge about herself and her motivations. Astrid’s saga will continue – the final chapter of Ascendant is called “Wherein Astrid Touches the Truth” – and is sure to keep treading well-traveled paths despite the unusual aspects of its setting.

     The saga of John Smith is just beginning in I Am Number Four, although within this book’s world, his tale has a long story behind it. This too is a fantasy novel, although it masquerades as science fiction by having aliens with special powers at its center. Their powers might as well come from magic, though – the author who uses the pseudonym “Pittacus Lore” is not interested in any scientific (or even pseudo-scientific) explanation of how John (the “number four” of the title) and others from his planet obtain and use their powers. The powers just sort of exist, and aren’t really the point: this is an adventure story first and foremost. The idea is that there are, or were, nine teenage aliens from a race called the Loric hiding on Earth (they are the good guys) after escaping destruction at the hands of the Mogadorians (the bad guys). The Loric teens have been living quietly, unnoticed by human beings; but unfortunately for them, the same planet-wrecking Mogadorians who destroyed Lorien have ways of finding them, and three have been tracked down and killed. So “Lore,” identified as “Lorien’s ruling Elder,” has written I Am Number Four, in which John is sure that he is the next target. He and his guardian, Henri, must keep John alive so he and the other surviving Loric teens can eventually take on the Mogadorians and – by the way – preserve Earth in the process. This is the sort of silly, simple, one-dimensional space-opera plot much beloved by moviemakers – a film of I Am Number Four is already in the works – and certainly there is plenty of excitement in the book, in the scenes of John’s training as well as those involving danger. There are the usual interactions with humans, including John’s romance with a girl named Sarah, which leads to the inevitable Q&A between John and Henri: “‘What happens if we try to have children with humans?’ ‘It’s happened many times before. Usually it results in an exceptional and gifted human. Some of the greatest figures in Earth’s history were actually the product of humans and the Loric, including Buddha, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein. Many of the ancient Greek gods, who most people believe were mythological, were actually the children of the humans and Loric. …Aphrodite, Apollo, Hermes, and Zeus were all real, and had one Loric parent.’” So now that that’s settled (and the powers of the Loric duly emphasized), there is time to move toward a confrontation (in the remains of the high school) in which humans prove, unsurprisingly, to have considerable value despite their genetic inferiority. There is nothing the slightest bit surprising in any of this, but adventure-loving teens will enjoy this familiar plot just as teens reading other types of formulaic fiction will enjoy the latest books that bring modest changes to other well-worn storytelling paths.

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