Hanging Woods by Scott Loring Sanders. Set in the south in 1975 in a hard luck town where the mill is closing down, this story of 3 best friends could almost be viewed as the darker side of the 1980's movie Stand By Me (and earlier short story The Body by Stephen King). Walter tells the story of his summer with Mothball and Jimmy and slowly unfolds a story in which we are deliberately led to the story of Walter killing first one friend, then the other. Walter's psychosis is slowly revealed as we learn he once burned down a neighbor's house and that he has a "stronger part" that leads him to do things that he knows are wrong. Sanders creates a richly detailed place and time that leads to a thick feeling of being in the moment he writes about. He indulges in the mystery writer's penchant for not revealing key facts until late in the narrative, which really made me feel manipulated, particularly when he lets us know the details of his twisted motivation for killing Jimmy only late in the story. Twisted and dark, I really disliked the book.
One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke. This Australia-based novel is mainly the story of Lily, a sixteen year old girl whose family seems to be imploding. Her brother Lonnie has been chased out of the family by her strange and sometimes racist grandfather, angry at the boy's fecklessness and inability to stick to any one thing. Meanwhile, Lily's vague psychologist mother runs a daycare for the elderly, periodically taking in confused strays while her house falls down around her. Lonnie drifts into literature at the university and meets a wonderful girl, and Pop and Nan go through their days, Nan talking to her "imaginary" friend, and Pop wondering when things changed so much in his country. Nan decides to throw a party for Pop's 80th birthday to bring the family back together, and Lily latches on to the party as a way to have just one "whole and perfect day" - something that she fears could never happen given her family's penchant for arguments and misunderstanding. Not a lot happens in this book aside from small (and sometimes big) changes in characters, and large coincidences that lead to a happy ending. This book isn't realistic, but I liked it very much. The first 100-150 pages felt slow, but then I felt myself being sucked into this story of coincidence and small episodes of personal change and growth. That said, I'm not sure how much YA's would like this book. It might seem too slow to them. I liked it a lot though.
Deliver Us From Evie by M.E. Kerr. This is the tale of Parr Burrman, a high school Missouri farm boy who wants to get off the farm and explore life. Meanwhile, he helps around the farm and tries to reconcile his older brother's growth away from the family farm, and attempts to deal with his boyish sister's emerging identity as a lesbian, along with her developing love affair with the daughter of the powerful local bank owner. Parr is scared that his more farm loving siblings will maroon him on the farm following loves who don't share their passion for farming, but is for the most part remarkably accepting of his sister's emerging identity, even though it might offend the fundamentalist family of his new love, Angel. Evie's farmhand admirer soon leads Parr astray and the boys post a sign in town about Evie and her girlfriend. The banker goes crazy of course, and takes out his anger on the family. This ultimately drives the girls (Evie's girlfriend Patsy has a convenient trust fund) out of town and Parr's new love rejects him because of his connection to a lesbian sister. I didn't like this book very much, mainly because it felt so predictable. Take the love relationship between lovers from different sides of town from any number of books, change the lovers to two girls, and the story doesn't add much to the canon of love stories that fill popular literature.
Stoner & Spaz by Ron Koertge. This slim book is the story of Ben, a teen boy with cerebral palsy, and the friendship he forms with Colleen, the "stoner" of the pair. Linked to the high school's pre-eminent drug dealer in a damaging relationship, Colleen briefly reaches for sobriety and a more normal existence with the support of Ben and his new neighbor Marcie, but she is ultimately unable to remain sober and slips back into a drug-addled lifestyle of casual, damaging hookups and drug and alcohol abuse. Through his relationships with Colleen and Marcie, Ben, meanwhile, learns how to reach out and make connections with peers and to creep out from under his wealthy grandmother's oppressive rules. With Marcie's encouragement, Ben makes a documentary about his high school and exhibits it at a local amateur film festival, taking his passion for film and making something creative. This book really reminded me of the relationship between Marcus and Ellie in the book About A Boy by Nick Hornby, another book where a lonely, frightened boy learns to reach out to others partially through a relationship with a dangerous and unbalanced girl who he ultimately leaves behind. Both of these books disturb me in that in each, the boy grows by making a link with a dmaged girl, but then abandons the girl when her demons appear too large for the boy to deal with. While I recognize that this is often the healthiest reaction for those involved with such damaged people, I can't help but feel like the girl ends up a squashed bug on the boy's road to self-actualization. That said, I did like this book. It is a fast read, and well-written with a real eye for how real kids might talk to each other. I enjoyed the characters immensely, and I think YA's would connect to the story. I also think Colleen is the gritty real-life Weetzie Bat - this is what usually happens to girls who live that kind of life, unfortunately.