August 07, 2014
(+++) IN SEARCH OF SERIOUSNESS
The Fire Wish. By Amber Lough. Random House. $17.99.
The Year of Chasing Dreams. By Lurlene McDaniel. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez. By Peter Johnson. Harper. $16.99.
Angst is a given in books for teenagers, because, after all, what else is there in the teenage years except angst, all the time and in all places and under all circumstances, now and forever? Or so the flood of “young adult” books would have it. It seems that the best way to escape one’s angst-soaked life is to read about other teens’ angst-soaked lives – and the setting scarcely matters, because obviously all teens, in all times and all places, share the same sensibilities, worries, concerns, troubles and, lest we forget, angst. This even applies in the world of One Thousand and One Nights, which is more or less where the quasi-exotic The Fire Wish takes place. Amber Lough’s concept is that a teenage Arabian princess and even a teenage (or might-as-well-be-teenage) jinni think, talk, feel and worry exactly as 21st-century teenagers do, and about essentially the same things: coming of age and falling in love, in particular. Accept this premise and you are well on the way to enjoying The Fire Wish, in whose fantasy setting the jinni Najwa and princess Zayele change places after Zayele captures Najwa and wishes them exchanged, body and soul. Well, actually not soul, or there would be no point: what has to happen here, and therefore what does happen, is that each retains the same personality but both have simply swapped bodies. Somehow this is supposed to simplify Zayele’s life – her motivation is that she is being sent to marry a prince of Baghdad and is determined not to do so, because everyone knows that princesses in fantasy are just as headstrong and determined and independent and self-aware as…well, as the 21st-century teenage girls who read about them. Over on Najwa’s side of things, the issue is that Najwa, before her transformation, was in training as a spy in the war between her kind and humans – oh yes, there is a war on, somewhere in the background. Hey, what a great spy Najwa would make if she could become a human! She could even find out what information on Zayele the other jinn are hiding from her! Of course, the transformation is against her will, but that is not the major complication in The Fire Wish. What does complicate things is – no surprise whatsoever – love. In fact, Najwa and Zayele, whatever their shapes and whatever their respective species, both have the same heartfelt need to feel their hearts pulsating with longing, and luckily enough, there just happen to be desirable and highly attractive young men who, if they are not enemies, will probably turn out to be perfect love objects. How neat is that? Prospective readers who answer “very neat” will enjoy the way Lough works things out.
“Enjoy” is not exactly the right word for The Year of Chasing Dreams and the other angst-drenched, death-obsessed novels by Lurlene McDaniel – books such as Too Young to Die, Until Angels Close My Eyes, Till Death Do Us Part, Time to Let Go, Baby Alicia Is Dying, She Died Too Young, Please Don’t Die and many, many, many others in the same vein. Talk about an acquired taste: these tremendously formulaic box-of-tissues-per-book novels are intended to show teens that, hey, death isn’t so bad after all even though it is, of course, really really sad and really really tough for the ones left behind, but it opens the way to new beginnings for everyone, including dead people, and gosh, it is just so terribly terribly terribly cathartic (not that McDaniel would ever use so difficult an adjective). The Year of Chasing Dreams is a companion to The Year of Luminous Love and a follow-up to the digital-only short story, Wishes and Dreams, both of which trace the wondrousness and, yes, angst of the relationship between Ciana Beauchamp and Jon Mercer. When they are together, the joy is unbounded (well, except that she also finds him infuriating). When they are apart, she desperately turns her thoughts in every possible other direction (well, except that then he gets into her dreams). McDaniel’s writing goes beyond fluent cliché into heard-it-a-thousand-times-and-more-land: “His hand swept in an arc, at a canopy of stars so vast that they seemed to run together like a smear of glowing paint. ‘Can you count the stars, love?’ ‘I’ve never seen so many,’ she said in absolute awe. ‘But I guess they’re always there, aren’t they?’” Oh yes, they are, and so is dialogue of this sort, and so are the inevitable tragedies and misunderstandings and weep-able moments and heartache and heartbreak and loss and recovery and….for non-fans of McDaniel, there is really no way to communicate the awfulness of her writing and plots. But fans can, will and do lap this up. A non-fan feeling generous would give The Year of Chasing Dreams a (++) rating; a fan would give the book, and any McDaniel book, all the stars there are, no doubt “in absolute awe.”
There is nothing particularly awesome, but also nothing particularly awful, in Peter Johnson’s (+++) The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez, which is aimed at preteens rather than teenagers. The underlying serious theme here is whether a glass is half-full or half-empty, as readers find out right at the book’s start. Benny, a middle child, is very much on the half-empty side of things, to the point that he is considered “Mr. Negativity.” He does have things to be negative about: his beloved grandfather is becoming increasingly frail because of a series of strokes; his younger brother, Crash, is hyper and always in the way; his older sister, Irene, is stuck-up and a know-it-all; and his parents – well, he does have parents, two of them, and Benny does not realize how unusual that is in books of this genre, where families seem almost always to be broken or about to dissolve. Still, the fact that Benny’s dad is retired and his mom is a stay-at-home mother means that his parents are around pretty much all the time, and that really would cramp Benny’s style if he ever figured out what his style was. The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez is all about that figuring-out – although we never learn just why Benny has such a negative outlook on life when the book begins, since his circumstances are not and have never been particularly bad, and his grandfather’s health starts to deteriorate significantly only as the book progresses. Benny’s life contains all the expected elements in a book for middle-schoolers, and no really unexpected ones. He has two best friends, Jocko and Beanie. He has school issues, but not serious ones – although he is less than enthusiastic about the new poetry unit his class is starting until he realizes that a girl he sort of likes, Claudine, enjoys poetry. Yes, Benny does have discovering-girls issues – not surprisingly at all. In fact, there is very little surprising in this book, and Benny’s personality is somewhat too low-key and drab for him to be an effective protagonist. Kids who consider themselves quiet and somewhat overlooked in their families and their classrooms will be best able to relate to and empathize with Benny, who comes across as not a bad kid at all, but also not a very interesting one.