Three new young-adult books tackle difficult situations with intelligence and wit.
“Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery,” by M. Evelina Galang. (Coffee House Press, 342 pages, $12.)
Angel de la Luna, a young woman living in Manila with a beloved extended family, tells of a life changed by the abrupt death of her father — drummer, source of laughter and song — and the terrible, crippling grief of her mother. Set against the backdrop of the Philippine People Power uprising, the first part of Angel’s story by M. Evelina Galang is an account of a vivid world: protest marches with leftist nuns, hot sun and bright flowers, dusty Manila streets and small jungle towns.
Angel’s voice is full of energy and passion: She loves her family, her life; she mourns her father sorely. She takes up his drumsticks and vows to continue to hear the rhythms he taught her. When her mother finally pulls herself out of the catatonia of her grief and travels to the United States to earn enough to support her family with her nursing degree, Angel is devastated at her seeming desertion.
Angel’s mother finally brings her, alone, to the United States, to wintry Chicago, to join her. There Angel discovers what her mother has been unable to tell her — she has married again, and Angel has a new baby brother. Angel’s stepfather does not understand her shock or her need to find a new self, and Angel is in no mood to accommodate this stranger’s strictures or her mother’s crushing work hours.
How loving relationships are painfully built out of the ruins of dreams, and how a hunger for life and warmth fuels the building, is the matter of Galang’s story. In an interview, she has stated that she wrote this story when hurricanes disrupted the writing of a nonfiction account of the lives of wartime “comfort women” survivors. That legacy — of creation and life in the heart of destruction — survives in this fine novel, Coffee House Press’ first in the YA genre.
“Sex and Violence,” by Carrie Mesrobian.
(Carolrhoda Lab, 294 pages, $17.95.)
Carrie Mesrobian’s “Sex and Violence” is a stunning debut. Seventeen-year-old Evan Carter carves a lonely trajectory through his father’s silence, his mother’s absence, the emptiness of a life always on the move. Since his mother’s death, his cyberprofessor dad has parked him in boarding schools. He confesses early on that he seeks the Girls Who Say Yes — the “left of normal” girls, who’ll give him what he needs.
He’s not proud of this, but it is the least of his problems. After a horrifying attack on him and on the girl he’s been seeing by a couple of overprivileged thugs at their school, Evan is taken to the cabin in Minnesota where his father and uncle spent their childhood. His recovery there — from the fear stemming from the attack and the deep loneliness of his life, as well as his injuries — is beautifully, vividly and profanely created. Mesrobian pulls no punches in her evocations of adolescent life and small-town class frictions, adult foolishness and the damage that reaches us from the past.
The smoothness of Evan — his honed and witty language, the precision of it — is pretty aspirational. I don’t think a 17-year-old exists who’s quite this self-aware. But that’s what YA books are for: In their often violent and confusing worlds, there are human beings who have a clue, and who know how to live in order to acquire more clues. This can be desperately important news for kids.
One of the virtues of this novel is that it acknowledges the importance and power of sex, both simple and complex, in the lives of teens, and does this without any hidden prescriptions or euphemisms. It’s a beautiful thing.
“Fat Boy vs. the Cheerleaders,” by Geoff Herbach. (Sourcebooks Fire, 311 pages, $16.99.)
Told in the first-person voice that Geoff Herbach does so well, Gabe Johnson’s account of his development of the “leadership bone” is grand, touching and hilarious.
Herbach’s previous trilogy — “Stupid Fast,” “Nothing Special” and “I’m With Stupid” — recounted the larger-than-life story of Felton Reinstein, star athlete and tormented son of a suicide. These award-winning books were a huge hit, and rightly so. Felton’s combination of vulnerable, smart, lost and funny evoked adolescence in spades — and hearts, too. Fat Boy’s protagonist, slightly younger and less self-aware, tells his story in an epic recitation for an increasingly amused and incredulous police detective in his Minnesota lake town.
Gabe, rotund trombone player and band geek, rouses and harnesses the ire of his school’s reject tribes: the geeks, the outcasts, the Goths and burners and freaks. The revenue from the school’s soda machine has previously funded the band program. Now, due to skulduggery on the school board, said revenues have been diverted to a cheerleading dance program that supports the school’s athletic department. The beloved bandleader has been canned. So Gabe, supported by an unlikely cast, vows to right this wrong and restore the band program.
The pursuit of this goal gives Gabe his dignity back, as well. The heroes here are the kids whose achievements don’t tend to get a lot of recognition; their achievements sometimes amount to nothing more than maintaining a sense of their own value in the face of adult despair, greed and failure. Herbach’s gift is to evoke this imperfect world and, despite all, to make it glow.
Ann Klefstad is a writer and artist in Duluth.